The Labels We Choose

The case of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader who is accused of lying about her race, has generated a lot of news headlines. It touches on a lot of hot-button issues in American culture and I find it a very interesting story. I’ll leave to others to decide whether or not Ms. Dolezal was right or wrong in her actions. It does appear that there is significant evidence that Ms. Dolezal often exaggerated or simply made-up facts about her life to further the identity she created for herself. My interest isn’t so much in passing judgment on Ms. Doezal, but on understanding her journey and how our society reacts to it, and what does it mean for my life?

To me, the fundamental question is whether or not our identity is forever bound to whatever group we happen to born into? Are characteristics of race, ethnicity, gender, and religion permanent fixtures in our lives or can we choose?

A parallel news story currently happening is that of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian who has now adopted a female identity. I believe that one can argue quite persuasively that gender is rooted in biology as evidenced by different X and Y-chromosomes that distinguish male and female. Yet, we know this is not the entire story for some people. Some people, such as Caitlyn Jenner, have a need to live their lives the opposite gender from that found in their biology. I don’t know what it feels like to have this desire, but I believe that the needs of such people should be respected and that they are entitled to pursue whatever life will make them happy. I also know that many would argue, and I would agree, that it would offensive and disrespectful to refer to Caitlyn Jenner as male or use male pronouns in addressing her. The decision of a person who is not genetically female to live as a female is becoming accepted and respected as a true expression of the person and evidence of courage.

Race is not an all or nothing matter and is arguably much more fluid than gender is. Granted there are some genetic racial markers, but we also know that all humans, regardless of their race, share the same set of genes. We also know that many people, including President Obama, have historic and genetic roots in more than a single race. Genetic research has shown that approximately 4% of “white” Americans show evidence of “black” ancestry in their DNA. It is interesting to note, and I believe it’s instructive as to how our society thinks about race, that President Obama is frequently referred to as the first “Black” President, when in reality he is equally “white”. Sadly, “white” both historically, and for many in modern times, in the United States has been given a very narrow definition and more value than it warrants. Our history is that classification by race has been a tool for oppression and disruption of unity among large numbers of people in our society. The rules of race, like those of gender, have been strictly enforced. Those who tried to cross the lines often faced the severest of sanctions. In light of our collective experience with the injustice this has created does this perspective make sense anymore? Why is it offensive for a person to move across racial groups or to choose to live in more than one group? If a child grows up with black siblings or parents, yet has white skin, is that child dishonest to claim a black identity?

For me, this idea of choosing identity and alignment is both interesting and deeply personal. I am a Jew by Choice, meaning that I wasn’t born Jewish, but made a decision to convert more than 20 years ago. Conversion to Judaism is a religious act that I think is most strongly defined by a commitment to cast one’s lot with the Jewish people. In most settings it is accompanied by at least a year of study involving subjects ranging from basic Hebrew, Jewish Holidays, and Jewish History. However, I have found that no matter how much one studies, no matter how religiously observant one becomes, or identified with the Jewish people, there will always be those within the Jewish community who refuse to accept the convert as Jewish. Their arguments usually focus on issues such as the legitimacy of the Rabbi who performed the conversion or the technicality of religious observance of the convert. I have personally encountered this and as a result have actually undergone 3 conversion ceremonies to try to satisfy the predilections of various Rabbis who came to my community. However, it isn’t just Rabbis who create challenges, individual Jews are sometimes less than accepting. For many of these people, Jewish identity and the purpose of Jewish community involves a reconnection to the lives of eastern European grandparents, Lower East Side tenement life, or other cultural memories that I know little about. On the other hand, and much more importantly, I have found that the vast majority of people in the Jewish community have welcomed me with open arms and created for me a sense of family that simply didn’t exist for me before. However, I am often reminded of Yisrael Campbell, who like me has also gone through 3 conversions, in his film about his conversion to Judaism “Circumcise Me” where he asks:

“When did I become Jewish? The first time I converted, the second time, the third time? Have I always been Jewish? Am I still not Jewish?”

I have asked myself all of these questions at various points in my journey, although less and less so these days. For me, the issue of casting my lot with the Jewish people really does resolve the question. So many of the people who I love, who I feel the deepest connections to, who are my family come from the Jewish community that it is impossible for me to imagine that my life and well-being is separate from theirs. But my world isn’t limited to the Jewish community. I have relatives and deep friendships with people who are not Jewish. It is not an either-or question for me. I cannot operate in a world of “them and “us”. I believe that Father Gregory Boyle said it best when he said: “There is no ‘them’ and ‘us”, there is only us”.

The other issue that remains outstanding in this matter is that of truth and at what point, if ever, does truth become outright lies? I’m currently reading a book called “Pioneer Gild: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder”. The book tells that actual story behind the publication of the “Little House on the Prairie” series of books, which were published as fiction. Of relevance to this discussion is how Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, took liberties in her writing biographies of famous Americans such as Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Jack London. In her writing it is said that she often made up facts and events to further the creation of an image of the person and to make the stories more interesting. Her argument was that she wasn’t lying, but that she was using fiction to create a larger truth. Not everyone agreed with Rose Wilder Lane’s use of fiction to create truth and it is said that she was nearly sued by the widows of Jack London and Charlie Chaplain. However, this practice is fairly commonplace in our culture. The American history we teach in our public schools is not the full and complete history of our nation. I would argue that we’ve carefully selected pieces of truth that support a given narrative of our history. However, it’s a narrative that other pieces of truth show is, at best, not completely truthful and, at worst, completely dishonest.

I think that most of us create narratives for our lives that, while not dishonest, they probably don’t follow the exact letter of our own historical truth. It’s always interesting to me to listen to family members recount past events and hear the often wildly different ways in which they remember the past and tell their collective stories. Are we all liars? Perhaps to some degree, but I think it’s more than willful dishonesty. I think that to be truly honest is to be vulnerable in ways that frightens most of us and may even be something that human beings are not truly capable of. Instead, we create narratives of our lives that we share as our truth, but which maintain a degree of conformity with how we see ourselves and how we wish others to perceive us. It is how we maintain a sense of self. Was Caitlyn Jenner being dishonest while living as a man, or is she being dishonest, albeit for a necessary purpose, now that she’s living as a woman? On the other hand, is she now growing into her own truth?

I guess that’s where I would leave the matter of Rachel Dolezal. She cast her lot with a people she identified with and sought to share their experience. She saw the black community as her people and their struggle for justice, respect, and dignity as her struggle. She created in her mind a narrative of her life that, at least to her, became her truth. Was she who she said she was? Not completely, but maybe she was in the ways that really matter. Perhaps, there is a truth within her experience in that the distinctions don’t really matter and that it’s not black or white, but just us human-beings together on a small planet trying to survive.