After Rachel Dolezal appears to fake being black, how I’ve experienced mixed race stigma

Whoa. That was my first thought after reading about Rachel Dolezal, the black civil rights leader who has allegedly faked her blackness. I immediately remembered the last time “whoa” was all I could think while trying to wrap my head around a race situation. Before I continue, though, I should state that I am mixed-race and can prove it.

Yes, I have white adoptive parents, but the pictures of my mocha skin sharply contrasting with the painfully pale tones of my Polish and Irish relatives go back to my earliest diapered days in their care.

My other whoa story: It was an unexpectedly hot but beautiful Maine fall day. I had volunteered to help do some lot clearing in one of those friend-of-a-friend situations. I met a woman who, upon meeting me, shriveled up the bridge of her nose and said, “You are so tan.” The nose shrivel was the kind you do when you come across something particularly yucky.

The emphasis on the “so” also suggested disapproval, even contempt, for my apparent ignorance of the evils of over-tanning. I was speechless for a second. Then I said, “Umm, thanks.” I immediately changed the subject to the task at hand, which, she decided, involved me moving an old 20’x40’x6’ brush pile a foot over by hand.

In my head, I tried not to link the inanity of the task with the idea that this educated woman could show such disdain for a person based on the presumption of fake skin color, but it was hard.

Later, a dear friend called to vent about a crisis in her life. After she unloaded her story, she asked if I could imagine anything worse. I knew she needed some comic relief so I said, “Yes, I think I just got mistaken for being over-tanned white trash.” In seconds my friend went from hysterically stressed out to hysterically laughing.

After I told her my story, she went on to explain to me about someone of Internet fame called “Tan Mom” and said this person must have thought I was Maine’s version of Tan Mom. More laughter. I continued the comedy bit by observing that I think my stigma collection is now complete.

The stigma of adoption. Check. The stigma of mixed race. Check. The stigma of being too fair in black circles and too dark in white circles. Check. The stigma of being poor. Check. The stigma of being an unwed mother. Check.

And now, the stigma of being white trash. Check?! It took us months to stop laughing.

The next time I saw the same woman, I made an offhand race joke. I was trying to use humor to make sure everyone in the room knew I was born this way. After a 10- or 15-minute delay, the woman realized what the joke meant, and, suddenly, I was the center of her excited attention, dealing with a barrage of “white guilt” talking points. No more shriveled nose, only fascination.

I was more comfortable when she thought I was over-tanned white trash and longed for the brush pile.

When I put Dolezal’s story and my Tan Mom story together, the “whoa” quickly becomes a WTF, which Merriam-Webster has now established as acceptable speech. It follows in the footsteps of snafu, a World War II acronym. Thank goodness because the subject of race in America is definitely a WTF and a snafu.

My teenager came home from school one day and said he thinks, in terms of conversations and political correctness, some of the worst bias is against young white girls, especially blondes. He recounted that kids were telling jokes in class, and someone told a joke about dumb blonde white girls, specifically using the word white, and everyone including the teacher laughed.

He said he felt bad for the white girls who seemed to be fake laughing. He also thought it was stupid because if the joke had been about black girls, the teller would have been suspended for hate speech. He said it didn’t make sense.

But he’s also upset about police practices with young black men in other places around the country. That’s what it’s like when you are mixed: You feel for both sides. And you want to bring both sides together. Is Dolezal’s bizarre behavior some kind of manifestation of this very sentiment? Was she sick of being that plain-Jane white girl everyone feels comfortable making fun of? Who knows.

I do know her story is reflexive of the pressure race in America puts on us all — it’s making us all a little crazy. I also know, as I have written before, that equity in economic and education opportunity, equity in criminal justice and policing, and equity in politics need to be addressed to uplift blacks and poor of all colors.

The solutions and a little less craziness will be found by focusing less on honoring differences and more on honoring what makes us the same. I’d like to think one of the things that makes us the same is we think all lives matter, including Dolezal’s whether she be white or black.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.