I’ve been reading a bit here and there about the Rachel Doo-dad story (I have trouble remembering her last name), but only as it comes across my Facebook page — which is a lot, so I’ve read some articles from mainstream news sources, and some friends’ posts, and a few random blogs and opinion pieces… If someone asked me to sum it up right now, I would describe the situation as follows: some white lady made her hair kinky and kept a good tan and told people she was black, and she got into Howard University and was the head of the Spokane NAACP, and then her white parents OUTED her! How awesome and strange is that??
And that seems to be about the end of the story, except of course it’s not, because it was timed so perfectly with Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner, and so now everyone’s talking about why is it okay for Caitlyn to claim a different gender identity from what she was born with but not okay for Rachel to do the same with race? And everyone’s got an answer, one way or the other.
I admit, as usual, to my total ignorance of the correct and fancy way to discuss this issue. I don’t know how academics talk about social constructs and inherent identities and blah blah blah blah. I do know that I have some intuitive feelings about this story that arise out of my half-ness, half white and half Korean.
When I was a kid, my mom always told me this: “You’re not Korean. You’re American.” It was important to her. I used to believe that she was expressing patriotism toward her adopted nation. She had become an American citizen long before we had these conversations. But of course, with decades behind me, I now realize it was something more than that. She didn’t tell me, “You’re not Korean or white. You’re American.” It was important to her that I not be Korean in America. Telling me to perceive myself as “American” was the closest she could come to saying “be white,” without choking on the words. Mom has always been a pragmatist. She lived in North Carolina for a few years in the early 60’s. She quickly developed a sense of how fucked up America was. She didn’t want her kids to be disadvantaged by their not-whiteness, and she knew we could pass as white.
But she couldn’t change what was. I couldn’t hide my Korean-ness behind white skin. Or at least, I couldn’t disappear it. Because when the wrong someone spotted me as Asian, I had to deal with the weird odds and ends of bullshit. Like the guy in the bar asking Anthony, “Hey where’d your Chinese girlfriend go?” Why did the word “Chinese” fit in that sentence? What, it was necessary to distinguish me from Anthony’s other girlfriends in the bar? And when the wrong person didn’t spot me, I had to deal with hearing the racist shit that drooled out. It sucked either way.
So I tend to wear it on my sleeve now. Better to be exactly what I am – half white, half Korean. Anthony wears my race on his sleeve too, at least the Korean half. If he has to deal with a person who he’s worried might have some nasty views on race, he finds an excuse to slip in there that his wife is Korean. I noticed this a few years ago and asked him why. He told me it’s so that he doesn’t have to listen to the bullshit; people tend to bite their tongues more if they know you have a connection to a race or ethnicity they’re inclined to trash talk. (I’m pleased that Anthony never tells people he’s Korean, because that would be kind of weird.)
One of the hardest things about being white in America — the other half of my experience — is accepting the bitter significance of that racial heritage. As a Korean, I’ve kept a pretty close eye on the question of whether Japan admits its wrongs from World War II. Lots of savage and evil things were done to Koreans during the Japanese occupation. There’s simply no denying it, and I’d like to know Japan doesn’t hide from that history. Own up. It’s okay, I don’t think you’re continuing that evil today: but own up.
White folks have to do that in America too. We have to own up to the evils we’ve committed in our past, whether we agree with them or not. Sure, I would personally never lynch a black man or intentionally discriminate against someone because they’re black. But my race has done just that in America. I need to own up. I can’t pretend it’s not about me. I can’t pretend I’m not the beneficiary of my whiteness. My mom made that clear to me early on: be white, she taught me; it’s good for you in America.
I can no more decide that I’m all Korean than I can decide that I’m all white. I have to own up to what I am, what I’ve known I am since before I can remember. Bruce Jenner did that when he became Caitlyn: he owned up to what he knew he was, since before he could remember.
That Rachel chick? In my totally baseless I’ve-never-met-her-and-I’m-just-making-this-shit-up opinion, she just didn’t want to own up. She didn’t want to be who she was, face the responsibility and guilt of being white, and rise above it. And while I have some empathy for her desire not to be associated with all the wrong and evil things white people have done to blacks in America, snaking back to the days of slavery, I have no respect for her and I don’t feel the need to accommodate her desire to pass herself off as black.
But I also don’t think she’s a bad person or evil or whatever. I just think she’s sad and pathetic.
And now could we please start talking about ISIS again? Because they are really scary, and I think our energy would be better spent worrying about that than about Rachel whats-her-name.