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Rachel Dolezal and me and Kareem makes three

June 17, 2015

“You can’t deny that Dolezal has proven herself a fierce and unrelenting champion for African-Americans politically and culturally. Perhaps some of this sensitivity comes from her adoptive black siblings. Whatever the reason, she has been fighting the fight for several years and seemingly doing a first-rate job. Not only has she led her local chapter of the NAACP, she teaches classes related to African-American culture at Eastern Washington University and is chairwoman of a police oversight committee monitoring fairness in police activities. Bottom line: The black community is better off because of her efforts.”

–Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

When I was ten years old in fourth grade in Gamaliel, Kentucky (not Montana, but close in certain ways), I wrote a very serious essay in my spelling workbook. The assignment was to pretend I was a reporter and to write a story about a current event. I took this open-ended opportunity to commiserate with one Mr. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar over the loss of several unique African and African-American artifacts in a house fire. I crammed the two-paragraph feature story into the rather limited confines of the blank lines allotted in the spelling workbook, completely from memory, based on a story reported during NBA basketball TV coverage on the previous Sunday.

This story comes up in my mind today because my favorite basketball player, the one with the Muslim name whose story fascinated me and resonated with me for reasons unknown when I was a child, has given the above testimonial to the lady whose story has elicited outrage from some, admiration from others, but from me, mainly empathy.

Rachel tells a similar story to my school assignment anecdote, one where she innocently colors herself with darker skin tones. Her parents say this is a lie, but it rings true based on my experience.

Rachel went to graduate school at Howard University. She is/was a professor of Africana Studies. I strongly considered applying to both Howard and Morehouse, and my major at Emory was African American studies. Had I continued in academia, I likely would have pursued that course of study.

Since my teenage years, I flirted with the idea of “crossing over.” Some people who know me might say that I actually did. But certainly not in the sense that Rachel did. I’ve always been matter-of-fact about my racial identity and couldn’t conceive of a way to be dishonest about it. I wouldn’t know where to start.

Further, I believe that the bare minimum of my obligation to American and African-American culture is to be as respectful as possible of the institutional trappings of race. One thing that I have always known I could not do is recreate the life experience of someone who was born into a cultural group and has been treated (both for good and for ill) as a member of that group. That’s the gray area where it can easily become insulting to identify too closely or be too comfortable with a chosen cultural identity.

And so Rachel’s path and my path diverged. As I have become older, I have shed the “urban” fashion of my college years and even as I’ve become more steeped in the culture, having lived in Atlanta now for 24 years, and the past 17 in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods, I have consciously kept my presentation consistently “white,” just to preemptively shut up anyone who thinks I harbor Rachel-style delusions. And I’m quite aggressively NOT a joiner of any group, so I do not blend in to anyone’s neighborhood or party, regardless of how the demographics skew.

Recently, I’ve begun considering how little I should really give a damn how I present culturally. At 20, yes, it would have been a little presumptuous of me to lay claim to a non-native cultural identity. In my 40s, perhaps I’ve earned it.

And in the middle of these personal ruminations, along comes Rachel. Now Kareem, my childhood hero and the guy who exposed a glimmer of what was to come for me in that precocious feature piece I drafted, has given her his blessing. And a part of me says, Crap, maybe that’s what I should have been doing all along!

I am overtly critical of Rachel’s misrepresentations. Her LIES, if you feel I’m sugar-coating. But I admire her unwavering commitment to the path she chose. Maybe I could learn from that determination and drive. Maybe we all could.

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