I went to elementary school at a prestigious New York City Independent Prep School in Riverdale. Because of this, during my formative years, most of my friends were of Eastern European Jewish heritage and I spent a lot of time in that cultural context. I learned a little Hebrew and some Yiddish. I would walk around saying things like "oy gevalt" and some other words that you probably shouldn't write in a public forum. I learned the joys of sarcasm and irony. I was the black person, who wasn't the entertainment, at the post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah party.
Yet, I am still black.
From 7th grade through my senior year in college I was inseparable from my best friend who is Chinese American. And I don't know why, but wherever I go I make fast friends with some Filipino-American who are ready for the revolution. Therefore I spent a good amount of time being immersed in Asian American culture. I learned, by being mocked, how to properly use chopsticks. I learned mean things, like what it meant when someone is called a "FOB". I learned some Chinese and Tagalog (Makibaka!!!). I learned that people from the Pacific Islands love their pig roasts.
I am still black.
The Twitter response to the revelation that former Spokane, Washington NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal was a white woman pretending to be black was epic! The hashtag #askRachel became a source of humor for many. It was a sort of comical quiz about black culture. Yet as a scrolled through these multiple choice questions, I realized that this was a quiz that I MIGHT not pass (no pun intended). I knew how long "Miss Sophia" had to fight. I knew how to fill in the blank when someone wrote, "Jesus is on the ______. Tell Him what you want." I also knew which Frankie Beverly classic I would hear at every cookout this summer and what Mr. Beverly had to do "before he let go". Yet there were so many others I could not answer.
But still... I'm black.
And here's why: Although race as we understand it is a construct, the social, cultural and historical realities connected to our race are very real. I am a strong believer in what some call "collective" or "epic" memory. We each hold within us the collective experiences of our ancestors, the bad and the good. The good of it is that we get to identify with a unique culture, which comes with its own set of specific customs and music and food and connectedness. The bad of it, especially in this country, is that your connection to your ancestry can come with a painful history and a set of social and sometimes legal consequences.
If you are of African or European ancestry and can trace your ancestry to certain points in in American History, you will more than likely find either slaves, slave masters, slave traders, people who benefited from slavery or all of the above (Sorry Ben Affleck). Rachel Dolezal may be the most extreme case we've seen, but she is not the first person who consciously or unconsciously sought release from the realities of her ancestry. There have always been white people who have been a little to obsessed with cultures that are not necessarily their own and walk the line of cultural appropriation. And there have always been black people who clung a little too hard to that unsubstantiated Native American blood. Yet as painful as it might be to live with the reality and consequences of your ancestry, there is no such thing as being trans-racial.
We have learned notions of race and racial supremacy were constructed. Yet the benefits for some and the consequences for others when it comes to race and racial supremacy are very real. The histories connected to our ancestry are also very real. Understanding the constructed nature of race, gives us hope that we can one day overcome consequences constructed racial supremacies. Yet without the painful work of deconstruction we cannot declare the constructed boundaries insignificant. Without deconstructing the realities of white privilege and white supremacy, attempting to cross racial boundaries becomes yet another white privilege inaccessible to people of color and therefore a violation. The ideas of being "trans-racial" assumes that we have cleansed ourselves of the very real social, economic and legal realities and consequences of racial supremacy in this country. We have not.
Therefore in spite of the braids, the light black face and her matriculation at Howard, Rachel Dolezal is still white. And in spite of my life experiences and the fact that I might fail the #askRachel quiz, I am still black.