The cultural competency training was the weirdest part of my new job.
Weirder still when we divided into “safe spaces”—ethnically specific groups of coworkers—to discuss what we had read.
I stood up with the tiny tribe of black people and headed for our separate (but equal) room, feeling awkward. I turned to see a lone black woman standing in the sea of white faces that were left behind.
“I’m going to stay in here,” she said. “I don’t identify as black.”
I stood across from her, our skin of similar chestnut-brown hues, my afro spiraling out in rebellion while the coarse hair at her non-relaxed roots peeked out in solidarity.
“I was adopted, and my family is white,” she continued. “White culture is all I’ve ever known, so that’s who I am.”
Another woman, Rachel Dolezal, would make headlines later that year.
Rachel Dolezal and ‘The Imitation of Life’
I couldn’t stop thinking about this (non) black girl the whole time that I watched the recently released Netflix documentary, The Rachel Divide. The 90-minute saga seeks to humanize the woman who in 2015 broke all manner of cultural taboos—and introduced “transracial” into the cultural lexicon—by pulling what my friend called a “reverse Imitation of Life.”
Imitation has a lot of moving parts, but one central theme is identity. The 1959 film is the rags-to-riches story of a white woman and her daughter, and the woman’s black maid, Annie, and Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane’s light skin allows her to pass for white, and she exploits it to her advantage, trying to distance herself both from her mother’s class and also from her status as a black woman in America.
The viewer understands why Sarah Jane wants to pass, even as we frown upon it. She lives in a society where being black is a detriment to her respectability and being white frees her to pursue aspirations without the embarrassment of prejudice. I grew up watching Sarah Jane with interest, knowing there are some “passers” in my family’s legacy.
Dolezal’s attempt to pass as black would have been unheard of in Sarah Jane’s day. In fact, before Dolezal, it was pretty unheard of in our day. Why would a white woman—with all the privileges of being white—pretend to be a woman of color?
Pain and Privilege
The Rachel Divide (directed by Laura Brownson) seeks to answer that question by offering valuable insight into Rachel’s life.
She grew up in a Christian family I feel I could’ve met at a homeschool conference—the year my friend made us matching culottes on her sewing machine. Rachel probably would’ve donned a pair, too. Rachel belonged to the “perfect little family.” They were so perfect, in fact, that they adopted three black children who were raised not unlike the girl at my cultural competency training: to see themselves as white.
Rachel’s perfect family had a less-than-perfect underbelly, though. Two of the adopted children chronicled tales of abuse—one sexual, one physical—and as an adult, Rachel became their advocate. She eventually gained custody of one of her black brothers and raised him alongside her half-black biological child. The older her boys got, the more Rachel began to identify with their cultural background, morphing from a Midwestern blonde to someone who could have passed for Sarah Jane in Imitation of Life (played by a white woman, Susan Kohner).
Rachel’s story isn’t one of obvious privilege. She suffered abuse in her family of origin, and in her broken marriage. She never felt like she belonged, always floundered for identity, always grappled for purpose.
She found that purpose, she thought, in being a black woman.
Blackness Is About More Than Suffering
Like many others in today’s world, Rachel insists that race is just a social construct. But there’s no just about it, from a historical perspective. That skin, and the societal understanding of that skin and heritage, is real. And it is defined by more than the suffering it produces.
That skin, and the societal understanding of that skin and heritage, is real. And it is defined by more than the suffering it produces.
Which is what I don’t think Rachel quite understands.
Because, for her, blackness is defined by hate crimes—so much so that she has been accused of documenting fake ones. Blackness is defined by protest. Blackness is defined by brokenness. Blackness is defined by pain. And I think that’s why she chooses to identify as a black woman—because she most identifies with the pain and suffering of our people. Her life is more of a blues lick than a country song that turns out okay in the end. So hey, she’s black, because black people, we suffer, right?
Instead of being like Sarah Jane and trying to escape the suffering of brown skin, Rachel wants to put it on over the suffering she’s already endured. Because black suffering is what’s hot in the streets.
In co-opting black womanhood, Rachel has adopted a one-dimensional understanding of it. Like the girl in cultural competency training, she thinks being black is all about how you talk, how you identify, how you struggle.
But it’s also about the sovereign Lord of the universe deciding to place you in a specific legacy, for his glory. It’s not a cage that is only defined by suffering or hatred; it’s also characterized by long-suffering and determination. More importantly, my identity is expanded: I am not merely defined by my blackness. It’s a part of me that I’m not ashamed of, but it’s not the most important part of me.
It’s the most important part of Rachel. Clearly. Because she’ll sacrifice her sons’ well-being in order to maintain the facade of it. Because, for Rachel, blackness equals persecution. And the more persecution she’s getting, the more black she feels.
Sarah Jane felt the same way. Blackness equalled shame and victimhood. She wanted none of it. She wanted the victory of being a white woman. I suspect my coworker felt a little shame in blackness as well.
Christ’s Pain Transforms Ours
My legacy of suffering isn’t just captured in my brown skin, though. It’s captured in my suffering Savior. An ethnic minority in his day, who was hung on the cross and rose in victory on the third day to reconcile people from every nation to him. People who look like me. People who look like you. People who look like Rachel.
Christ’s suffering elevates all of our suffering—whether as individuals or as people groups, whether for biological realities or social constructs—and he invites us all into his rest.
His suffering elevates all of our suffering—whether as individuals or as people groups, whether for biological realities or social constructs—and he invites us all into his rest. We don’t have to fake it to belong there. We can be who we really are.
I pray Rachel learns that freeing truth. And I pray we all can walk in it.