As the American born son of Mexican immigrants, I understand first hand how tricky identities can be. I have had people at home, in the States, tell me I’m “too white” and not “Mexican enough”. Meanwhile others abroad, especially in Europe will tell me “you don’t seem American, you’re too nice. You’re definitely Latin.” They mean it as a compliment, but I’m not sure it is one.
Perhaps it’s because of my background that I find the latest chapters of the Rachel Dolezal saga so interesting. For as bizarre as her story sounds, Rachel’s story highlights how complex and malleable “identity” really is.
You may remember Dolezal as the white woman who spent her life representing herself as African-American (some would say pretending to be black). In 2015, the former NAACP activist and college professor was outed when a journalist asked her on video if she was African-American. You probably remember laughing at her, shaking your head or getting really upset about the entire matter.
The fallout was brutal. Dolezal lost both her teaching position at Eastern Washington and her chair at the NAACP. She was ostracized and humiliated. The black community accused her of cultural appropriation and white people were angry that Rachel would want to be anything BUT white. To make matters worse, she hasn’t been able to find a job and has been living off of food stamps to support herself and her son.
Last month, Rachel Dolezal legally changed her name to Nkechi Diallo. It’s a West African moniker that means “gift of God.” People were outraged once again. The Independent’s Nishat Ismail asked “If Rachel Dolezal can be Nkechi Diallo, can I identify as a white girl called Elizabeth at airport security?”
I get that the whole thing seems absurd to most people at this point. Well, that’s actually a problem. Because we shouldn’t be fighting or laughing—we should and could have a serious and civil conversation about identity. Because her critics have a point, and Rachel has some good ones too.
Defending Rachel’s right to assert her identity becomes more difficult when one remembers she sued Howard University, a historically black school, for denying her teaching positions and scholarships…on account that she was white. It might take some time to wrap your head around it. But if you dig deeper, you’ll see it illustrates the idea of identity malleability.
We’re human beings. We want to win things, we want to advance our careers. And sometimes, we will use everything in our arsenal to get there. It may be we do things that seem unethical or contradictory to an outside audience. Rachel’s lawsuit was fodder for people who claimed she only wanted the upside of being black without any of the challenges the community at-large faces. But what if Rachel justified her actions by thinking a scholarship or a teaching post at Howard would help further the black cause? Maybe that’s how she justified playing up her “whiteness”?
Whether you’re cognizant of it or not, we all do this. How many times have we purposely highlighted a difference to gain an advantage or advance our cause? I’ll give you a tame personal example. I lived in Barcelona for a semester during my college days. Generally speaking, when people asked me where I was from I would say California. It conveyed cool, it conveyed beach and it was much easier than explaining where Modesto was. But, when I got wind that the pretty girl in my economics class liked Latinos…well let me grab my Mexico kit and play up my Latin roots. If you prefer a stronger example to drive the point home, we can look at the “Trial of the Century.”
Ezra Edelman’s brilliant documentary O.J. Made in America portrays how the iconic and infamous Simpson was above race. As Max Strachan of the Huffington Post wrote, O.J. didn’t want to be associated with Black America. But as the trial got underway, his race undoubtedly became part of the story. One particular moment in the documentary stands out in my mind. Defense attorney Carl Douglas recalls the preparations the defense took for the jury’s visit to Simpson’s estate in the upscale LA neighborhood of Brentwood.
Now, eight of the twelve jurors were African American. So the defense wanted to “adjust” O.J.’s house to reflect commonalities with the jurors. As Douglas tells it, they removed all the pictures of O.J. with white people and replaced them with pictures of O.J. with African American people so the “home setting reflected the themes we wanted to reflect.” Douglas stops short of flaunting his brilliance but implies they did what they had to do. “If we had had a Latin jury, we would have had a picture of him in a sombrero! There would have been a mariachi band out front! We would have had a piñata at the top of the staircase!”
Rachel playing up her “whiteness” to get an advantage is similar to O.J.’s team looking to connect with an ignored part of his identity to build a defense case. People will go to great lengths to protect themselves. . Are their actions right? Are they moral? I don’t know. Does it change who they are? I don’t think so.
Rachel’s story is partly a consequence of us telling her she can’t be black. The more we we try to take that away from her, the more she’ll dig her heels in and defend what she believes is her essence. Our differences can be either self-defense mechanisms or narcissistic tools. We can use them to defend our identity or to make us feel special, above the group. It’s why you sue a school and why you change your name; two sides of the same coin.
Last week, she went on CNN, talking to Michael Smerconish about her new book and what life has been like in the two years since she hit the limelight. Late in the segment, Smerconish granted her a mulligan, allowing her to amend her answer to the now infamous 2015 question of “are you African-American.” A more poised Dolezal answered on CNN, saying;
“If I would have had time to really, you know, discuss my identity, I probably would have described a more complex label, pan-African, pro-black, bisexual, mother, artist, activist, but I think the question, Are you African-American?—I haven’t identified as African-American. I’ve identified as black. And black is a culture, a philosophy, a political and social view.”
Fact is, identity is a complex topic. What is often overlooked, and what is my main point of contention with this frustrating “diversity in tech” conversation, is that identity—and diversity—is largely contextual and malleable. Who we are, or rather what part of us people are most likely to see at any given time, depends on where we are and whom we are with. It’s why Americans think I am a whitewashed Mexican and why Europeans view me as the second coming of Aeneas.
To paraphrase Maalouf, identities cannot be compartmentalized. They can’t be divided in halves or thirds. Rachel Dolezal identifies with being black. She can’t be less black any more than I can be more or less Mexican. So let Rachel be black. Let her be an artist. A bisexual. And any other term she identifies with. She’s like the rest of us, an amalgamation of various cultures and influences. She may not fit my preconceived notion of black. But then again, I don’t really fit anyone’s definition of a Mexican-American.
We’re at the precipice of massive shift in how we perceive ourselves and others. We have never been so similar yet we’ve never been so adamant about pointing out our differences. I hope this piece is the first part of larger conversation, one that focuses on and explores the notion that our differences actually make us the same.
Eric M. Ruiz is a NYC-based writer from Modesto, Calif. He helped launch Waze Ads in Latin America and now focuses on exploring and writing about the differences that make us the same. He thinks in English but hugs in Spanish.