Rachel Dolezal: Perhaps this story isn't one of deception or cultural appropriation, but solidarity

Can anyone be described as authentically white or authentically black?

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From fully fifty yards away I could see that the man in the wheelchair coming towards me on the Worthing promenade was beaming. As he neared he held out his arm stiffly and clenched a fist. Slowly it dawned on me what he was doing: the gesture of recognition that was more common in the 1970s when you found yourself alone in a predominantly white town and suddenly (thankfully) spied a brother coming towards you. We bumped fists; black man to black man. Except there was one problem: I am black; the man (the brother) in the wheelchair was white.

I thought of that solidarity with the right-on white brother when reading about Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who has been exposed by her Caucasian parents as having their same ethnicity: she was, they said, of white European ancestry. Rachel Dolezal resigned from her post but has been defiant in defence of the way she sees herself: ‘I identify as black,’ she said.

So what is Dolezal’s motive in calling herself black? What does she stand to gain? Her actions have confounded a population who expect, on past experience, for the traffic of people masking their race to be going the other way: from black to white.

In the 1960s growing up in a black Caribbean family, my siblings and I had a favourite game which involved trying to spot public figures who, though obvious to us as black, we thought were trying to “pass” themselves off as white. Past contenders included Beethoven. “C’mon, check out that Afro hair of Beethoven,” we’d say to doubters. Contemporaries included Sid James – hair again, wavy but definitely suspect, and a nose that bore a remarkable resemblance to our father’s (notwithstanding that we later learnt Sid was South African and Jewish).

It may sound peculiar and deluded now. But we wanted these public personalities to line up and throw in their lot with us – despite the disadvantages, accepting the risks. It would have been as noble an act as the survivors of the defeated slave army identifying with their leader at the end the film, Spartacus.

Perhaps the story of Rachel Dolezal should be cast not as a deception or as an extreme form of cultural appropriation, but as one of solidarity. If race is a social construct, who gets to decide to which group you belong? Rachel Dolezal seems to have taken identifying with the group to another level in her self-identification as black. But can anyone be described as authentically white or authentically black? My partner and I and our children resent having to tick a box identifying ourselves on government forms. I doubt whether we are alone in our desire to resist reductive classification and compartmentalisation. On another level, though, the controversy around Dolezal reminds us of an ideal and the mantra that parents often tell their children (as I did mine when they were growing up): you can be whoever you want to be.

And if ever Rachel Dolezal passed me in the street, I’d be happy to bump fists with her.