Rachel Dolezal, a Washington State woman of Czechoslovakian and German descent became the president of the Spokane Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by posing as an African-American woman since at least 2007. She was outed by her biological parents who are both white.
In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Dolezal was bluntly asked if she is African-America. “I identify as black” was her response. Nonetheless Dolezal stepped down and resigned from her position in the NAACP earlier this week amidst the firestorm that has been raging online over self-identification, white privilege, and cultural misappropriation.
There have been many different kinds of reactions to this story because it impacts individuals in many different ways. Some say it did no harm and we should be focusing on more important issues. Parallels have been drawn between the Bruce Jenner story using the word ‘transracial’ – and a backlash over the misuse of the word. But at the core of this story is something that has been forced upon indigenous peoples for centuries – the concept of race.
It’s important to remember that the Six Nations people welcomed European’s and people of all nationalities to sit as brothers here in our land. At the Two Row Times our staff is multi-cultural and we honor and respect people of all backgrounds. But the ideas of race began in 1779 by a German named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach as he measured human skulls and categorized mankind into 5 broad racial groups. This began a dark era within the scientific establishment as evolutionary theory was used to suggest that certain “races” were more evolved than others.
The end of the era came in 1945 when the world witnessed the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the implementation of eugenic ideologies. It wasn’t until 1978 that The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared “All human beings belong to a single species.” But the idea that ethnic and cultural groups are divided by scientific racial barriers persists even today.
The constitution of Six Nations the GAYANESHAKGOWA does not speak of race. It talks about the roots of Peace that invite people from the four directions to trace their path back to the shelter of the Tree. There is no blood quantum and there is no race to the “finish line” – only family, honour and respect. So we see that race doesn’t exist but there is a delineation between ethnic groups with drastically different levels of capital, influence and power.
Family is lineage, and lineage is truth. The problem begins after centuries of well-intentioned Europeans coming to the reserves like Rachel Dolezal and bolding saying “I am Indian, I was born in a teepee.” Because of the romanticized image of native people in movies like ‘Dances With Wolves’ the race relations between Indians and Whites is built upon ignorance and lies.
Settlers either hate Indians because they are drunk and lazy or they love them because they are the noble savages, the lords of the forest. Both views are problematic because the Indian is fetishized, objectified and reduced to something other than fully human.
And this brings us to the crux of the Dolezal issue. She does not come from 400 years of oppression, slavery, torment and abuse. She is living as a black caricature invented by her white perception of what blackness is. This is the epitome of white privilege – when white people can become anything they want.
For her to choose to identify as a descendent of African-American victims is not only dishonest – it is disrespectful. It is disrespectful to the millions of black people who suffered and died in chains. It is also disrespectful to her proud European ancestors whom she is rejecting and denying. It doesn’t matter if she wanted to be black from the age of five, the fact is both of her parents are not black. Try to imagine Rachel Dolezal giving a lecture on what it means to be African-American without squirming in your seat.