The first person I thought of when I heard the controversy about Spokane, Washington, NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal's racial heritage was writer, University of Richmond professor and 2007 Pollak Prize honoree Laura Browder. She wrote the book on such matters: Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
I had read Browder's intriguing examination of a group that, for various and complicated reasons, often went to great lengths to persuade the world that they were something they were not.
People don't like to be fooled, nor are they fond of being reminded of how this came to pass. With so much in the world that appears fake and meretricious, Dolezal's a person who, apparently using a false identity to advance herself, is outed by her own parents in the full glare of every broadcast outlet as not being what she's representing herself to be. Now the media maelstrom is in full screaming dudgeon — at least for the next few news cycles. But Browder provided me with some context.
She observed in an email reply that a few years ago, author Margaret Jones (actually Margaret Seltzer), who made up her Love and Consequences “memoir” about growing up in gang-plagued South-Central Los Angeles, got her comeuppance from her sister, who read a New York Times profile on Jones in the Home section that highlighted her home’s Native American décor. Browder says, “She was not actually a Native American who had grown up in an African-American foster home in South Central, but an upper-middle class Jewish girl from the Los Angeles suburbs.
“And going back almost a century," Browder continues, "Leah Morton [a pseudonym for Elizabeth Stern] the author of I Am A Woman and a Jew, her acclaimed 1920s memoir of growing up as a Jewish immigrant, was exposed by her son in a competing memoir, in which he pointed out that his mom was actually an American-born illegitimate child of Protestants who was brought up in a Jewish foster family, in which the father raped her and then forced her to get an illegal abortion at age 14. Interestingly, I Am a Woman and a Jew opens with the narrator gazing down at the face of her dead Jewish father. So there is a tradition of this.”
What, if anything, can we make of this current scandal?
Browder says it seems that Dolezal may have been attempting to “connect to the suffering she associated with being black in America — hence all of those reports to the police of racist harassment. In Europe and Australia, there are examples of fake Holocaust memoirs by writers who want to connect to the suffering of Jews in concentration camps.”
Dolezal is also an artist and art educator. It would be interesting if, as my partner-in-art, Amie Oliver, suggested, that this is one long performance art piece – which it may yet turn into — whether she does it or somebody fictionalizes her supposed fiction as a stage piece.
Browder’s take is that ethnic impersonators are often “looking for a label to give meaning to the psychic pain they experience in daily life — and want to be honored for their suffering.”
Since it’s happened before, more than likely, it’ll happen again. In the meantime, Facebook will be ablaze in debates about race and ethnicity. Maybe some good will come out of it.