Concering Rachel Dolezal (An Open Letter)

Dear Ms. Dolezal:

I would like to have a word with you. WTF, lady?

For context, I was adopted and I grew up in a family that didn’t look like me, which shapes my point of view. I’m not white, but I grew up knowing what white privilege has to offer and I admit, in many ways I benefit from it by association. I am also a firm believer that people ought to be able to identify with the communities that they find a home in—communities that know and accept them for who they are—and I understand that you were raised with black siblings in an otherwise white home.

I’ve got to cut right to the chase, Ms. Dolezal. You may have spent the last several years looking like a fair black woman, and you may feel most comfortable in an African American community, but you don’t get to call yourself black. Besides the obvious reason (hello, lady, you’re white), you don’t get to be black, because you have been lying to your black friends about your race. Even though you have served the black community in your area tirelessly, you lower your practice of respect for them by lying to them.

This cat is not a peacock.

This cat is not a peacock.

The fact that you “became black” as an adult and could “de-black” yourself means that you don’t fully know what it feels like to actually be a woman of color. Let me explain. Both of my biological parents are Korean, like Asian-looking Korean, not white people born in Korea. And although cosmetic surgery is all the rage in the Republic, there is nothing I can do to erase the experiences I have had as an Asian woman. Some of these I share with women of other races as well, including white women, so I will try to distill this for you.

Women of color are fetishes. When some people see me, I represent a terrible passive, over-sexualized stereotypical fetish, and I get harassed for it. Black women live with a more sassy, domineering stereotype, but it is present nonetheless, and affects their employment and their relationships profoundly. Latin women are considered a hot, oversexed commodity, too, which you can probably guess pisses me off.

Our hard work and talents are often undermined. There is this thing called Affirmative Action and it is greatly misunderstood. But let me set the record straight. I have never stolen a man’s job, or a white person’s job. I work hard. I live in a beautiful city in a small apartment that isn’t fancy or even “nice,” but I’m making it a home. You could say I’m lucky to lead the life I lead, and on many counts, I am. I love my job, my coworkers, my family, my partner, and my friends. And I love having hardwood floors and indoor plumbing, if we’re making a list. But the constant grumbling about stealing what I don’t deserve wears on me and on other women who work their asses off to provide for themselves and their families and to advance in their careers with integrity.

We are not realistically represented in any major industry. One token Asian in broadcast journalism doesn’t count, just as the sitcom token black friend who talks “black” doesn’t count. And you know what really burns my buns? I don’t know the “right” way to do my eye makeup, because a) Asian women are sparse in American mass media, so I don’t have makeup role models, and b) the images I find of Korean women in Asia have usually had their faces altered to look more Anglo. Little things, as petty as they might seem, matter. How am I supposed to apply eyeshadow? The hell should I know!

Black people don’t get to choose to be black. Did you know, Ms. Dolezal, that being a person of color can be really great? I mean, my hair holds a curl for days. Also, my body absorbs vitamin D seamlessly. Did you also know that being a person of color can really suck? I’m sure you are well-versed in the anti-black racism that still permeates our society. It’s a shit show. And who the hell do you think you are, pretending to be “black” when at any moment you can—and have—resumed your privileged place in society? The fact that you sued Howard University for not admitting you because you’re white is the icing on your “You don’t understand what it’s like to be part of a minority” Johnnycake. For centuries, people of color—especially women of color—had no fair representation under the law. And you think you can just trade your fake brown for your inherited privilege whenever it suits you? Get out.

The black community needs advocates, not posers. I’m just shooting from the hip on this one, since I’ve never pretended to be black. So please, allow me this parallelism. I try to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community. I’ve never joined a committee, but I make noise and make space where I can, and sometimes I screw up, because nuance abounds. But let me say, I have never had repeated fake sex with a woman or ever told anyone I’m gay to make queer friends. Yeah, I took it there, Ms. Dolezal.

The really great thing is that we can be advocates and parts of communities that we don’t look like. We don’t have to share black people’s experiences to be able to say, your life matters; tell me about it. On the same token, though, we have to remember that sometimes we must humbly defer our understanding of race to our neighbors who experience discrimination and oppression. We can still say, I don’t know what it’s like to be you, but it hurts me when other people treat you unjustly. When you lie about your race and wield your privilege to make being a minority person better for yourself, you’re being a douchebag and a horrible advocate. So, try harder, Dolezal, try harder.

Sincerely,

Kohleun

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