“SO IF YOU’RE FROM AFRICA, WHY ARE YOU WHITE?” | NINA GROSSFURTHNER

I woke up a week ago and started my day eating breakfast and scrolling through Facebook. I usually read my Bible in the morning, but on that particular day I had a lot to get through before mid-day lectures so I decided I would leave it to the evening. Thinking back now, perhaps skimming through a quick verse would have allowed me to approach what happened next with a bit more grace. I don’t know how many of you have been keeping up with the story of Rachel Dolezal, in all honesty I don’t encourage you to do so. But, for those of you who haven’t I will briefly outline who this woman is and why I needed to write about her, a decision that didn’t come easy because I didn’t want to assign her any more space than that which she has so carelessly claimed.

Rachel Dolezal blew up on the internet a few years ago by claiming that she, a fully Caucasian woman, identified as ‘black’. When I first came across the story, I quickly scrolled past because I didn’t think it worth my time to hear her try and justify why she should appropriately be called black. However, what made me stop scrolling that morning, was the recent name change which Dolezal has undertaken.

Adding insult to injury, Rachel Dolezal recently made the decision to change her name to Nkechi Diallo – a confusing medley of both the Igbo language of southern Nigeria and that of the Fulani tribe whose people can be found in many West African nations (because African nations were effectively decided by white men using a ruler and a pen). Setting aside the obvious disturbance of taking on an ‘African sounding’ name, the seeming thoughtlessness behind picking whatever name she felt suited her reflects the same precarious attitude with which she chooses to engage with the ‘black’ identity.

I could go on and on about why this woman infuriates me, but anger wasn’t the first sentiment that I encountered when I first read her profile. It was profound sadness. I am a Nigerian/Austrian woman who is frequently mistaken for being fully white, due to my blonde hair and light eyes. For years I have heard people come up with phrases like “Oh now I see it’” when I pull out a picture of my black mother, whom I look very much like, leaving me to wonder what it was they saw before. For years I’ve attempted to understand my place is in this world as a mixed race girl raised by a Nigerian mother, but whose experience differs from those whose skin is a lot darker than mine. I’ve been careful not to appropriate the struggles of other women of colour, acknowledging that the way I look affords me a certain amount of privilege in this world. I have attempted to navigate the waters of my identity without treading on anyone’s toes or encroaching on anyone’s experience. Never wanting to be the loudest voice in the room, I contented myself with the taking the back seat when I felt I couldn’t fully identify with others. I have been so careful.

So, when I saw Rachel Dolezal’s attempts to claw at what she uniformly termed ‘black identity’ I was stunned. Here was someone operating with absolutely no understanding or regard for women of colour and taking ownership of a platform that ‘white passing people of colour’ (a term I still grapple with) have been careful in approaching. A platform that is not hers and that will now be trained by her ignorance, encapsulated in her following quote from a Guardian interview in 2015.

Speaking about when she braided her for the first time, she said:  “Because it was Mississippi white girls don’t do that. A lot of people started responding to me as if I was biologically biracial. I kind of let the chips fall where they may.”

Even reading it now I find myself trying to repress a surge of emotion. Rachel Dolezal represents everything I ever feared people would think about me when I told them I was half Nigerian-half Austrian. She embodied the cause of the of doubt I first see flash across people’s face when I tell them that yes, my biological mother is black, my father white and I am a product of the two. The idea that someone would ever associate the two of us makes me feel ill and yet as I read about her I wonder increasingly where this leaves me. Where my voice fits into this story and whether or not I have the right to comment.

I’m not a big post-er on Facebook, but that morning I surprised myself by writing what was essentially an unfettered brain to page response to the situation. With it on my mind the rest of the day, I knew I had to go further. I had to counter the image that Dolezal has projected into the world with the voice of one (among many, I am sure) who has been harmed by her actions, and so I am writing this. Here. Stepping out and reaching out to other women in my community was an unprecedented decision, as was the response from the beautiful women in Fly when I first wrote my post . Contrary to my fear of rejection, what I found in Fly was the kind of comfort and confirmation that I had never experienced so explicitly before.

It’s hard for people to counter your insecurities when you don’t vocalise what it is you fear, and whereas I generally don’t subscribe to letting others dictate how you feel about yourself, in my moment of vulnerability, these women said what I had unknowingly always wanted to hear: “You are ours, we claim you as our own”. This response was precious. It wasn’t that they were denoting for me what I had so long struggled to define, but rather they were saying that they understood the complexity and nuance of the issue and though they didn’t have the answers they did what they could, they listened.

I don’t accredit Dolezal with anything however, I do thank her for forcing me out of my comfort zone and into a space to which she has unknowingly done great harm. A space that, like many, lies in the boundaries between fixed assumptions of what ethnicity, race, gender and sexualiy look like. It is not often that those operating within them feel confident enough in their understanding to step affirmatively outwards, but I hope in some way to have shed some light on the living, breathing figures that constitute these intersections.

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