In a world where we have documentaries following a person who claims to be “transracial” I find it particularly difficult to navigate difficult topics such as cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. This difficulty presents itself at a time that couldn’t be more relevant – mental health awareness month. Trying to unravel and dissect my own identity while also trying to defend it is very emotionally and mentally exhausting, but there is no better time than now to have this discussion.
I self identify as afro-latinx. To me this label encapsulates both my African American lineage, as well as my Mexican American and Latin American heritage, while also recognizing my identity as a gender non-conforming person. I was raised by my mother and grandmother, who are both Mexican American, with the occasional weekend trips to see my father, who is African American I was always surrounded by family members who are from various countries in Latin America. I attended elementary school in a middle class neighborhood with a population of mainly white and hispanic students.
When I was younger, I was what most people called “color-blind.” I didn’t see race, I just thought we were all equal. I didn’t really start recognizing racial divides until middle school. It wasn’t something I let linger in my mind until I started my activist work in the second semester of my freshman year. The organizations I started to work with said their approach to activism was an intersectional approach, meaning not looking at issues from a single viewpoint, but looking at all the communities these issues impact. For example, considering the issue of immigration from the viewpoints of people of color (POC), the LGBTQ+ community, disabled persons, and so forth.
As an active advocate for marginalized communities, issues such as racism are something that just remain in the back of my head. It’s not like an annoying alarm clock tone that’s constantly blaring, but it’s more like a soft, consistent beeping noise that occurs throughout the day.
On Friday, April 27, 2018 Netflix started streaming a new documentary titled “The Rachel Divide.” Directed by Laura Brownson, it gives viewers insight on the life of a controversial, self proclaimed “transracial,” woman: Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal is most notably known for her appearance in an interview with a local Spokane journalist in which she was asked if she was African American or not. She did not respond.
I began watching this documentary the night it premiered, remembering that I had heard about this earlier in my life in the news but never really took the time to hear the full story. I couldn’t even get 30 minutes into the film without becoming infuriated by some of the claims Dolezal made. For example, Dolezal mentions that she tries to live a private life so it’s best for her sons, yet she made detailed posts about when and where she was going to pick up her oldest son from the airport. Upon picking him up, Dolezal emoted feelings of anger because people were staring at her. She then took back to social media to make a post about how her encounter earlier in the day had upset her. Critics immediately took to attacking Dolezal in the comments and she proceeded to read them rather than disregarding the remarks made.
This upset me because she brought the attention upon herself (which she still does today), much like how she did in the interview with the Spokane journalist. If Dolezal answered the simple yes or no question she wouldn’t have to deal with this issue four years later.
Despite my anger, the film really began to make me pose questions to both myself and my peers such: What does it mean to be black? How do we differentiate cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?
Brownson, the film’s director, told Vogue, “I don’t think that Rachel needs to change in order for us to have a meaningful conversation about some of the issues that she raises. Rachel is the entry point.” This had only made me wonder more: What can I concur about blackness? What does it mean, personally, to be black after learning about a caucasian person who has tried to squeeze herself into a community that she has been, and still is being, rejected from?
As a journalist I tried to come at this from a non-bias standpoint. When I really sat and thought about it I realized I cannot come at it from a non-bias standpoint because the community she is trying to fit into is a community that I am a part of.
Ultimately I cannot concur anything about blackness and what it means to be black because there are still so many questions that I have and years worth of research to do. The concept of race itself is so multifaceted much like other identities. But when you think about what it means to be a person, having a makeup of identities that are multifaceted is what makes people, people. Whether that identity be your race, religion, LGBTQ+ identification, socioeconomic status, etc. they are what make you who you are. Nobody can ever take all or one of those away from you. You also cannot pick and choose who you are at specific times, you and the identities you carry are never left behind. I find this best summed up in a quote from one of my favorite advocates, Audre Lorde:
“Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black.”