‘Iden­tity’ and the Rachel Dolezal con­tro­versy

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Like many, I find the Rachel Dolezal con­tro­versy both fas­ci­nat­ing and trou­bling.

Rache l Dolezal, head of t he l ocal chap­ter of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple (NAACP) in Spokane, Washington, re­signed this week af­ter an ex­plo­sion of crit­i­cism over claims she has long made about her racial iden­tity. In the past, she may also have pre­tended to be a vic­tim of so called hate crimes. Cred­i­bil­ity ques­tions hover like buz­zards over her head.

Ms. Dolezal’s par­ents pro­duced


a birth cer­tifi­cate sev­eral days be­fore her res­ig­na­tion from her very vis­i­ble post as an ad­vo­cate for racial jus­tice. The birth record in­di­cated Dolezal lacks any strain of African- Amer­i­can an­ces­try. This con­tra­dicts the way she had pre­vi­ously rep­re­sented her­self. She is ac­tu­ally of Czech and Ger­man her­itage, her par­ents say (now the In­ter­net adds “Swedish”), with some Na­tive Amer­i­can roots.

The rights ac­tivist re­port­edly stepped down from her post with­out re­morse or con­tri­tion. Right­fully, she said in a Face­book state­ment, and has since re­peated, any mat­ter of her per­sonal life pales in sig­nif­i­cance be­side press­ing is­sues for racial jus­tice in Amer­ica. She strongly in­sists that she iden­ti­fies with AfricanAmer­i­cans, and does not see her­self as “white” (Cau­casian).

First there is the prob­lem of iden­tity. “Iden­tity.” How do we de­fine that word?

There are thou­sands of peo­ple like me in Tai­wan to­day. Rooted here for 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 2, 3 years at a stretch, and hav­ing lived in Tai­wan for more than 30 years, what and who have I be­come? I know what my iden­tity was 40 years ago, but what is it to­day? Although I am still very much an Amer­i­can, in fact, dur­ing spo­radic vis­its to my home­land over the years, I have truly longed to come back here. I feel more at home in Tai­wan than any­where else.

Other ques­tions re­main. What choices do we make in our lives which, over time, re­veal val­ues in­side us which may per­haps sur­prise us?

Back in my for­mer coun­try, I knew over 40 years ago that I am a Demo­crat. I’m that way by sen­ti­ment, but by choice, too. I’m just far more at home with what I be­lieve is the soul of that party than I am with any­thing else I see over there. Part of what de­fines us, in­evitably, is our pol­i­tics. We re­spect peo­ple of dif­fer­ent views, but we know who we are, are at peace with that fact, and con­tem­plate no changes. But pol­i­tics is not au­to­matic. To a de­gree, we choose our stripes.

I am cer­tain my in­volve­ment with stu­dents over the years has deep­ened my heart­felt feel­ings for the peo­ple of Tai­wan. This is why the fu­ture of Tai­wan con­cerns me so much. (And that of Hong Kong as well.) In the Dolezal sit­u­a­tion, we might ask how the peo­ple to whom we give our­selves af­fect our sense of iden­tity. Feel­ings of deep em­pa­thy for peo­ple who are of a dif­fer­ent back­ground may grad­u­ally change us for the bet­ter, and change how we look at our­selves, too.

Since her youth, Ms. Dolezal has made choices in her ed­u­ca­tion, ca­reer, life-style and fo­cus of public ser­vice that have made her ap­pear in the public eye to be of a mem­ber of the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. She grew up in a fam­ily in which her par­ents adopted four chil­dren of color. She mar­ried an African- Amer­i­can man. Per­haps on some deep in­ner level, she all but talked her­self into be­liev­ing that she had bur­rowed into the skin of another race.

She has burned her­self, how­ever, and burned her­self badly in­deed, by cross­ing the bound­aries of the truth. She has stated pub­licly and at times in cir­cum­stances that ben­e­fited her by so do­ing, that she is ma­te­ri­ally, phys­i­cally, if you will, some­one who she is not.

Many from the West or from other ori­gins in Asia call Tai­wan their home to­day. But they do not lie about their ori­gins.

Now all the good that Rachel Dolezal has ac­com­plished in mak­ing Spokane and our world a fairer, gen­tler place for mi­nori­ties lies some­where tossed to the side of the road. Peo­ple are not look­ing at the good she has done. They are look­ing in a fig­u­ra­tive sense at her way of do­ing cos­play. They are con­scious of the ap­pear­ances, not the essence of her life.

How im­por­tant it is to be who we say we are. How im­por­tant not to play games and not to pre­tend. Fa­ther Daniel J. Bauer SVD is a priest and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the English Depart­ment of Fu Jen Catholic Univer­sity.

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