I rarely post items to this site that don’t deal pretty directly with higher education, leaving such posts to my entertaining friend Marty Kich and others perhaps more worldly than I. But today I thought I might post something about the case of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader from Spokane, Washington, who stepped down after it was revealed that she was not African-American by birth, as she had claimed. I figured I might write about the late, great Johnny Otis, R&B legend extraordinaire who also was “white” by birth but “black” by identification. And then I read this funny and insightful piece by the basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Time magazine website. I’ve followed Kareem’s career since he was a high school star at Power Memorial in New York and was known as Lew Alcindor (we graduated from high school and college in the same year). I’ve always admired him not only as a great player but as a keenly intelligent advocate for social justice — and a fine writer to boot. Well, in this essay he hits the nail right on the head once more. You should read the entire piece, but here is a choice excerpt:
. . . 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. . . . Bottom line: The black community is better off because of her efforts.
At no time in history has the challenge of personal identity seemed more relevant. Olympic champion Bruce Jenner struggled for years with her gender identity and only at the age of 65, as Caitlyn Jenner, seems to have come to some peace with it. The same with many in the gay community who have battled internal and external demons before embracing their true selves. The difference is that these people faced a biological imperative rather than a free will choice of orientation. Dolezal chose to identify with a racial group she was not born into, like Sean Connery as the Japanese expert in Rising Sun.
The thing about race is that, scientifically, there is no such thing. As far back as 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released the conclusions of an international group of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists that stated that the concept of race was not a scientific entity but a myth. Since then, one scientific group after another has issued similar conclusions. What we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another. But, for the sake of communication, we will continue to misuse the word, myself included, in order to discuss our social issues so everyone understands them. As far as Dolezal is concerned, technically, since there is no such thing as race, she’s merely selected a cultural preference of which cultural group she most identifies with. Who can blame her? . . .
So, does it really matter whether Rachel Dolezal is black or white?
Dr. King said we should be judged by the content of character rather than color of skin, which is what makes this case so difficult. So, yes, it does matter. Apparently lying to employers and the public you’re representing when the lie benefits you personally and professionally is a deficit in character. However, the fight for equality is too important to all Americans to lose someone as passionate as she is and who has accomplished as much as she has. This seems more a case of her standing up and saying, “I am Spartacus!” rather than a conspiracy to defraud. Let’s give her a Bill Clinton Get Out of Jail Free card on this one and let her get back to doing what she clearly does exceptionally well—making America more American.