The last few days for me have been filled with a lot of learning around the topic of race, and being Black in America. Helping a friend do genealogy work, I’ve learned some hard truths about the differences in looking at a Black person’s tree and a mostly white person’s. There are very different assumptions, values and I’m sure stories behind each ancestor.
Then I read an article about taking a DNA test and what that means for a Black woman. And then found an article about Rachel Dolezal.
The author, who is unnamed, was able to tease apart something where most people just judge and blow by Ms. Dolezal and her brutal 15 minutes of fame. Rachel may have crossed some lines but she does challenge the perspective of whiteness, and in her case, completely rejects it.
I felt compelled to join the conversation, and answer the author’s questions posed in the piece, and it’s gotten so long I decided to post it on my own blog, rather than a huge long comment on theirs. (Edit: Interestingly enough, 24 hours later and they have yet to approve my post. Glad I posted it here instead.)
Hi, and thank you for this article. A lot of really deep info to chew on here and I’m glad you are not dismissing Rachel so quickly. I agree there are good and bad points to the whole issue but overall I would stand behind Rachel for being so thorough in her conviction and not giving in when the media so brutally outed her. She is a good but rare example of being neither here nor there.
I appreciate that you are teasing things apart here. While it may not have been 100% the right thing to do, it IS a way to begin to dismantle whiteness. She’s taken an unpopular stand but is still standing!
A bit about me: was born in the early 1960’s, raised in white middle-class California golden dream suburbia. If you looked at me you’d for sure see a white person. But I’ve never felt it, and this is why I feel some kinship to Rachel.
White suburbia and the job that went with it may have put a nice roof over my head and crappy comfort/junk food in my belly but it did me no great favors. My father was a WWII and Korea vet who drank heavily and could be violent. My mom drank and just checked out. Ah white privilege. Money certainly didn’t buy me happiness or stability.
Growing up I knew that we had that proverbial “Cherokee grandmother” and I DEEPLY sided with that line of my tree, especially since we inherited portraits of her son and his wife, neither of whom look white. I was inspired at a young age by my first heroes, John Trudell, Russell Means, Dennis Banks and Mary Brave Bird and others at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee. If I’d have been old enough I would have joined them, unquestioningly.
In college I studied Native American studies but chose to marry-the only white boy I’d ever dated-the rest had all been Native or Hispanic. Fast forward 25 years and I began doing genealogy, wanting more info on my Native roots. I went the whole route of trying to connect only to be told that I wasn’t raised Cherokee so never would be. Harsh yes, but necessary. And prophetic… Long story short and a DNA test later, turns out that “Cherokee” and at least two other ancestors in my tree were “Tri-racial”. My paternal grandmother’s line so recent that she must have known about it. Her aunts look very “not white”.
The more I learned about this side of the family who at some point identified as Lumbee, Melungeon, Tri-racial and/or Redbone the more I understood why pretty much my Dad’s whole family was always living in the woods away from towns. They weren’t accepted as being white. Calling yourself Cherokee when you didn’t live on the Nation covered a multitude of things, and my grandparents and parents did all they could to lighten themselves and embrace the corporate capitalist fantasy of whiteness, including in my grandpa’s case briefly going to klan meetings (my grandmother put a dead stop to that) and in my dad’s case being a virulent racist-but only within our home-outwardly he was charming and proficient.
But if one-drop ruled, they would all be Black. Not nearly as tidy as we were taught in the history books. Not nearly the ideal that “whiteness” and white supremacy aimed for when those myths were created in the 1600’s, partly in response to the Jamestown Angolans and the whole class of Mulattos that was created when they had children with poor whites in the early 1600’s. Those are my ancestors. White supremacy was created to control my ancestors and how they bred.
My parents lived the dream, literally forgetting where they came from. They moved 2,000 miles away and we rarely had contact with any family. They had white (mostly people of German or French heritage) friends. Did distance, time, a few generations, a good job, and a college education make them white? I think they thought it did.
But I was literally born knowing something was WRONG with that picture.
Where we actually became white on that side of the family, I’m not sure. Probably about 1896 when my grandfather was born. It makes me DAMN angry that my parents and grandparents took what ever semblance of culture away from me that I ever had. Those Melungeon brown folks that passed for Native down in the Missouri woods were my people. And I know nothing of them. People raised without culture and family are inherently unwell spiritually, and now we know it effects us physically as well.
There were also Jews in that area and in my tree, who also moved from being ethnically “other” and persecuted, to white Christian, perhaps in the 1500’s when they left Spain, Wales and Holland, perhaps as late as the 1800’s. Some of them kept their Jewishness alive, for a while. Then they too wore the mantle of “we have a Cherokee grandmother”.
I find it strange that they would give that up, but I think in all of these cases, persecution was catalyst enough for passing and marrying whiter.
What I’ve found in three years of doing heavy research with DNA, mostly on Melungeons, but “other” peoples as well in the US is there are a HUGE, I mean HUGE amount of people in the US today that you would not doubt were white, and act the part down to their racist spew, that have African, Jewish and many other non-European ancestors. The fact that they don’t know it, or have conveniently forgotten it, PISSES ME OFF, and if I can help people see what their DNA holds, I do. Every time a small amount of Sub-Saharan African appears in an Admixture (ethnicity) profile, I point it out to them. It’s extremely common for whites in America today to have African ancestors.
There are tons of white people that will shut down completely if you try to say they have a Black ancestor. There is also great deal of “whitewashing” in Genealogy. If people find a Black ancestor they just delete the information.
Recently I’ve been helping a couple of Black friends work on their DNA/Genealogy, sharing what I know, and I’ve learned a lot. Things that makes me very sad. Finding European ancestors to them is not cool or interesting, it’s a sign of oppression, slavery and rape. It’s trauma.
Knowing now that I DO have Black ancestors, Jewish ones, Native ones and many others, has made me consciously pay more attention to Black issues, the state of things with Israel, etc. I’ve always been aware of Native issues, and am very vocal about cultural appropriation.
Seeing and claiming Black ancestors in my tree is a great source of pride for me, for many reasons. And yes, it helps dismantle racism.
I’ve said many times in the privacy of my own home if I could give up the white card I WOULD because there are too many who wear the mantel of White with such hate that I don’t want to be identified with that. But if I have to be seen as white, and since I can’t get away from it, I DO feel like it’s up to me to stand up, where I can, for people of color. Not “for them” when they are around, but for them in trying to educate whites-stand against racism is a better way to put that.
I have a teacher from whom I’ve learned a lot about Ancestral healing, something that is new to white people. I love it. And maybe, just maybe what I do is helping to heal the ancestors, and heal me as well, because now we know epigenetics is a thing-where 20 years ago it was woo-woo nonsense.
So anyway, sorry this is so long but I really wanted to jump into this conversation with an open heart and a willingness to discuss, in order to yes, dismantle the ideas of whiteness, and white supremacy.
I’d like to take a stab at answering the questions posed in their blog.
>>Should there be a separate racial category for White people who want to rid themselves of the socially-constructed label, privilege and lifestyle?<<
YES. Please! I will frequently, now that I know more about my true family history, identify as “white and Melungeon”-which sends most people running to google the word. I didn’t grow up in that culture but it’s the most recent culture that existed in my family, and gives a nod to my Red and Black ancestors. To me being white is acultural. There isn’t one. There is a great void where something use to be. At least that’s true in my family.
To some extent I still have to claim the white label though, because that’s what people see, and because it’s useful in deconstructing racism. And there’s less privilege over here than there used to be (because I am now a low-income white). Now it’s saved mostly for the wealthy and truly white-the Owner class that never interbred with low-class whites, Melungeons or Natives in this country. Poverty has it’s own (different, not equal) set of oppression. And no, white privilege compared to Black oppression is not the same as oppression of the white poor…I do know that.
I don’t think we are to the point of doing away with labels just yet, not until white people stop identifying as white. (DNA tests work wonders for that!) To me, white privilege goes right along with capitalism and I try as best I can not to engage in that system, that lifestyle. I live as my ancestors did-we grow our own food, make our own medicine, live in the woods and spend little money. We do without a lot of things that capitalism and privilege tell us we “should” have.
>>Should White people be allowed to just opt out and adopt another culture if they just aren’t feeling white or aren’t down with the politics of whiteness?<<
No. I wish, but no. Because if we could, I would have turned it all in the day after Charlottesville, or long before. If we don’t feel white, we are in serious freaking limbo, neither here nor there. But taking on another culture, *IN MOST CASES* is not cool. There are exceptions though, like when a white person marries into say a Native family, or, possibly in Rachel’s case. Read her book. It makes more sense. This isn’t just something she one day decided to wear, like a tee shirt. This was part of her identity since she was a child left to care for Black siblings. She married a Black, went to a Black college and had Black children, friends and “made” family…to her that was plenty. To others, not. So where is that line? One place for her, another place for most Blacks. It’s definitely not a clear cut line. But by golly she’s still standing for that position, and that means a lot.
We can’t opt out because we have a job to do. We who are white-ish, perceived-as-white, are like the spies on the inside…Talking to the local white ladies, droping a few words to the clerks at Walmart…being a white woman, talking about dismantling racism, it rocks their world, you know? From the inside out. Boom.
>>What is left if one so radically rejects whiteness and the labeling of being a “White person”?<<
Sadly, really, Nothing. No culture, no family, maybe a mixed bag of friends who love you for who you are, maybe other misfits and radicals…but….absolute conviction that racism is wrong, and an willingness to dismantle whiteness. That’s what’s left for me. For many others they might feel that void, because being white is a bit like eating too much junk at the fair-feels good while you do it but then later makes you sick to your stomach. They’re scared, because they know they’re losing something they never really had, and they’re fighting to keep that sick false construct alive.
>>Might the system be thrown off kilter if other White people altered their appearance to look racially ambiguous or to look Black without EVER correcting anyone who assumes that they are? If these people lived “pro-Black” lives and gave all honor and credit for their existence to Africa, would their appearance and other cultural adaptations still be seen as appropriation?<<
Interesting question. I have kind of a hard time picturing that. I think it could go very wrong…but to some extent some cultural expressions are bound to bleed over into white culture, and become more globalized. Like rap music for instance. Globalization has definitely contributed to cultural appropriation.
What I can tell you is that while I don’t live in the South now, I did for many years and there was pretty much only Black and White. People looked at me, saw white and never blinked twice. Black folks rarely spoke much to me, especially out in the country where I lived and worked, because that’s just the way things were/are in the South. But then I grew dreadlocks. Hippie sort of thing and yeah, appropriated from the Caribbean Blacks who likely got it from the heavy influence of Indian and Hinduism in the islands, the original jatas being what the Hindu holy men wear. I didn’t know that then, and no one ever called me on it. And suddenly, Black people spoke to me, smiled at me. One elderly man in an emergency room called me in to his room and tried to give me a dollar! White people gave me death stares, avoided me in the grocery store and stopped talking to me. That made me so happy. It was a finger to the white folks in the South.
Now I wrap my head-for several reasons, not really Rasta style-actually I was taught by some Orothodox Jewish ladies. I found a whole huge group of people of varying faiths who wrap for various reasons, and, after living in a small conservative west coast town for several years, again there was this shift. But there are like zero Blacks in this town, so no one to smile at me here.
People don’t necessarily give me death stares-now they mostly look, look again with confusion, and look down, assuming…what? That I have cancer? That I’m weird? That I’m “other”, a pot grower, or ? and if they stare too much it wouldn’t be polite, but they stare anyway? I had one woman ask me if I was “Kundalini”. (Ugh, West Coast Yoga Culture-al appropriation, UGH). They can’t figure out what box to put me in. And it makes me HAPPY!
I’ve had several conversations within this headwrapping community about cultural appropriation and we’ve all concluded that no, this is not appropriation because so many cultures wrap, and it’s not just cultural-women wrap for anxiety issues, hair loss, or just to look pretty. Pretty much every culture on the planet wraps in some way….But white people don’t know that.
>>Since we know that “White people” is a social construct created for nefarious reasons, do you feel like you have a moral obligation to reject that label? <<
YES and no. Reject it as who I am, yes. Use it when it’s convenient to break down barriers and wake people up. Yes.
>>What are you and, more importantly, who are you if you are not White and if you refuse all White privilege?<<
Tough question because not being white creates a VOID. A huge one. That’s why cultural appropriation pretty much only happens as whites taking other cultures.
I think as long as I breathe, I can not separate myself from white privilege, not because I seek it but because, since I am white-appearing, people assume it for me. I won’t be as watched in a store, or won’t be shot if I’m pulled over for speeding. There’s no way I can wear “not white” when others see what they will see. The fact that something is not happening to me when it IS happening to others who are out of my sight makes it hard to see the privilege I am accorded. I’m sure it’s there. Like gravity. I can’t see it but I know it’s there.
>>Are you better off accepting the label and just trying to use its associated privilege for good?<<
And a final note about Rachel Dolezal, being the genealogist nerd I am, I did attempt to research her parents once, to see what I could find in their ancestry using public resoures. Her father is pretty recently European but her mother has one line that is old Colonial. I was not able to make it back to the 1600’s on that line but I have run into some of those people and surnames before and there is a possibility that they, like some of my ancestors were Tri-racial. Deep analysis of a DNA test could possibly show that to be true and I’m open to helping Ms. Dolezal if she ever wants help checking that. I believe strongly that if we are drawn to something there is a genetic reason.
Sorry this is so massively long, but I feel like we really need to have these conversations. I’m an imperfect human, child of imperfect humans and part of the crazy soup that makes up America, and still learning…so I’m laying this out there, in an effort to dismantle white supremacy.