Sunday, April 30, 2017

April Cultural Roundup

Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight
Dinner at Eight (U.S., 1934)
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (U.S., 2016)
Whitney: "Can I Be Me" (U.K., 2017)
The Genius and the Opera Singer (U.K., 2017)

Remembering Vimy Ridge, Munk School of Global Affairs, April 9th

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson
Seasons in an Unknown Key by Karen Mulhallen

Tightrope Books' 2017 Spring Poetry Launch at Glad Day Books, April 12th

Settling in Toronto: The Quest for Freedom, Opportunity and Identity, Market Gallery

Monday, April 3, 2017

Black Like Rachel

Rachel then ..
I can feel my husband’s questioning glance when this particular topic arises: what to make of Rachel Dolezal (who has, in another phoenix like move, re-named herself Nkechi Amare Diallo)? And why am I so angry about it?

She has irked me - as she has irked many progressive people who have intensely disliked the charade of a woman, born white and of European descent, pretending to be black or, at best, permitting others to assume that she is black because she has done a number of things to suggest she is black including: colouring and curling her blonde hair into a dark afro; darkening her skin cosmetically; wearing afro-centric clothing such as dashikis and African-inspired styles. Whether by a sin of commission - she actively lied and distorted her personal history - or omission – she did not correct people when they assumed she was black or bi-racial - it has all just felt wrong.

I don’t object to the fact that she loves black culture or identifies with black people. Her first husband was black and her children are bi-racial; her four adopted step-siblings are also black – three African-American and one of Haitian origin. Nor do I object to the fact that she has worked with civil rights causes and institutions to help benefit the black community. Some of us love black culture and feel an affinity to the black community. Some of us, as allies, have volunteered with similar organizations.

It’s the consistent lying. And to what end? Stories that she traveled to South Africa (she did not). She said that she was born in a teepee. I can’t even begin to explain that one – not many African Americans would dare claim that very specific circumstance. Stories that she was abused by her parents – specifically that she was whipped (what historical parallel does that bring to mind when thinking of the sufferings of black people?). She has since walked that back although she insists she was abused physically by her religious parents. Assumed to be black by the admissions office at her university when she applied - because her portfolio of art was full of African-American portraiture - she received a scholarship based on her presumed racial identity. She was also accused of plagiarizing the work of the artist J.M.W. Turner by closely duplicating his 1840 work The Slave Ship. The ... slave .. ship.

Lie. Upon. Lie.
Rachel when "uncovered"
My problem with Rachel is not just the lying. My problem with Rachel is that I know exactly how she feels. As a woman who presents in a racially ambiguous manner – I have dealt with this issue for decades. In the town where I was raised, my very curly hair, olive skin and full lips invited curious remarks about my parentage. 

What was my nationality? Was I truly Italian? Was there not something else mixed in there? Was I Italian on both sides? If you knew anything about the history of southern Italy (as I was later to learn and educate myself on), my looks would not have appeared so curious or strange upon reflection.

Why a person of southern Italian descent might resemble a person of African descent should not be much of mystery. Sicily – where my parents were from – is closer to Africa than to Rome and sometimes that was not just a geographic distance.

But then, when I was seven or ten or fifteen and I faced those questions – in that conservative, racially homogenous, racist environment where ethnic groups clung together with a rabidness that amazed and puzzled me – the questions about my parentage were not merely curious, they were rude, hostile and suspicious.

It made me look at myself in a new way – as an Other – and to seek out other people who might mirror my experience, and physically resemble me. In this case, it was other black people. So, in a sense, I was black like Rachel was black. Not truly black but perceived as black by some.

I, too, was drawn to people with whom I had been compared – people with afros and braids, people with café au lait or dark skin, people who may have been outside of the white mainstream. And there too, sometimes people would assume I was bi-racial. Some of the time. Some of the time, there was merely hostility as to just why this white girl was hanging around. I was not particularly welcomed or liked. I was just tolerated, tolerated at best.

Even in multicultural, tolerant Toronto where I moved to when I turned nineteen to attend university the questions were similar – but now I was exotic, interesting looking. For people that look like me – this is just politely worded code for “You ain’t from around here, are ya pardner?”

But during that time, and afterwards, even though I felt an affinity with black people, loved “black” music, had black friends, read James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and Eldridge Cleaver and Toni Morrison voraciously, I never once said yes, I am black, when someone asked me. And I forbore the intrusive, mildly insulting questions from white people, “You don’t mind me saying – I thought you were black?” I don’t mind because I don’t perceive it as an insult although apparently you do. That I do perceive as an insult.

I understand Rachel’s confusion, her desire to escape what appears to be an unhappy family situation, the desire to identify with her four step-siblings, her black husband and bi-racial children. I understand her attraction to black culture and history. If you feel oppressed or victimized by your circumstances, it makes sense that you might turn to a like-minded group for comfort or strength. I know I have white skin but I have my sorrows too, you might think. I am like you.

But my husband also raised an important point during our discussion which got very heated – it’s only white people who get to claim the privilege that they are of another race and asked to be treated sympathetically. A black man cannot claim that he identifies as white and should be treated as such. An Asian woman could not either. No person of colour could assume this posture and expect sympathy. Because they would be considered to be delusional as many people consider Rachel to be.

Rachel ... now