Recently I re-read the story of Rachel Dolezal, the ‘white’ woman in the US who for a long time has ‘identified’ as ’black’. She became committed to the black cause, and rose to some prominence there. But photos of her early life as a blond headed ‘white’ person were discovered. And she was unmasked, and vilified.
In telling her own story Rachel describes how isolated she felt as a child and how in the black community she found community. Eventually she came to identify with this community: she began to ‘identify’ as black.
On the surface of this story it looks like simple fraud. A person identifies with the black community for reasons of becoming somehow ‘big’. The fraud is perpetuated for selfish reasons, which is why we vilify her.
But I can identify with Rachel! Here are two stories from my twenties that are significant to me.
The first occurred during my encounters with feminists. I too felt in bondage, and in need of ‘liberation’. I could ‘identify’ with those women who were feeling the same, and I wanted to make common cause with them. But I was rejected. “Your desire for ‘liberation’ is not like ours.” They said. “You are part of the oppressive class.” My only option was to start my own ‘liberation Movement” “The Dalzo-Boy Liberation Movement”!
At another time I was at a demonstration. I saw an interesting group of people who had congregated under a black flag with a pink triangle on it. I did not recognise the flag, so I went over to ask them about it. They said “This is the flag of the ‘Gay Liberation Movement’. We have adopted the symbol that the Nazis gave to gay prisoners in the concentration camps as a sign of protest.”
These people were so friendly that I wanted to join them. I thought “Maybe I’m gay. “ So I went home thinking about this whole issue. In the end, I came to a deeper truth for me about this encounter. I acknowledged “I’m not gay, I’m lonely.”
These stories give me a degree of sympathy and understanding for Rachel, if her experience is anything like mine: I was looking for liberation, I was looking for community, I was looking for people who were ‘like me.’
I think that if there is any truth in this story, we could all be a bit gentler with Rachel, so that she could have the opportunity, in an atmosphere of acceptance, to tell the truth to herself, about herself.
This is the stance taken by many indigenous people in Australia. Many of them do not look particularly ‘black’ to our eyes, but they say ‘We will accept into the Koori community those people who ‘identify’ as black, and who are a part of our community. ”For them ‘blackness’ is not only a matter of skin colour, but also a matter of ‘with whom you identify’.
This comparison gave me cause to think about the whole issue of where ‘identity’ comes from.
The word in Greek derives from the idea of ‘being like’. My ‘identity’ is derived from an answer to the question ‘who am I ‘like’? What is my ‘group?’ This means that I cannot discover my identity on my own, but there must be some group that I belong to.
The other thing that came to me about this issue is the idea of the fluidity of identity. In my twenties, ‘who I was or more accurately, who I was like’ was by no means settled. It was this state of unsettledness that opened me to the gay community at the demonstration. It was this state of unsettledness that prompted me to want to become one with the Women’s’ Liberation Movement.
Now groups of adults congregate around identities that have already been ‘fixed’ to some degree. But there is not much talk of protecting those people whose identities are in the process of forming. I think it is a mistake both to have too few possibilities for ‘being like’ and to try to fix these too soon in life.
When it comes to being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ most of us are one or the other, and that settles ‘who we are ‘like’. But we now know that these are not the only options. I don’t think it is true that we were created just ‘male and female’ because there are some of ‘us’ [people who are human, like us] who are created intersex. There needs to be recognition of them. Being gay is not a matter of ‘all or nothing’ but there are people who say “I am not all heterosexual, or all gay, but I am somewhere on a continuum.’ We need to have the option of allowing for this continuum in answering the question ‘whom are you ‘like?’ To what community do you belong?
In 1979, as a candidate for ordination, I was thinking about whether or not there would be a place for me in Anglicanism. (This is also a part of the question ‘Whom am I like and to what community will I belong?)
I raised this question with David, my vicar and mentor at the time. He told me the story of Hewlett Johnson the ‘Red Dean of Canterbury.’ Johnson was no less than the Dean of Canterbury the ‘mother’ church of Anglicanism from 1931 till 1963. He was also an avowed Christian Socialist.
I thought. “Well if there is room for the Red Dean of Canterbury’ there is room for me! Ever since I have ‘identified’ as an Anglican Christian, in the hope that for someone who is ‘like me’ there will be room in the Anglican Church.
This is the basis too of my understanding of, and commitment to the Church. This is the place where I have been received. This is the community to which I belong. The community of people whom Jesus receives, is my community, because he and they have received a person like me. Maybe Rachel Dolezal can fi d a Church somewhere where she can receive the identity ‘Christian’