Eric Frazier

Here’s to you, Rachel Dolezal

Born white, Rachel Dolezal now self-identifies as black.
Born white, Rachel Dolezal now self-identifies as black. AP

I’m not mad at Rachel Dolezal.

Am I fascinated by her belief that one can essentially “convert” to another race, like some sort of cultural religion? Yes.

Do I think her maze of lies cries out for quality time on a psychologist’s couch? Yep.

But I’m not mad at her. True, she does seem a bit of a racial opportunist, as evidenced by her willingness to identify as white when filing a reverse-racism lawsuit against historically black Howard University.

Even so, I’d say the Rachel Dolezal soap opera is the most oddly enlightening development in years concerning the politics of racial identity.

Why? Because it’s provoking that long-overdue national conversation on race that everybody keeps talking about, but no one seems to know how to start.

We mostly talk about – OK, fight over – the end product of our conflicted racial history. We exhaust ourselves debating whether America has done enough to atone for slavery and segregation.

Meanwhile, we ignore the underlying question Dolezal forces us to confront: What exactly is racial identity, anyway?

Since no lab test can decipher whether a person is black or white, skin color holds no more biological or scientific significance than eye color or hair color or any other random trait a parent might pass along to a child.

It doesn’t determine whether you’ll be rich or poor. Or if you’re more or less likely to commit crime. Or be great at calculus.

And yet, we’ve given racial identity such heavy significance that when a troubled white woman firmly states that she is black because she identifies as black, America’s collective head explodes.

How did we come to choose something as random as skin color to be our definitive, all-purpose social stratification tool?

Look back to the dawn of this nation, when colonial Virginians in our first settlement struggled to make indentured black and white servants a reliable form of labor.

In 1676, poor disaffected whites and blacks banded together and burned Jamestown to the ground. Bacon’s Rebellion showed the ruling class it needed a simpler way.

What could be simpler than sorting by skin color? Whites must be free, blacks must be slaves. And as social under-girding for this purely economic arrangement, we’ll just decree that blacks also happen to be subhuman.

The ramifications of that decision still echo today. It helps explain why socioeconomic status in this country remains so heavily correlated to race. And why we have the resulting racial stereotypes. And why we have an identifiable black culture, forged in the racial apart-ness dictated by slavery and Jim Crow.

And it’s why the intellectual vanguard of that culture rises, enraged, when a modern white woman decides she admires its resilience and beauty so much that she believes she can just, what the heck, be black, too.

Sure, I have a problem with the dishonesty. But Dolezal’s stance prompts us to reflect on what makes us who we are, and forces us to question our own preconceptions about racial identity.

You couldn’t hear her say she identifies as black and not wonder: Hey, is that allowed? My next thought was, ‘Of course not,’ quickly followed by, ‘Well, why not? Who says?’”

The question of identity gives us a new starting point for a discussion on race. Instead of dividing us, it brings us all under the same human umbrella. Aren’t we all just trying to figure out who we are and what we’re doing here?

Rachel Dolezal, the racial tourist with the massive mommy-daddy issues, wrongly clothed her quest in a gigantic lie.

But her lie is exposing a much bigger truth, and that’s that we have never, as a collective people, confronted the fact that our current construction of racial identity is the product of a discrete economic choice made four centuries ago.

I’ll repeat that: A choice. When we truly understand that, we can give more than lip service to the idea that we’re all created equal. We can see depressing statistics about black men and crime and understand that’s a function of poverty and bad choices, not race.

We can work together toward the best solutions, unmoved by the tainted passions that rise when you believe people hate you unreasonably, or when you believe people who aren’t like you are ruining your country.

That’s the hole we’re stuck in today when it comes to race relations. But the discussions I’m hearing around this story have made me hopeful we can begin the climb out.

I’ll readily confess that I have no idea where this conversation goes from here.

But I’m glad Rachel Dolezal, in her own odd way, got it started.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com; @Ericfraz on Twitter

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