Keenan: City's African-American historian reflects on controversy around ex-NAACP leader
For such a seemingly black and white issue, the reaction to Rachel Dolezal's stepping down as president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP, has been anything but.
The story of the 37-year old academic and activist who represented herself (aided by tanning and perms) as African-American for many years only to have her Montana parents out her as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian has sparked such visceral and wide-ranging opinions, it's enough to make your head spin.
Celebrity-wise, the reaction has ranged from Jon Stewart: "You might also ask, if being black is such a sweet deal, why are millions of white people ignoring this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?" NBA's Kareem Abdul Jabar's imploring: "Let Rachel Dolezal be as black as she wants to be." Former talk-show host Montel Williams: "Not sure whether to be flattered, creeped out or just laugh." To comedian Chris Rock: "Why would anyone in their right mind want to be black?"
Certainly those who are offended by Dolezal's "misrepresentation" argue that she assumed a racial identity and then used it to gain prominence without suffering the ugly history of American racism.
In her first interviews since stepping down from her NAACP post, Dolezal stood her ground Tuesday, stating: "I identify as black." When Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show asked: "When did you start deceiving people?" Dolezal replied: "I do take exception to that, because it's a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of 'Are you black or white?' "
To sort out the many complexities, we sought out the sage wisdom of Olayami Dabls, fine artist, museum curator, historian and founder of DABLS African Bead Museum on Grand River in Detroit. Dabls has lectured all over the world on African culture and African-American history.
At first glance, Dabls said he was concerned that so much attention was focused on "the superficiality of one's skin color.
"Why is this such an issue at this point in time?" he said. "We have all kinds of documented history where Europeans act like they were Africans and Africans acting like they were European. Why not deal with something of relevance as opposed to attacking one woman who sympathies apparently lie with African people? Our differences are from 500 years of misinformation and miseducation. The truth is that we are more alike than we could ever be different. The reality is that we are one people."
Strolling through his outdoor installations, Dabls can't help but point to parallel themes in his art that depicts the clash between European and African culture and the Dolezal controversy.
Imbuing rusted metal, iron, rocks, wood and broken pieces of mirrors with his own brand of symbolism, Dabls said the installation titled "Teaching Rocks How To Rust" could be Dolezal's narrative.
"The oppressed spend a lot of time mimicking the oppressor, but the oppressor mimics the oppressed more than you could ever imagine," he said. "If you're not careful, you may be just arguing against your own points of view unless you step outside and look at yourself."
While it may difficult for the untrained eye to understand Dabls' interpretation, he said Dolezal should be commended rather than condemned.
"Here is one woman who steps away from privilege and becomes a part of the oppressed that have no entitlement," he said. "The oppressed are more upset than need be. How are we going to come together as one when we attack someone for having a passion for being African, or for that matter, European? We are all one people."
Dabls also said he firmly believes that race is a social construct, a man-made myth invented to justify discrimination.
"This concept of race is about as phony as a three dollar bill," he said. "We have different cultures, not different races. If we focus on different cultures, then we can get somewhere. But, if you deal with emotion and talk about race, the ideas of superiority and entitlement just perpetuate themselves. We can't continue to let the old ideas take on new energy."
Turns out Dabls' take on racism is very similar to what Dolezal said her son (she has a biological 13-year-old son from a former marriage to a black man). In the "Today" show interview Tuesday morning, Dolezal said: "One of my sons said to me, 'Mom, racially you're human, but culturally you're black.' "