“There is not one thing that woman accomplished that she couldn’t have done as a white woman.”
— Dave Chapelle
“Everyone wants to be black until it’s time to be black.”
— Paul Mooney
I’m still pondering the magnitude of what Rachel tried to pull off. She attended Howard University, the predominantly black university, as the whitey she was born. Apparently Howard University doesn’t have a race box to check, so she just showed up one day, all blond and blue eyed, with a portfolio comprised of African inspired art. You can see her work here. Then she went on to sue Howard University for job discrimination based on her race. Clearly she realized white wasn’t the way to go.
Then, she stopped talking to her white parents and her four actual, authentically black adopted siblings, moved to one of the whiter sections of the US, where she pulled a Robert Downey Jr. inspired Tropic Thunder-esqe transformation.
She flourished as a black woman, as a diversity consultant, ultimately running a chapter of the NAACP. Not only that, she survived eight documented hate crimes perpetrated against her for her adopted race. She claimed a black man as her father and a black brother as her son. She was thorough.
If I was just a regular old white mom, I’d feel sorry for how sometimes people just need to build a more dramatic origin myth in order to seem like they have overcome great(er) odds to get where they are. It appears Rachel over-identifies with whatever situation will best portray her as a victim who triumphs over (self-constructed) adversity to become a heroic, powerful ‘voice for her people’.
There may even be a medical name for this, I just can’t turn on the TV- which is not me trying to sound like I can’t bear to turn on the news because I’m too precious, but our TV is so complicated, I actually do not know how to turn it on.
But I do wonder, as she put on her make up for the Today Show appearance, did she even feel one pang of falsehood? Apparently not, because she has chosen her race. Wish I could similarly just choose my tax bracket. If I decide I’m a millionaire, can that become my identity? Pretty please?
Illustrious people have fluffed their origin myths- some whitewash their pasts to seem like they always belonged on the right side of the tracks. Clare Boothe Luce was guilty of that. But the more interesting cases are the ones who made their upbringings sound much worse, in order to inspire awe and amazement for overcoming imaginary odds. Shania Twain faked Native American blood and even changed her name from Eilleen to Shania to reflect the race she felt “in her heart”.
And when I search hard in the deepest chamber of shame in my heart, I feel for Rachel, I get her need to belong to a powerful cause, and I (sorta, almost, not really) understand her.
I am a white mom of a black kid and both my husband I struggle mightily with trying to not feel like we are somehow more elevated than regular white families, or that we are somehow more knowing or ‘in tune’ with the on-going, day to day struggle of being black in America.
When I first found my baby’s birth mother, I was only thrilled to become a mother. When my birth mother asked me if my husband could love a black child, my heart broke, but I understood her concern. My husband and I were nothing but enthralled with becoming parents, but we both know it will get harder as our daughter grows and learns the sad truth about race, prejudice and ignorance.
Then I became a race baiter. I’ve used race to falsify connections, to act as if I knew what it was like to be another race.
Before we met, my birth mother and her mother and I were texting constantly- bonding over the impending adoption process, perhaps in an attempt to make it less painful. We grew very close. My birth mother’s mother asked to see photos of our baby’s room, a room I had been decorating for three years, ever since my husband and I first entered the foster system.
The nursery held a crib, dresser, toys, cute curtains and a mobile. Friends gave me baby gear their kids had outgrown. We waited so long for a baby that some of those moms sheepishly asked for the items back when they got pregnant again. I covered the walls with child art my nephews and nieces had done over the years. One of the drawings was a crayon portrait of Martin Luther King my (uber-white) nephew William drew when he was 6 or 7.
As I photographed the nursery, I included the MLK drawing. Stupidly, I even pointed out the portrait, since it was drawn by a little kid, and wasn’t easily recognizable as Dr. King. My heart raced as I sent the text, hoping that our racial inclusiveness improved our chances of a successful adoption.
My birth mother’s mother shut me down neatly, politely and gently. She assured me that I didn’t have to try so hard with the race stuff, because we all know who we are, and nothing’s going to change that. I shame spiraled for days afterward. Miraculously, our birth mother met us and gave us this perfect little person and we took her home. And when we were out with her, people would say sweet sounding but ultimately stupid things, like- ‘She’s lucky to have you.’ We’d simply reply, ‘We’re the lucky ones.’ Because we just didn’t like the implication that she was lucky because she was going to be raised by a couple of old white crackers.
Since my birth mother is raising a seven year old son in a Midwestern city where black men routinely appear to be target practice for police, I reached out to see if she was teaching her son to never play with guns in public or taunt the police. Ever gracious, she was happy to tell me that they had long been coaching him to be careful to the point of being invisible in public. I was filled with shame because I was so ignorant. Of course black parents break the news about race to their kids starting at the age of three onwards- it just never occurred to me until Trayvon Martin was killed a week after my daughter was born. Then my eyes were finally open to realities that had always just been happening somewhere else, to someone else.
A year later our birth mother asked for a photo. I went a step better. I sent her a video of our kid killing it on the balance beam in toddler gymnastics. She was so physically coordinated in the video, especially contrasted to the vanilla pudding pop in a green leotard who was behind her on the beam. When I sent the video I wrote- “See how brave and coordinated she is, especially next to that little scared white girl in the leotard?” My birth mother replied generously and kindly and made no mention of the white girl. And for days after, my punishment was that I had to live with the shame of my race baiting. Why did I have to point out the other girl’s race, especially since it was obvious to anyone with eyes that the girl was white?
I was overreaching for a connection that doesn’t exist. While my birth mother’s life and struggle as a single mother has utterly changed my perception of color and possibility for so many people in America, it doesn’t make me less white or more brown. It just makes me aware. When I grew up watching Bugs Bunny the racial stereotypes just didn’t apply to me. Now they hurt because I see them through the vigilant eyes of a mother who wants her child (and every black child) to grow up deeply proud her cultural identity and feeling as equal as any other person on the planet. But that doesn’t make me black.
Rachel, you can tint, perm, dread, braid and tan all you want, with the holiest and loveliest of intentions, but you can never be someone you are not. Far better to simply be the best actual person that you were born to possibly be and either find or forge the connections that strengthen and lift all of us. The appropriation of a racial identity that can only be supported by black face make up and someone else’s hair is a construct of lies and self-loathing. And another self-serving performer in black face is the last thing that black people need.
Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.
— Albert Einstein