Rachel Dolezal and minstrelsy

So here’s what’s going on in Spokane, Washington.  The head of the local chapter of the NAACP is currently being questioned as to whether or not she is, as she claims to be, a black woman; or is she a white woman pretending to be black.

And thus we now have the story of Rachel Dolezal.

There are people treating this story as if it’s the equivalent of #thedress – is she white, is she black, is she both – and there are others that question if a person who appears to be Caucasian in childhood photographs can now operate an organization known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Now granted this is the 21st century; and we can change our lives and our goals and our environment, whether it’s through personal choice or reflective discovery.  Heck, thanks to modern medicine we can change our sex (see Jenner, Caitlyn).

But ethnicity?  Can you just “be black” if you weren’t born black?

And now, it’s not as simple as this old episode of the Partridge Family makes it seem.

What bothers me about the whole Rachel Dolezal story is that it reminds me of minstrelsy.

Let me explain.

See, there is a long history of white people pretending to be black; either for entertainment purposes or for acquiring some sort of advantage.  A century ago, one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the “minstrel show,” where white singers covered their faces with burnt cork.  Here’s an example.

Yeah, that’s Al Jolson. Al Jolson is white. Al Jolson is performing in blackface. This was considered high entertainment. Today, it’s extremely difficult to watch without feeling a pit of anger in the stomach.

Even more difficult to view is this movie, “Check and Double Check.”  The movie is based on characters portrayed in the Amos ‘n Andy radio series, and they actually got the original actors from the radio show to portray Amos and Andy in the movie.  Oh, did I happen to mention that Freeman Gosden (Amos) and Charles Correll (Andy) were white, and they wore black makeup to appear as African-Americans in this film?

Even in the early 1970’s, there were examples of white actors portraying black characters. This 1970’s television drama Boney stars James Laurenson as a half-caste Aboriginal police detective.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Laurenson is a white New Zealander and is wearing lots of dark makeup.

Yeah, you would have thought we would live in a more enlightened time. Nope. A couple of decades later, we get actor C. Thomas Howell in blackface. With a movie about a guy pretending to be black so that he can get a full scholarship to law school.

And today we have Rachel Dolezal.

What are we, as a people, saying about this whole story?  How black are you?  How white are you?  Are you appropriating black culture and black history and the black experience by wearing skintone makeup and curling your hair up?

Let’s face it.  Curly hair by itself does not automatically make you a black woman, any more than knowing the words to “Penny Lane” automatically makes you a Beatle.

Personally, I have so many different ethnicities and cultures in my family tree, I could claim to be a Native American.  I could claim to be Lithuanian.  I could claim to have entered this country on the Mayflower, or on the Amistad, or in steerage en route to Ellis Island.

But that’s not who I am now.  Those portions of my past are just that.  They are in the past.  I don’t need to pull out some chunk of my distant ancestral past to claim any sort of advantage or benefit.

And I think that’s where people see the fault of Rachel Dolezal.  Even this morning, people are pointing fingers at Dolezal and saying, “Why the hell are you pretending to be what you are not?”  In her actions, they see a century of minstrelsy and Stephin Fetchit and Jim Crow, and all the “separate but equal” and “hands up don’t shoot” and “driving while black” that are more than just a skin color; it’s a part of history and culture.  It’s the shared experience, it’s the challenge to improve what was once wrong, and to make things right.

And in Rachel Dolezal, we see someone claiming to be what they are not, to enjoy a benefit or a position that they might not otherwise achieve or obtain.  It’s gaming the system, it’s subverting the process.

I thought we had made steps toward the day when a person isn’t judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Unfortunately, Rachel Dolezal’s character is lacking in content.  Because she did indeed game the system by claiming to be someone that she is not.

And now we’re talking about someone who lied, and then continued to lie to cover up the rest of the lies.  And all this subverts the true mission of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.

Maybe someday this will all make sense.

Unfortunately, that “someday” might not be in our foreseeable future.

And that’s the saddest takeaway from this news story.