In 2006, I joined a circle of Black Panthers and other minority activists. I went to weekly meetings in neighborhoods that white people avoided — South Bronx, Flatbush, and Bedford-Stuyvesant — accessorized with headscarves and painted wooden bangles. I had internal monologues about “our” struggle and protested against police brutality as if I, myself, were a victim of racial profiling.
I was 19, white, and experiencing a full-blown identity crisis, not unlike the one that probably jumpstarted Dolezal’s downward spiral into delusion. Like her, I empathize with marginalized groups, but I do so with the benefit of a Jew-fro.
I look more like Rachel Dolezal in her “after” photos, except I was born this way. I have a naturally dark and kinky fro, skin that is a “medium-tan” at Sephora, and the kind of body proportions Sir-Mix-A-Lot paid tribute to in 1992. I am of Jewish descent, but strangers often think I am of mixed race. As a teenager, I played into that perception. I lived in Harlem, dated a Black Panther and hung a poster of Bob Marley smoking a joint in my studio apartment. But in reality, not only had I rarely faced discrimination, I often benefit from being what a Beverly Hills casting agent called “ethnically white” — someone whom everyone feels comfortable with.
I never told people I was black, but I felt like I was something other than white and I identified with the Black Panther cause as if it were my own. In our activist group, other white women — the kind who looked like Dolezal in her “before” photos — had a hard time integrating. They were often called out for overstepping their boundaries as allies, for their use of the words “we” and “our people.” One time, during a meeting in which we were discussing racial inequality, a white member interjected: “Isn’t it all really economic inequality?” She went on to talk about the problems she was facing as a low-income white American. Other members brows furrowed and my boyfriend shot a glance my way, rolling his eyes, like, here we go again.
I never faced this kind of critique. At my very first meeting, I was welcomed into an intimate women’s chat in the kitchen, the group’s symbolic inner circle. They offered me advice on how to loc my hair and referred me to their hairdressers. I was able to build friendships with black and Hispanic members that outlasted the eight-month stint during which I was active in the group. (After my boyfriend and I broke up, I left the group.) They invited me to spoken word poetry slams and to a baby shower where I ate the beau ideal of Jamaican jerk chicken. I was warmly introduced to sisters, brothers, and a grandfather who quickly cracked me a beer and gave me a bear hug. When another white member approached the grandfather, he just shook his hand and nodded hello.
There were times when I worried that their kindness came with a presumption that I was black, and I started inserting “I am Jewish” randomly into conversations. But in practice, I continued to internalize a culture and experience that weren’t mine. I loved that my passable appearance afforded me insider status. I can’t help how my appearance makes people feel about me, but it doesn’t give me license to appropriate a culture and confuse its struggle for my own. That’s where I – and Dolezal – crossed the line, regardless of any work we did to promote causes of the black community.
My moment of self-awareness came during one of our protests against police brutality. I had written a poem about how poorly the issue was being covered by the news. It was dry and stilted, lacking the power and emotionality of the art created by our other members. The poem was distant because I had never been stopped nor frisked by police.
I told my boyfriend that I was disappointed by my writing. “It’s distant because you’re not pretending to be anything other than on the outside” of the issue, he said. “You’re being honest.” He said I should try writing about being white if I wanted something more real to come out. I didn’t take his advice at the time (though maybe I am now), and never read the poem to anyone.
My boyfriend had trouble with other white members of the group whose poems and songs were first person. He struggled with the fact they were nice people who ultimately wanted to help the black cause, but would do so while writing poems that refer to “our people” and “our struggle.” It made him angry to see people that had no experience with racism talk about it as if they did. It was an issue close to him and his life, one that he couldn’t escape by wearing different clothes or by changing his hair, which he wore in long dreads. Being a good ally, he said, meant supporting those going through these issues as someone who is not also going through them.
I don’t know if he knew how much I needed to hear that, but it stopped my identity crisis in its tracks, before I reached anything near Dolezal levels of delusion. By my junior year of college, I was favoring the librarian-with-a-Jew-fro look over my former Jamaican-inspired swagger.
But my period of confusion allows me to have some empathy for Dolezal, even if I lack sympathy for her lies. I don’t have the credentials to analyze her, but I do have the grounds to analyze myself.
Part of the reason I sought entrance to a community fighting for the rights of people other than my own is because of the way I was raised. It’s hard to grow up in a Jewish family without some understanding of persecution. There were several family parties where, after cocktail number three, my aged cousin Bernie would begin lamenting how many of our distant relatives were killed in the Holocaust. It was always a bit of a buzzkill, but also a reality check. So, raised with a sense of what injustice was, but without having experienced much of it myself, I took on the cause of another race.
Similarly, Dolezal grew up with black adopted brothers and attended predominantly black colleges. Like her, I grew up in an environment that was not solely white. When I was 4, I was the flower girl as my uncle married an African woman, and it was hardly the first or the last interracial marriage in our family. My grandmother was a Civil Rights activist, and both of my parents attended Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t grow up thinking it was weird to be an activist for black rights or that it was a challenge to find a multiracial environment. One of the gifts of ethnic ambiguity is that I have been able to effortlessly form friendships that exist outside of racial boundaries and tension, and become intimate with other cultures. While I don’t agree with Dolezal’s actions, I do think we have that in common: the refusal to live in cultural isolation.
I live in Los Angeles now, which is very diverse but also more segregated than the New York of my childhood. For the first time in my life, I don’t have many non-white friends that I see on a regular basis. This makes me sad. I hope to eventually find in L.A. what I once had in New York. This time, however, I’ll go in without the delusion that I am a Black Panther, and without, for the love of God — and I hope you’re listening, Dolezal — tribal-print head wraps.
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