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Give Rachel Dolezal a pass for trying to pass the color line

Writer Allan Ripp.

Writer Allan Ripp. Photo Credit: Allan Ripp

The uproar over Rachel Dolezal, forced to resign as president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, because of her apparent history of passing as an African-American, casts a harsh light on racial posturing.

"I identify as black," she told NBC's Matt Lauer last week. "As a child, I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of peach crayon, with black curly hair. That was how I was portraying myself."

Dolezal has been vilified as a sepia-faced fraud, and based on news reports, she seems to have misrepresented her racial identity. Even if her empathy was in the right place -- by all accounts she was a forceful activist who energized her local chapter -- she crossed the unspoken line in crossing over.

For me, the incident is a reminder of my own feeble attempts as a teenage black wannabe in Pittsburgh in the early 1970s. Back then, as an ardent jazz fan who idolized slick NBA players like Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, I was enamored with all things black. I developed crushes on black girls and imagined my future as a hip jazz pianist. I even gave myself a black-sounding, alter-ego stage name Innis McCoy Crosby.

Unlike Dolezal, who had to compensate for her straight blonde hair by using elaborate weaves and braids, I was able to grow my natural curls and shocked my mother by sticking a spiky cake cutter in my back pocket as if it were an Afro pick.

I'm certain part of my infatuation was in reaction to my mom, who was then a budding Zionist. Everything in her world revolved around Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War -- she went on archaeological digs in the Negev desert and found a new group of sabra friends. She couldn't just have a tomato and cucumber salad -- it had to be an Israeli salad. And so, I went looking for alternate communities and touchstones with which to identify.

But I was genuinely drawn to black people -- their looks, their jive vernacular, their poise and their culture. They were simply much cooler than me and my bell bottoms-wearing friends. So much so that when a group of students formed the "Organization of Black Awareness at Taylor Allderice" (the name of our high school), I felt an immediate urge to join. After all, I was welcomed as the only white kid in the school's jazz club.

At my first meeting of the "OBATA" group I was cornered by another student and advised that I may have gone a step too far. "You should get with the Save Soviet Jews crowd," he advised. The comment was like water to a flame, and I quickly retreated. It wasn't long after that the cake cutter was quietly returned to the kitchen drawer.

In America, it's OK to change political parties, as it is to alter noses and breasts. We applaud religious conversions, and as Bruce Jenner has recently shown, we now openly welcome gender transitions. But there is a third-rail risk for those who try and assume an ethnic or racial heritage that's not in their DNA -- further proof that we are far from anyone's ideals of a post-racial society.

On many levels, one can understand Dolezal's charade. Her affinity for blacks clearly goes deeper than the copper skin toner she sprayed on her face. She grew up in a Montana family with four adopted black siblings, attended a predominantly black college in Mississippi and another for her master's degree (Howard University) and was qualified to teach a course on Africana studies at Eastern Washington University.

But affinity does not equal identity and in matters of race, genetic heritage still matters, even if that is not necessarily a good thing. As a religious convert, Dolezal could have become a Baptist minister, an imam or even the head of Hadassah, and been celebrated for her efforts. If her parents were Tunisian or Moroccan, she could rightly call herself African-American. But as the daughter of two Caucasian parents, who claim German and Czech ancestry, she can't get beyond her whiteness. And that was a sticky problem, no matter how strong her dedication to the NAACP cause.

Advocacy groups have a history of leaders outed for not being who they said they were -- though that usually involves self-hating types and homophobes. Among the most notorious was Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Queens man who in the 1960s became national secretary of the American Nazi Party and even a grand dragon in the New York State Ku Klux Klan but who also turned out to be Jewish -- bar mitzvah and all. Burros killed himself when his cover was unveiled by an intrepid New York Times reporter.

Rachel Dolezal doesn't seem to be a hater but a true Afro-phile and it's sad to see her go out in such embarrassing fashion. Although she deceived her peers and quite possibly herself, she appears to have had nerves of bronze in the way she leaped the racial divide based purely on personal desire -- and that's some feat for a wanabee.

Looking back, I sometimes wish I had taken my rightful seat at the OBATA meeting in high school -- and wonder whatever happened to Innis McCoy Crosby.

Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.


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