This last week-and-a-half, I’ve been pondering the mystery that is Rachel Dolezal, the President of the Spokane-Washington NAACP chapter, a woman who presented herself to be African-American but who was born very much caucasian. I read the news articles and thought, “That was stupid. She could have just been a white ‘sympathizer’ and still become the chapter president. Attention whore.” Thursday morning, I woke up to the tragic news of the Charleston terrorist attack on Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. For me, these two stories converged in a very unsettling, but ultimately cathartic way. Let me explain.
I am Afro-Peruvian. By birth. But I don’t speak much Spanish at all. I am also Canadian. By adoption. My parents are white. My adoptive parents. This week, I learned I’m transracial. Who knew? I live in North Carolina with my white husband and our white-but-tans-really-well daughter. A year ago, I found myself grappling with my own identity for the sake of my daughter; today, I’m doing it for myself.
I was adopted when I was only 5-months-old but, since before I can remember, I’ve had to explain myself. Who are these people? Are you black? Where are you from? Why can’t you dance (yeah, we’ll get to that)? When I was two- or three-years-old, my father and older brother took me out for lunch. Later that night, the police arrived at our door and demanded to see me. Someone had seen us, assumed I was being abducted, followed us home, and called the police. It was late by the time the police arrived, so my parents got me out of bed to explain to the nice officers that this is my family, this is my home, I am in no danger. Another time, again, when I was very young, my mom and older sister took me to Michigan to go shopping (a monthly occurrence). On our way back, we were pulled in and questioned at the border because someone had seen us in the mall, followed us out to the car, saw the Ontario license plate, assumed two white women were abducting a little black girl from Detroit, and called the border. Again, I explained myself to the nice officers. The question, “Do you know these people? How are they related to you?” was very common during border crossings, until I was about sixteen. I didn’t begrudge the border patrol officers, they were just doing their job, right?
In kindergarten, when my mom would drop me off at or pick me up from school, my friends would look at me, then look at my mom, and then ask, in bewilderment, “Are you Barbara’s mom?” She would explain, yes, she was, and that she adopted me. That answer usually satisfied their tiny, curious brains, and they went on with life. It wasn’t until I started moving schools, around age nine, when the questions were directed to me. Things started to get interesting. “Where are you from?” Peru. “Where’s that?” South America. “Have you seen snow before?” Yes, I’ve lived here my whole life.
Right around grade 6, there started to be expectations of me that I didn’t understand. “You should totally date [insert other minority student’s name]!” But… we have nothing in common. “Who’s your favorite rapper?” I don’t listen to much rap. In high school, I was affectionately given the nickname “Whitey” because I was “the whitest black person [they’d] ever met!” I laughed and went with it for four years, because the person who gave it to me was my friend, and everyone wants a nickname, right? “You’re black, why can’t you dance?” Well, I’m actually Peruvian… but I guess I never learned? My Peruvian-ness was a distinction I often made. It almost became a defensive correction, an explanation as to why I didn’t fit their perception of blackness, and nobody knew what to expect of a Peruvian, so it was safe.
Eventually, though, that defensiveness made me start to resent my identity. Every teenager wants to transform into some idealistic version of themselves, because many haven’t found themselves yet, and that’s ok. I assumed I was just angsty. In drama class, our teacher once asked us to pick a name that we would change our own to, if we could, and to explain why. I chose Maria. My explanation? “It’s kind of Spanish, and Barbara is an old, white woman’s name”. Everyone laughed. It was the reaction I was looking for, but also came from a place of inner turmoil. Technically, I WAS named after an old, white woman. My adoptive father was white, British-Canadian, emigrated in the 70s, his favorite late-Aunt’s name was Barbara, and I was her namesake. But I resented my name, so I started going by Barb, or Babs. This infuriated my parents because it wasn’t the name they gave me, but it came to be my name, how I introduced myself. Rarely does anyone call me Barbara anymore, and I’m fine with that.
By the end of my highschool years, I had decided, firmly, that I was going to learn Spanish, and that I was NOT black. From then on, I was Peruvian and started calling my father “Papi”. My white, British-Canadian father. People seemed to be sorely disappointed when they assumed I was black and were corrected by my actions and accent (or rather, my lack of Ebonics). I had to set the story straight, their disappointment and confusion was too hard on me. I graduated, and went away to University. I remember wandering the campus on my first morning there, with my latte and my new messenger bag. I walked through the quad, where they had tables for the various school societies set up. A guy waved me down. “Hey,” he yelled, “We need strong, independent young, black women like you to join our Black Student Alliance!” I stopped and stammered, “I… I’m not really… I’m actually… maybe another time.” I can’t mislead him, I’m not black. I turned and walked away.
It really did help being in a much more diverse setting; my hometown and the surrounding area was primarily white. I felt like I’d finally stepped out of my little bubble and into the real world. With more diversity and education, came a broader knowledge of the world, and I began to meet people who had actually heard of Peru. Some who had even been there! I was born in Lima, the capital city, and I was meeting people who could point it out on a map! It was exhilarating until the first time I heard, “You’re Peruvian? Really? You don’t look like the average Peruvian. They’re generally much shorter, with straighter hair, and whiter.” It was true. I didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t look like the “average” Peruvian. Once again, I didn’t fit into the box. It wasn’t until my biological family found me, five years ago, that I learned of a sub-culture called Afro-Peruvian. They were born of the African slaves Pizzaro brought over (c. 1530), mixing with the Spaniards who stole them from their homes. They have a history, they have a beautiful culture (food, music, dance), albeit, a culture founded in a disturbingly familiar fashion. The pictures of Peruvians that you see in National Geographic, those are the Andean peoples. The country is as diverse as America, if not more. I am one of them, and I’m learning to be proud of that, but I didn’t grow up with their culture and I don’t speak their language. In other words, I still can’t identify with them. I don’t even live in their country anymore.
It wasn’t until I saw everything Rachel Dolezal was accused of lying about that it really hit me; I’ve done many of those things. It was never in an attempt to deceive anyone, it was mostly just out of sheer and utter confusion. Filling out forms at the doctor’s office or for school enrollment was a nightmare. I still struggle with trying to fill in the right boxes when it comes to “race” and “ethnicity”.
Black/African American (non-hispanic)
Asian or Pacific Islander
American Indian/Alaskan Native (in the US)
If they’re asking about the color of my skin, I have to say “Black/African American”, even though I’m not of any recent African descent (it was the 1500s, nobody defines themselves by lineage that far back). If they’re asking about my place of origin, I have to say Hispanic/Latino, even though those are ethnic, not racial, categories. If they’re asking about my ethnicity, as in, the culture with which I identify, I have to say “White non-hispanic”. Fuck. This is confusing. I’ll just put “other”.
Moving to the South, I experienced a shift, and suddenly, I was confusing and disappointing a whole new group of people; black people. “Did you hear? Don Cornelius died today. It’s a sad day, ain’t it?” If someone’s dead, yeah, probably, but who is Don Cornelius? My face is giving it away. “You don’t know Don Cornelius? Remember the host of the old Soul Trains?” Blank stare. “You never watched the reruns? Girl, where did you live, under a rock?” Deflated. I’m sorry (my Canadian-ness always won).
When we first moved to town, our downstairs neighbor came to greet me and introduce herself. She was a sweet, tiny, old black woman. “Have you found a church yet?” She asked me. I’m not a person of faith, so I wasn’t really looking for one. “No, I…” She jumped in. “Well you can come to mine! We have a great choir, and a strong black community, and we love new people! Don’t worry, your husband can come too.” Thank you? I could have attended, solely for the community aspect, and maybe I should have, but I wasn’t really looking to be the odd person out again, so I didn’t.
Generally, casual conversation would come to a fast, awkward ending, and we’d part ways. To be totally honest, sometimes it was easier to just lie. “Did you hear? Hemsley died!” Who? “Sherman Hemsley!” Oh! Yeah! I heard! It’s awful, isn’t it? “It just broke my heart. He was so funny.” Keep nodding, rack your brain. “The Jeffersons was my favorite show growing up!” OH! You… uhhh… know the theme song! Be cool, dammit! Well… I guess he’s movin’ on up. “Movin’ on up…” To the East side. Yay, we’re chatting and you’re happy and now we’re singing! I never lied about my past or my family, because it usually didn’t get that far and if it did, I told the truth. My small, day-to-day fibs made people happy and they didn’t look at me funny. I was… black enough.
There is another small cohort that is actually relieved when I begin speaking, or explain my background. The phrase, “I like you, you’re not really black,” is surprisingly common and makes me the angriest of all of them. I breathe. “Oh? What do you mean by that?” This is where the [sometimes] subconscious racism rears its ugly head. “Well, you know, you talk… more professionally.” So, you’re pleased with my lack of Ebonics? That’s one. Go on. “You know, you keep your yard nice. You don’t put couches and workout equipment on your lawn!” Seriously? Do you hear yourself? That’s two. “And you never seem to lose your cool. You carry yourself well and you don’t go around screaming and hitting people.” Strike three! Thank you for those backhanded, racist compliments. You are officially a bigot, whether you realize it or are admitting it or not. No, I’m not your skewed perception of black.
That brings us to Thursday, and the brutal attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston the night before. There was no doubt that it was a crime fueled by hatred. I followed the story all day. I cried. Those poor people. I can’t imagine living through what they’ve lived through, only to die in their place of worship on a quiet, Wednesday night. I can’t imagine. I haven’t lived through what they’ve lived through. But I look like them, and that could easily be me. I look like them. That killer, that monster, that terrorist… they found him an hour from my home. He believes that apartheid-style genocide will… give him back his country? He confessed to all nine killings and told authorities that he “wanted to start a race war”. There’s that word again, “race”. It’s his prejudice-filled, distorted view of black culture that he hates. The ethnicity. He sat in that church with those victims for an hour, he heard them speak, he likely heard their faith and love, and he said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” And then he proceeded to execute six elderly women and three men. There is no logic in that. There is only hate. He’s not looking for a race war, he wants America to be ethnically cleansed. It’s white supremacy.
The question that keeps going through my mind is: if I was in that room with those people, in that moment, and I had explained that I am not “black”, I’m an Afro-Peruvian Canadian living in the US and I was raised by WASPs, would he have let me go? The more sickening, terrifying question is, would I have wanted him to? You never know what a person will do when faced with imminent death, and I can thankfully say I never have been, but I’d like to think that I wouldn’t desert an entire race/ethnicity just so that I can make the distinction of my own race/ethnicity known, and to spare my own life. That suggests that my life is worth more because of the distinction, and it’s not. Without having a gun to my head, I can say confidently that I wouldn’t care about my differences in that moment, because all lives matter, and I couldn’t throw a whole culture under the bus to save my own skin. As a survivor, I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself. With a gun to my head… I’d probably be thinking about my husband, and my daughter, and my unborn daughter, and I do whatever it took to stay with them.
Rachel Dolezal tans her skin and gets a weave to appear to be at least part black. She attended an historically black college and earned her Masters in fine arts. She was briefly the president of the Spokane NAACP chapter. She is, biologically, 100% caucasian. I don’t care that she refers to some black man as her father; to me, it doesn’t seem any different than adoption or remarriage with children, you can choose your family. I don’t care that she calls her adopted brother her “son”. She has full custody of him as a parental figure, and as long as he sees it that way too, who’s to judge? She’s a big civil rights activist and she’s done a lot of work for the African American community. Kudos. I really, honestly don’t give a flying fuck whether she was born in a teepee or not. But she crossed an unforgivable line when she lied about hate crimes that were perpetrated against her. Victimizing herself for public gain is bad enough, but trying to fabricate her own racial plight, in the midst of real and sometimes fatal hate crimes that are occurring every single day? No. Unacceptable. Inexplicable. Just downright unfuckingbelieveable. That kind of behavior doesn’t help anything at all.
There is real hate, and violence, and fear that drives prejudice and bigotry in this country, and it needs to end. We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time (as nations go), but we’re far from done. I’m saying “we” because, as long as I live here, I have to be invested in this country’s future, whether I’m a citizen or not. The old adage “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, til your good is better, and your better’s best” keeps rolling through my mind. It’s spunky! It’s motivating! It’s “let’s do this, team”! It’s… kindergarten, America. If that’s the only advice I can give you, it’s high time you grew up.