Friday, June 12, 2015

Imagination and Integrity



I typically don’t step in to the fray of current events here. There’s too much unknown, the landscape is too fluid and I hate to pitch my tent and then have the sands of what we know, what we can know, and how well we can know it shift and bury me. But this whole Rachel Dolezal thing is huge news here in Spokane. I watched it break quietly, reading the first reports on my Facebook feed Thursday night. I watched as it blossomed floridly all day until it became too tempting to not write about. 

Even with the shifting sands of the day’s news, I think I can solidly say that integrity is important to me. More important than any skin color. Honesty is hard and often requires vigilance and courage in the face of what we want and what people want from us.  I know we all fudge a little here and there. We try to keep a long story short, or we want to tell one part of the story but keep the other parts private.  And we all deceive ourselves. Maybe we accidentally twisted the story because we need the other person to be a villain or we really wanted what we wanted and only if we told ourselves that story in that way could we justify it. We are all currently deceiving ourselves in some way, even now, even as I type, trying so hard to keep the truth carved as close to the bone as possible. I fear this truth: that we lie to ourselves. I hate it. It’s a natural part of being human. But to say that we all lie to ourselves and therefore lying is okay, that’s where I disagree. And I have a really big problem with it when it all turns in to a colossal lie and intentional deception. At that point, I don’t feel the same softness for our human-ness as I do when it’s accidental. Perhaps I should, but I don’t. I have no idea where Rachel falls in this continuum of truth, but I do know that I have no time or energy for overt lies and the people who tell them. 

Here's my confession: I once passed as a Christian to take a room in a house very near the University. I didn’t lie. They knew my dad was a pastor and offered me the room based on my father’s occupation alone. I was new to town and I really needed a place to live so I did not correct them.

Here's where I stand up: When I had long dark hair, I often wore it in two braids. I thought it was cute and conveniently kept my hair from blowing in my face. When my hair was worn like this, and only when my hair was worn like this, people, always white people, (but obviously not ALL white people, Ha! That’d be just under 1 billion people. I imagine they would all stand in line and I would go from cradle to grave handling just that one question), would often ask me if I was Native American.

I grew up in the parsonages of Marietta Community Church, a stone’s throw from the town-ette of Marietta, on the lip of the Lummi Reservation. I had Lummi friends. I occasionally attended Lummi functions. But I’ve always found the wherewithal within me to chuckle and say to the inquiring minds, “Nope. I’m actually of Dutch heritage. It’s just the braids; they trick people every time.” I feel now I should specify that I am Dutch, except for 1/32 German, by about 10 feet across the border. But I’ve often said I was all Dutch. I’m sorry. It’s just seemed shorter than saying I was 31/32 Dutch and 1/32 German. And nobody seemed to care anyway.

I can see the temptation of saying I was Native American. I could easily get away with it and get all that exotic credit without the bother of being constantly hassled by stereotypes and racism, both overt cruelty and well-meaning pity.

I worked and attended college with my friend Denise, a black woman who grew up in Anchorage. We worked at the Farmer’s markets around Seattle, manning the Italian, rustic-bread booth together. Our liberal, open-minded customers often chatted her up while ignoring me. The farmer’s market demographic adored her, flirted with her, gave her gifts and invitations, loved her. I suspected it's because my white skin was so cliche, but I didn't say anything until she did. Then when they would leave, we would burst out laughing at them. “I’m so exotic!” She would tease and flaunt her exciting looking hair, maybe in braids or an afro.

She was a math major, a declared math major. She hated math, she told me, but as long as she kept one such class on her schedule, she could go to college as long as she wanted on fat scholarships. “Oh yeah. Black woman math major? Cha-ching! Donors go crazy for that shit.”

She wasn't the only one I knew doing it that way. An Asian friend always claimed to want to be a doctor on her scholarship applications. What kind of doctor? "Oh God no. I don't want to be a doctor at all. I just want my college paid for!"

Meanwhile, I choked along, putting myself through community college, working up to 40 hours a week while taking a full load. I transferred to a state university. I rode a city bus to school 1 ½ hours one way. I had no financial help from my family. I looked for scholarships for white girls studying liberal arts. I could not find any. I understand I have white privilege, just at times I wished it came with money.

I've read that Rachel attended a black college on full scholarships, the assumption being that she was black.

One black man I once had a crush on wouldn’t give me a second glance. I got to know his white friend and we had babies and got married. We hung out with this black man and his new girlfriend and after dinner one night, discussions commenced regarding my time living in Mexico, working as a sales clerk. “Wait! What?! You lived in Mexico? Where else have you been?” After more discussion, and a longish list, he said, “Oh man! I thought you’d just rolled out of the suburbs when I met you! Oh man!”

His white, wispy little girlfriend smiled knowingly at me, “I bet you get that all the time. I bet you’re sick of it!”
“You get that too?”
“Oh yeah.”

My roommate in that Christian house had a Native friend. My roommate coveted invitations to Native events and often talked of Native ideals. Her friend found it necessary to break the news that no matter how hard she tried, my roommate would never ever be Native American and to try to keep that in perspective. Another friend is part Native American and has struggled for acceptance by her tribe, a place where she feels more at home than any other. Racial identity is a tricky thing and deception does it no service.

I can see how passing as black or Native would be attractive. We white girls, a sprawling demographic, want in on a tighter community in America, a sisterhood, a clearer identity. And the farmer’s market clientele would have fawned over me. Scholarships might have materialized. If I wanted to do non-profit work, I wouldn’t just be another do-gooder white girl coming in to tell those flailing POC’s how to pick themselves up (a branding I’d heard another white girl get when she tried to get a teaching position at a Native school). In full disclosure, I’m certain I've said some well-meaning but totally stupid bullshit about race and I've heard other freckled white-girls say some pretty strange things too. Some of the stereotypes are based on some real issues. 

If I could pass as black in my liberal circles, I could imagine that my struggles would be respected, made real by my race. It wouldn’t be assumed that I had had an easy, simple, well-funded life. People would look at me and know I’d been through some shit, and that part of the assumption would be true. It would almost be closer to truth to than what they get when they judge me on my skin color and my hair. It’s silly to complain: #whitegirlproblems. I’m not denying my white privilege, but I want to talk about my experiences. Stereotypes cut both ways. 

We could say, hate the game, not the player. But it’s my job to be honest, and your job to not jump to conclusions, to not stereo-type me, dismiss me, or anyone else. I certainly don’t imagine we fresh-faced and enthusiastic white girls are oppressed enough to justify the sort of deception all available evidence points to being perpetrated by Rachel Dolezal. This whole thing is mind blowing, strange, and yet understandable, pitiable. It’s hard to get traction as just another flacid-haired white girl, especially in liberal circles already awash in such mundane complexions in this region. But I’m not 100% sure that her act is even that well-reasoned. I’m also aware of the possibility that her parents have an ax to grind, yet that doesn't mean she's telling the truth.

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