Identity politics marks our age, but what if someone chooses an identity because they ‘feel’ that they belong to a particular group?
Sometimes such identification can lead to the support of the liberal world. For example, not too many would decry Catyln Jenner’s desire to identify as female even though she was born to a different gender.
This is not the case with Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane resident who had been an NCAAP leader up until the point she was ‘outed’ as white.
Much anger and derision were showered on her by Conservative whites and African American’s sick of what they saw as another crass example of cultural appropriation.
‘The Rachel Divide’ attempts to tell the story from the inside, interviewing and tracking Dolezal as she moves around her hometown with her two black sons.
Naturally, there is a little more to the story than the meets the eye. We learn that Dolezal was exposed just before she was due to give evidence against her brother, who had been accused of sexual abuse of both her and her adopted sister.
Her genetic parents turn out to be strict Christians from whom she felt alienated, who then adopted four black children to which she became attached.
This strange history goes some way to explaining why she tried to pass herself as something other than she was … or is it enough to feel it is ‘right’ for you? Are you simply what you affect to be? Plenty of people will identify with certain European cultures, for example learning French and going to live in the country, saying they ‘feel’ French.
Of course, doing this doesn’t involve racial identity politics that are strewn with shattered lives and the violence of the last 200 years.
People of color don’t get to pick their fate. They have to identify even when sometimes they’d rather not.
Also, plenty of people have to chosen support African Americans in their struggle for equality which begs the question why didn’t Rachel Dolezal do just that? Why the need to ‘be’ African American? There is something peculiarly American about the whole story. I recently saw a play called Harry Clarke which featured a man played by Billy Crudup who passed himself off as British even though he came from Indianapolis. It immediately reminded me of Dolezal’s story which is perhaps most of all about the search for belonging and acceptance and above all to know who we are.
The fact is that in both instances the choices made only took them further away from who they are is at the heart of what makes their stories strangely compelling but ultimately tragic.