I too, lied about my race.
“Why can’t I mark the box for Native American?” I asked my mom for the 100th time while filling out college applications.
“Because you aren’t Native American,” she replied, not as patiently as she had the times before.
“I am too!” I countered. “I’m 1/16th. I look much more. I should get to mark it.”
“It is not the same.”
I didn’t get it. I was young and had dealt with the question of “what are you” for most of my life. Almond shaped eyes that made people ask my parents if I was Asian when I was a baby. Skin dark enough and hair curly enough that nobody could quite determine what my cultural heritage was, but it never stopped them from trying. My appearance often became a guessing game, and the reality of my answer always felt so boring in contrast to the choices.
When news first broke about Rachel Dolezal I was immediately fascinated by her story. Partially because of my own connection to Spokane, having lived there from the age of 18-22. But partially because while living in Spokane, I had also lied about my race.
When I entered college I had no idea what I wanted to study. Studying wasn’t even on the forefront, I just wanted to play volleyball and flirt with boys. But a multicultural class grabbed me and opened up my eyes to layers of history and power that I had never realized existed. Growing up in North Idaho my exposure to cultural diversity was limited- except for the diverse extended family I come from. So the curiosity was already there, but this class started to stir it.
Instead of feeling the deep burn of privilege that would spark years later, learning about different cultures made me yearn to be included in them. I felt like I had no common experience, no shared history, no collective story. So I started saying yes. When people asked me “are you _____” I would say yes. Never to people I knew, and never in much seriousness, but I let them think they had won at this little guessing game. I tried on ethnicities like others would sunglasses. I didn’t keep them long, I didn’t wear them all the time, and I never found a pair that fit.
Because it was all a lie.
Later, I would go on to pursue a degree in Multi Ethnic Studies. I would spend years learning about institutionalized racism and I would start to unravel my own, including how flippantly I had claimed the experience of others as mine.
I had wanted, desperately to find the good in what Rachel Dolezal supposedly did. Anyone who works for social justice has to become close to the community they are fighting for.
But connecting with a culture and claiming it as your own are two different things.
If the allegations against this woman prove to be true, what she in fact did was stole from the people she was supposed to be working for. She stole a scholarship that belonged to somebody else. She stole speaking engagements on the history of black hair, and writing assignments on growing up black. She stole jobs and endless opportunities from someone else that should have had them. Not because she is supposedly white- she could have done those things as a white person- but because she lied.
Once I learned about the real issues behind race relations, the same things Dolezal presumably taught in her Africana Studies Class, I never lied about my race again. Not even in the smallest ways. I certainly didn’t mutter phrases like “we’re all from the African continent” as if that levels the playing field.
I realized that I was enough. It didn’t matter what my culture was or wasn’t. It didn’t matter that the explanation of “what are you?” always felt like it fell short. My experiences allowed me to assist in ways that others wouldn’t be able to. I spoke at MLK Day rallies. I worked on a campaign for LGBTQ rights. I studied social movements and great leaders. I practiced social activism and engaged in discussions that cut deep to the core. I found my collective experience, and it was in the role of an ally.
You see, if you have to try something on then it was never yours to begin with. You borrowed it. And the price of borrowing something is that you have to return it to the person, or people, it belongs to. That time has long come.
On Monday Rachel Dolezal is expected to make a statement, and I hope it is a different note than what she has muttered so far. I hope it is one of remorse and new beginnings. I hope it is one of realization that she was always enough just the way she was. I hope she is done with lying about her race so everyone else, including her, can get back to the important work that really does need to happen. There is room for everyone, but we have to be honest about where we came from.
Because as my mother told me years ago, and mothers always know best, it is not the same.