We’ve all known someone on the Rachel Dolezal spectrum. —Downward mobility as ascension, or escape.
Welcome to the white-guilt shit show— you know how crazy this can get. Whatever happens to the warring Dolezal family, it will have zero effect on the millions treated like invisible flotsam because of their color or caste. (I’m looking at you, Riker’s Island.)
I can’t help but pause for this latest Delusional Color Test. I know this kind of gal well. I’ve been her childhood friend— call me “Midge,” Barbie’s working-class freckled cousin.
I once was in awe of her. I’ve asked about her make-up and make-believe, with much trepidation. She seemed so successful at it, most of the time. I’ve ignored, indulged, and distanced myself. This kind of friend— who posts nonstop political headlines on their Twitter and FB page, is strangely quiet today. Knock knock.
I’m at home in the civil rights movement; it’s a family tradition. It’s a place you’d never, ever want to hurt. Every kind of person has a place at the table. That freedom, the intimacy to refute all segregation, to be close to anyone you care for, to seek love and friendship— it’s what gives us all a shred of air. The greatest gift.
Most activists aren’t passing for anything other than their obvious origins. But you have the exceptions. —The make-up that changes over time, like Grecian Formula; the affectations. The ones I recall came from well-to-do families, estranged from their parents whom they’re still tied to, through inheritance and property. I felt pity and caution, at the same time.
They rebelled against their keepers, for obvious reasons. They wanted to be free, they wanted to be “themselves” in a place where their family history wouldn't direct every waking moment of their lives. Little Richie Rich is fucked up— wants out of the gilded cage. How do you do that with dignity and respect? It goes sideways a lot. The ones who do it gracefully, attract little notice and feel damn lucky.
You might get a glimpse of their AWOL secret one day. You show up at their pad and they’re screaming about a heretofore unknown property dispute. Big money! Or, lawsuits regarding custody bills or disinheritance. You reel a little; you had NO idea they knew so much about family law and finance. You realize why they never clung to a job with all the insecurity and desperation that entails.
Aside from these painful revelations, my “passing” comrades were generous and passionate about fitting in— embracing their chosen family. They wanted nothing to do with white racism, white liberalism, white naiveté.
Who among the social justice set wouldn’t relate? We all want to eschew bigotry and ignorance. “Whiteness” is a bitch and a bore.
But Passing-Patty may take out her self-loathing on others. She’ll be a leader, ultra-left, the first to call someone on the carpet for “acting” white or bourgeois. The Passing Posse have the kitchen under control, the hair and clothes down, all the cultural bits.
The class detail is just as oppressive. I remember an Ivy League Brahmin who once denounced me, among friends, for cutting up garlic during a anti-apartheid spaghetti feed because “Workers use garlic powder, Susie.” You could be expelled for shit like that.
Sexual insecurity and heterosexual hierarchy are a turning point in these charades. The white upper-class woman who has a black &/or working-class boyfriend doesn’t want to embarrass him. She wants to fit into the family, wants him to be proud of her. —Wants his mother to approve! He may’ve once been mildly curious or attracted to her background, but then it became a liability— or a flash point. She can never get it right. The over-achievement efforts can be embarrassing— and the backlash harsh. The couples who get over this hump are very dear to each other, and to their children.
My old pal “Amy” lived with her great love, “Michael.” Strangers might’ve thought Amy was a light-skinned black woman, but she was from a distinguished white family in Pacific Heights whom she despised. She looked and talked like Rachel Dolezal. If I raised an eyebrow at her antics, she’d get so mad and self-righteous I wished I’d never brought it up. —And sometimes she’d make threats and I’d get scared about what she’d do.
Michael was a prominent light-skinned black rights activist. —Middle-middle class. He wrote editorials about the dilemma of having bi-racial parents, and how crazy-making it was to be the black man he wanted to be.
They each reveled in critique. Michael routinely announced at parties that he preferred strong black women. Amy dug in. The two of them were like snakes biting each other’s tails, in a crit-self-crit super session that never ended. Every other couple in the room, regardless of complexion, were either cringing or joining in the crazy.
I remember hiding in the bathroom one time. At night, my lover and I conferred. —Another dark/light duo. “Are we like this?” “Hell, no, look in the mirror.”
Dolezal’s right when she says, “This stuff can be difficult to understand.” But if people don’t get real about the cost of caste-mentality, false appearances are the least of their problems.
Five years in, Amy found a secret credit card that Michael was using to pay prostitutes. The dollars and sex were scandal enough, but that wasn’t what Amy really wanted to know. She wanted to see the color of her rivals. She hired a P.I. and drove to each address.
Godiva-haired women answered her knock on the door. They were blonde; they were “Swedish.” Knock knock. Amy went home to Michael and threw his clothes out on the lawn. He threw her hair products and comb against the wall. They called each other liars and traitors.
Makes me want to cut up some garlic and onions.