|Photo Credit: YouTube|
Based on the reporting that has been done on her background, it appears that the 37-year-old Dolezal developed a strong connection to African Americans and black culture over the course of her life. Her parents had several adopted black siblings and she studied at Howard University, one of the premier historically black colleges within the United States. She went onto marry a black man and began darkening her skin, as well as wearing her hair in what most would consider more traditional African American styles.
What is Ethnic Identity?
So what is ethnic identity exactly? In its simplest sense, ethnicity refers to a group of people who identify with each other (and are identified by others) because of common factors like a shared history, physical appearance, cultural values, beliefs, customs, language, religion, national origin and other factors. In light of this, one's ethnic identity refers to the degree that one identifies with and belongs to a certain ethnic group or groups. When the Bible refers to ethnos -- a race or nation of people -- this is to which it is referring.
Because of our troubled history in the United States when it comes to ethnicity (e.g. the near genocide of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, etc.), there are strong feelings when it comes to this issue.
In the example of Dolezal, at some point in her life, she chose to move from simply identifying WITH black people to identifying AS a black person. Her case raises serious questions about how we identify ourselves ethnically, how others identify us and why this is important.
The story of Rachel Dolezal is of particular interest to me because of some of the commonalities that I appear to have with her. I, too, developed a strong interest in black culture at a young age and have developed strong relationships with African Americans over the course of my life. Like Dolezal, I have held a leadership role in a predominately black organization, The Impact Movement, that serves the needs of the black community.
In my early years of ministry, I sensed that God was leading me into a ministry focus of black college students. Fortunately, I had several African American mentors that cautioned me to resist the temptation to try to become something that I was not in order to gain approval in black social circles. They shared with me how they knew of well-meaning white people that would attempt to prove how "down" they were with black folks by changing the way they dressed and or fumbling through feeble attempts at incorporating black slang into their conversation.
I'm grateful that this advice was afforded me early on in my journey of cross-cultural ministry. I learned long ago that no matter how much I loved my African American friends or how much I cared about issues that were important to the black community, I would never be black. God had made me a white man and if I was going to truly build relationships with those different than me, I needed to learn to become comfortable in my own skin.
Acceptance Within the Black Community
What I have learned over time is that being myself is all that anyone asks of me. If they're asking for more than that, it's not something I need to worry about. Granted, there have been challenges as a white man seeking to cross cultural lines where I've had to work hard to build trust and credibility. This, of course, is understandable. Because of the strained relations between the white and black communities throughout our country's history, there can be initial skepticism when I enter into predominately black environments.
But you know what I've found? I've learned that once most Africans Americans see that I care about them as individuals and about the issues that are important to them, then I've often experienced a high level of acceptance. I've learned that if I operate from a place of love and authenticity, then I'll be welcomed more times than not.
This is something that I wished Rachel Dolezal had learned earlier on in life. In reading about her story, it appears that she genuinely respects black culture and cares about black people. She's been a true advocate that has spent significant time in bringing attention to issues of concern to the black community. But she doesn't have to present herself with false claims about her ethnic heritage or upbringing in order to do so. According to my experiences, a white person that works tirelessly for African Americans will likely be embraced within that community.
God's Grace in Christ
Beyond the view that others may have of her, I hope that Rachel gains a greater understanding of God's love for her and His sovereign wisdom in choosing to make her a white woman. I believe that God has given each of us our ethnicity for His glory and to accomplish His purposes in the world. He can use who we truly are to make a true impact on the lives of others.
It appears that God has given Rachel Dolezal a genuine love for the African American community. This is a good thing. When we advocate for and identify with those that are ethnically different than us, the world is given an example of what it means to live out the gospel of God's grace. Just as Jesus left his heavenly home to identify with and live among us, we too can identify with others in a way that demonstrates our love for them.
However, we don't have to pretend we are something we are not. Even during His time on earth, Jesus never stopped being God. His divinity was not dependent upon his humanity. We, on the other hand, do need each other to grow in our humanness. And one of the most profound ways we can grow as people is to develop relationships with those different than us. I applaud Rachel Dolezal in her efforts to identify with African Americans, but I wish she would have not been deceptive in the process.
Author Brennan Manning refers to "the Imposter" as the false self that we make known to others for fear that our true self won't be accepted. We present an image that we think others will like rather than who we really are. I wonder if this is what happened with Rachel. I wonder if she thought that black people would never fully accept her if it was known that she was white. And that saddens me because I don't think it's based in reality.
But, even if it were true, there's a God that created her and fully embraces her within her ethnicity. Fortunately, I believe this applies to all of us. So whatever your God-given ethnicity might be, don't waste it. Embrace your ethnic identity as a gift from God to be used for His glory and your good. The world will be better for it.