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Rachel Dolezal and 'authenticity'

REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
At root, Rachel Dolezal has been living a life of lies, in spheres both public and personal, in which honesty is not just a best policy, but a moral command.

I once wrote a column about how I aspired to be Norwegian. This had something to do with my having served several years earlier on Al Quie’s gubernatorial staff. But as a New York native who had moved to Minnesota in 1974, my interest in being Norwegian also had to do with preferring the stereotypical Scandinavian way Diane Keaton’s family in Wisconsin celebrated Thanksgiving in “Annie Hall” instead of how Woody Allen’s family did so, presumably in Brooklyn.

Mitch Pearlstein
Center of the American ExperimentMitch Pearlstein

“Lovely ham this year, mother,” I recall someone in Keaton’s family saying nicely and politely, while Allen’s family just kept screaming and interrupting each other while trains thundered overhead, in Woody Allen’s breakthrough 1977 movie. Let’s just say that despite growing up in Queens, I’ve always been a Midwesterner at heart.  

By writing what I did, had I really become Norwegian? Or was I likely scratching around at the last moment for a column idea with a few laughs? Let’s put it this way, I hadn’t become any more Norwegian than Rachel Dolezal transmuted to black. 

Alluding to whom, and at the risk of making light, I have a biracial daughter who’s now in her 20s and has a daughter of her own. For a black woman she has a light complexion, and for a white guy I have a dark complexion. Meaning that occasionally when I had been in the sun a lot we would compare arms and I would tease that mine was darker than hers. This routinely drove her a little crazy, which frankly was my aim as her fun-loving father, who evidently hadn’t disgorged everything East Coast about himself. 

But by spending extra time outdoors had I gained the right to declare myself “black”? Or even a “person of color,” as in “temporarily tan”?  No and no, as to do so would be ridiculous. It also would be a lie. Or using a buzzword I don’t like very much, claiming a different race would have been “inauthentic.” 

But what if, giving Washington state’s Rachel Dolezal a little Midwestern due, “authenticity” itself is overrated? What if “being yourself” is not always aligned with “good character”? What if we considered this excerpt about Dwight Eisenhower from David Brooks’ new and fascinating book, "The Road to Character"?

Eisenhower was never a flashy man, but two outstanding traits defined the mature Eisenhower, traits that flowed from his upbringing and that he cultivated over time. The first was his creation of a second self. Today, we tend to live within an ethos of authenticity. We tend to believe that the “true self” is whatever is most natural and untutored. That is, each of us has a certain sincere way of being in the world, and we should live our life being truthful to that authentic inner self, not succumbing to the pressures outside ourself. To live artificially, with a gap between your inner nature and our outer conduct, is to be deceptive, cunning and false.

Eisenhower hewed to a different philosophy. This code held that artifice is man’s nature. We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, molded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public. A personality is a product of cultivation. The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with. 

Outside of the fact that I have zero interest in self-girdling, I find much to recommend in self-cultivation in the way Brooks saw Eisenhower pruning and molding. So what’s so wrong with Dolezal, until the other day the NAACP’s leader in Spokane, adding pigmentation to the amount bestowed by nature? Given the way Brooks frames matters, this actually might be a more difficult question than first assumed, but let me suggest four abbreviated thoughts.

Putting aside the possibility that Dolezal is seriously mentally ill — which would scale back criticism — I would argue that her brand of self-cultivation is grounded much more in self-deception than self-improvement.  

For whatever racial solidarity she hopes to convey, what comes across instead is racial obsequiousness. 

By re-coloring herself, images provoked of black-faced minstrels are inevitable and understandably seen as offensive, and not just by blacks.  

At root, she has been living a life of lies, in spheres both public and personal, in which honesty is not just a best policy, but a moral command. 

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. His most recent book is "Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future."

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Comments (12)

It's a set of complex,

It's a set of complex, multiple lies that she has told: she lied about who her parents were, she said she was born in a teepee, she said her parents lived off the land, she said her parents beat her and the other children with a "baboon" whip, she said she didn't get along with her "stepfather", etc, (http://thoughtcatalog.com/daniel-hayes/2015/06/rachel-dolezal/). All told in service of making her the "victim" of various imaginary wrongs to make her survival miraculous. Which oddly enough mirrors and mocks the black experience in America over the centuries.

It's not finding a group to identity with or finding a calling to organize one's life around, it's a psychiatric issue.

Secondary

Honestly, until her family called her out, I don't think (just about) anyone would have known any of that, let alone be offended. That list does suggest some big mental problems. But...I'm still confused by the whole thing as a source of offense to just about everyone.

Black face

I have a hard time understanding the brouhaha generated by Ms. Dolezal's "outing." And I mean "understanding" as in, I'm not sure what exactly the offense is and who is the bad guy. I get that some might be offended that she pretended to be black, or at least made her appearance suggest that she had black ancestry, and never dissuaded anyone from believing such. However, she's not the first person of pale complexion adopting "black culture" and/or preferring to associate with people who aren't white for whatever reason. She just happens to be the first hired into a high position within the NAACP. So, what part is offensive? The fact that she's not black or the fact that she was successful? She clearly isn't wearing "black face" in the traditional sense so as to either poke fun or to exclude black people from social events and businesses where, occasionally, non-white individuals must be seen (theatre, movies, etc.).

Also, why is this different than wanting to be Norwegian? Is it important that a person's skin color be different in such a masquerade in order for it to be offensive? Why??? Should women (or men?) be offended that Caitlynn Jenner exists? I'm not offended. I don't think I'd be offended if Bruce had been of a different race before he adopted the female gender, either. Maybe I should wait until she becomes a successful female model? Nope. She looked great on the cover of all the magazines. Still not offended.

And, really, who is the bad guy here? From my perspective, her family certainly can't take the high ground here. What about her employer? Was she hired based on her supposed race? That raises a LOT of questions and not just about her. Beyond that, did she do good work? Does she really have to be mentally ill to want to associate herself with a different race? Probably no more mentally ill than preferring the Norwegian approach to Thanksgiving over the Brooklyn approach and wanting to emulate it.

Excellent points

It's disappointing that criticizing Ms. Dolezal has become such a big deal for some people. Using the Caitlyn Jenner situation as an analogy, it seems to me that, if Caitlyn so strongly associated with the female gender that she rose to prominence within a chapter of the National Organization of Women before revealing that she used to be Bruce Jenner, that would, if anything, signify a *greater* identification and a *deeper* commitment to her gender identity. Casual suggestions of mental illness seem trivial, even catty by comparison; the very suggestion that a 'white' person who identifies strongly with 'black' culture must be deluded at best or mentally ill at worst is itself a significantly racist opinion.

The ironic thing is that it seems that most folks attacking Ms. Dolezal would support Dr. King's classic call in his 'I Have a Dream' speech: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." To many critics, it seems that the color of Ms. Dolezal's skin represents the content of her character, and it only shows how far we still have to go to truly become a 'post-racial' society.

Offensiveness

I think people are too easily offended. It would be nice if Mitch got over this stuff, it just isn't that big a deal.

You'd think

It wouldn't be a big deal. But it seems that the molehill has become a mountain. I just don't get it.

It’s more about honesty and

It’s more about honesty and less about race.

Really?

Because there are lots of people who lie all the time. But the media has focused on her because....

One has to wonder...

....about how this would have been treated by the media if she had really been black?

Deception

Then there would have been no element of deception (self or otherwise).
Dog bites man -- no news.
It's about denigrating (yes I'm aware of the issues involved with the term but I go with literacy) the real sufferings of real blacks who do not for the most part have a choice about their identity.

Stop over-thinking it

It's not complicated. The woman lied to get a job. And this was only the latest in a lifetime of lies. And then, when called on this history, she responded with denials and obfuscation. We can argue about when, should and if the NAACP hires whites, but that's not the issue.

And the MLK quote fits the situation perfectly....she's now being judged on the "content of her character", or lack thereof.

I don't think it's that simple

No one but a handful of people were aware of such a person as Rachel Dolezal 2 weeks ago. She was the president of a LOCAL chapter of NAACP in Spokane, WA. Not the national organization or even a regional office. This really isn't some giant scandal. It was a local scandal.

If it was as simple as someone lying to get a job, we'd be hearing about lots of people, I'm sure. There are lots of things wrong about what she did. But it's not really just about the content of her character or it wouldn't be all over the news, and we wouldn't be hearing about how she somehow negated the plight of people who have been discriminated against because of their skin color. This is about how one woman lied about being black when she wasn't and then had the audacity to get a job at the NAACP.