We get to choose a lot in life, but we cannot choose our parents. What we can choose, however, is our own narrative, and that is exactly what I, like Rachel Dolezal, have done, although I didn't take it to such an extreme.
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Dolezal has posed as a black woman for around a decade. She permed her hair, darkened her skin and played the role of the racial underdog with great tenacity, teaching Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University and leading the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP. All this backfired when her parents publicly said she is "Caucasian by birth."
I cannot condone the lies Dolezal told in order to perpetuate her story – having a black man pose as her father, presenting her chemically acquired curls as her "natural" look, passing off one of her black adopted brothers as her son. And yet, there is something about Dolezal's fierce desire to construct her own narrative, even as it flies in the face of the facts, that I can relate to.
I, too, have constructed my own narrative over the years. My parents are both Jewish, and I must have been aware of this, even as a child, but I cannot remember ever labelling myself as a Jew in those early days. Being Jewish seemed to me to have very little to do with who I was.
Brought up in northern England, I went to an Anglican girls school and became well acquainted with all things Christian, including praying in school on the polished wood floor at morning assemblies and taking part in Christian activities, such as nativity plays and Easter festivities. I recall a Christmas tree in our living room during the holiday season and a Christmas stocking stuffed with goodies that appeared at the foot of my bed on Christmas morning. I was comfortable with this in the same way that Rachel Dolezal was comfortable aligning herself with her black siblings, whom her parents adopted when she was a teenager. Being Jewish was not something I identified with on any level.
One day, out of the blue as far as I can remember, I was told that I must attend Jewish prayers every morning in the school library. Christian assembly was out of bounds for me. I hated this. I was also taken out of mainstream scripture lessons, in which the New Testament was taught. From that time on, I was made to sit out in the hallway with a copy of the Old Testament in my lap. As I stood in the doorway of the library on weekday mornings, I could hear the Lord’s Prayer being sung by hundreds of schoolgirls, their voices rising and falling. I felt out of place. Suddenly I knew what it was like to be in the minority.
At the age of 16, after a family tragedy, my parents tapped further into their Jewish roots and packed me off to Israel. They joined me several months later. As a de jure Jew, I was automatically accepted by the State of Israel, receiving the many benefits given to Jewish people who immigrate here. Converts to Judaism, on the other hand, those who are not Jewish by birth, are often forced into a labyrinth of bureaucracy in order to prove their Jewishness. Their authenticity is questioned every step of the way. But though the Israeli authorities did not question my Jewishness – my heritage saw to that – for many years I had a problem identifying myself as Jewish.
I refused to learn Hebrew, resented the Jewish holidays that are so prevalent in Israel and subsequently denied myself the luxury of really belonging. Today, I acknowledge my Jewishness but I also spend time each week at the church of Beit Jamal near my home in the Ella Valley. I feel comfortable there. I enjoy the hymns that are still so familiar to me, the quiet orderliness of church life, the incense that fills the air.
For me, identity is more about the family I have built, about emotional belonging and the ability to empathize with others who share this complicated land. We are all entitled to our own feelings about our heritage, but this does not give us the right to distort the facts. Rather, we should acknowledge them and air our opinions honestly.
It seems clear that Rachel Dolezal lied about her roots and went to extremes to perpetuate that lie. She has, however, been a strong and loyal proponent of the rights of people of color, and I would suggest she mistakenly felt she could not influence the American public without redefining herself. I am certainly not applauding her years of deceit, but I do understand the temptation of assuming the heritage of another.
Joanna Chen has written for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and her column, The View From Here, appears in The Los Angeles Review of Books. She blogs at www.joannachen.com.