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Can we have some compassion for Rachel Dolezal?

Note: this post has been edited to remove all mention of transgender as comparison, which will make some comments on the Facebook thread look out of place, as it seriously deflected from my main point. Rachel went through a lot of trauma as a child and young woman and we need to look at this through a child development and psychological point of view separately from the racial transgressions, even though they of course are all intertwined. This blog exists because in most cases I think that we can look at someone’s childhood and see clearly why a person has made the poor choices they have. I think this case illustrates this idea really well. The author of one of my favourite books on this topic of the importance of childhood, Why Love Matters, admits herself that “I was surprised at how little scientists talked to each other across disciplines and how rarely they put their work in the context of the bigger picture.” This is what I’m trying to do.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, Rachel Dolezal has spent much of her life living as a black woman, going to Howard University, working for civil rights and eventually becoming president of NAACP in Spokane. She’s just been publicly “outed” by her white parents who implore her to just “tell the truth.” Black people are angry, trans people are angry, feminists are angry. Everyone is so angry about this and I just want to know why we’re still deciding for other people who they are? For all the campaigning many of us do for compassion and acceptance, where’s the compassion and acceptance for Rachel Dolezal?

I see a woman who was born to fundamentalist christian parents who she says were abusive. They of course deny it, but who admits to being abusive? Parents who believe “spare the rod and spoil the child” never consider it abuse. In 2007 Rachel created an exhibit on the rights of the child, saying “the biggest thing for me is changing the adult perspective, it’s not the children who are causing the maltreatment.” Call me crazy but I believe she believes she was maltreated. And it doesn’t seem much of a stretch; it takes less than physical contact for me to see child abuse.

Her parents talk about the multi-cultural circle of friends and acquaintances they spent time with. It’s not hard to see that a small child growing up in an abusive household might cling to the people she knows who treat her with respect. A small child cannot understand violent discipline, parental warmth does not cancel out the negative affects of violence like spanking. Instead it causes confusion and further anxiety. So the foundation for not identifying with her parents was being set very early on.

She has an older biological brother who is facing criminal charges for sexual abuse of a small black child of 6 or 7 when he was in his mid twenties. He doesn’t admit to this, but it has split the family. When Rachel was a teenager, her parents adopted three black boys and one black girl. In fundamentalist homeschooling families like hers, I’ve read, its not uncommon to do so. Unfortunately, its also not uncommon to treat these children deplorably. Its common to treat them very differently from the white biological children. Sometimes they are even killed.  Its alleged that Rachel and her biological brother were forced to beat their adoptive brothers with plumbing line. One of those boys Izaiah, was later adopted by Rachel some 15 years later, stating concern for his physical safety as a reason, and she now obviously considers him her son.

Her parents publicly revealed her birth identity on her son’s birthday, and according to Rachel, close to an important point in a civil court case between them. They have said, ” This is an issue not just of identity, but also of integrity — and so as much as we are hurt as parents, we are also very alarmed at the level of dishonesty that Rachel is exhibiting.” It looks to me like its all about them, they aren’t concerned about their daughter, just whether she does as they say. How very authoritarian of them. They say she has a “history of seeking to reinvent reality” but they don’t stop to wonder why this might be.

The young girl they adopted, Esther, is also not talking to their parents and has written in her blog:

It amazes me how fast people are willing to tear down someone who has worked very hard to get where they are. It amazes me how, after all these years, and the civil rights movement, it still comes down to what color someone is. It amazes me how far people will go to tear down someone’s feeling of security. How someone will use anyone they can to tear someone down… They say leaders can’t have secrets. That leaders can’t have private lives with their families. That if there is one miscommunication, then nothing is true. Some things can’t be understood I guess. But speaking of fakeness, think about the accusers. You think they don’t have secrets?

So it’s an understatement to say you can begin to see a good amount of dysfunction in this family and in Rachel’s childhood.

Rachel says she began to identify as black when she was a small child; her parents say no way. “That’s false; that did not happen. She has never done anything like that as a child, though she was always attracted to black people. We had friends from Nigeria and different places and African American friends that we had in our circle, and she was used to relating to people of diversity.” These are the type of super conservative parents who don’t understand or even believe in emotional health, never mind protect it in their children. It’s no wonder the family is in shambles.

This is why we must parent gently. We must be attentive, supportive and accepting, rather than demanding, judgmental and punitive.

According to the Washington Post, “Carolyn Yoon, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, says she doesn’t ‘see what the big controversy is’ regarding Dolezal’s claim to identify as a black person.

‘That’s a reasonable view in my book,’ Yoon said. ‘Identity is highly malleable and is a function of what she comes in contact with, what she spends her time doing, is interested in and motivated by. Over time that will change your brain.’ ”

Let me be clear, I’m not excusing all of her actions. She has made mistakes. It’s not hard to look at her background though and see why a sensitive girl would dissociate from her biological family and by extension white people. I don’t believe she woke up one day and “decided to be black.” Instead, she probably had huge amounts of guilt for beating her brothers as she was forced to, she probably hated herself for who she was and the family she belonged to. She set out to do good in the world and slowly found herself in a situation where people were calling her black and she wasn’t correcting them. Then she started to believe it. Anyone who has felt some pressure to be someone they are not will understand the pain it causes. That’s all we need to know to have compassion for someone in a situation we don’t understand. You don’t have to have gone through the trauma she did to understand that.

Personally, I’m quite disappointed in the left’s reaction to this woman. It has not been one of compassion and acceptance but of suspicion, anger and blame. We act like enlightened, socially conscious individuals but still bristle at the first sight of something we don’t understand, expecting the worst. We still want to categorize people and we still really only accept the boxes we know about. They are becoming ever smaller boxes, but it takes a story like Rachel Dolezals to show how really we haven’t come that far at all.

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