Recently, I was minding my business online and this article about a German model, Martina Adam (AKA Martina Big) crossed my feed. This article highlighted her transformation from a petite quotidian white female to a woman known for the largest breast implants in Europe. Apparently, she has gone a step further to become a “black woman” – down to getting medical treatment to change her skin tone and change her hair color from blonde to black.
I just sat there, and shook my head. Then the story of Nkechi Amare Diallo popped into mind.
Who is that, you might ask. Well, that’s what Rachel Dolezal changed her name to after two years in the spotlight for being outed as a white woman stated she was black. She had done a pretty good job too: went to a HBC (historically black college, but did have to sue to get in), became a black history professor and the head of the NAACP branch in Spokane, Washington. Once she was outed as being born originally white at the end of a local TV interview, all hell broke loose. Fast forward to two years later and she is having some financial difficulties that are juxta positioned by the release of her book on her experiences.
I have mixed feelings the more I examined both situations and much of my feelings are sadness.
Now, people are free to do as they please, in theory. The thing that is so polarizing in both circumstances is what motivates both women and the social implications of their efforts. Some have argued it reeks of white privilege to have the ability to even undertake this sort of endeavor in a public space. Dolezal/Diallo has expressed her motivations in quite a few interviews since she was “outed”, but it has been a bit challenging to get a sense of Adam’s motive in my initial search outside the impression of creating a unique personal brand.
Unfortunately, contemporary Western society has been built on the concept of race in a manner that those at the top, who appear to still be mostly of white European descent, can seemingly embrace and experience other cultures freely. So, it isn’t anything to hear the stories of some “white person” going to X country to learn more about and embracing that country’s culture and possibly attempting to speak on that culture’s behalf. On the one hand, nothing wrong with that – if you’ve got the means to travel, go see the world and learn new things. Still, within that is that implicit right to do so and be relatively unchallenged that some can argue where the “white privilege” lies. I was watching a cooking tryout show recently and hearing a contest (a young adult white female) taking about living in China for 2 months and developing an appreciation and expertise in the cuisine she experienced. She spoke with so confidence that once she mentioned her length of stay, I had a sense of discontent that hit me initially. Now is that a fair assessment? While she could have developed some expertise during her stay in China, the judges found that she did not execute the basics of her dish well enough to continue in the competition.
I suppose that might be the thing that not sitting well with me when reading about both Adams’ and Dolezal/Diallo’s experiences. On the one hand, there is empathy to be had about their individual struggles and finding their own place in society. But, ethnicity based issues do not happen inside a vacuum and the social implications of both stories are murky at best in their ability to generate constructive discourse. It’s hard to become one of those people in the spaces one is trying to access because you lack the social footing to truly engender those roles. To be “black” in this case isn’t to cherry pick the aspects of black culture that one finds appealing or to merely identify with elements of black culture that are palatable and disregard the rest. As a black male, I don’t get to disregard the fact that the police have the ability based on current set-up to view me with a more suspicious gaze walking down the street, no matter how impeccable I am in other areas of my life or how spotless my criminal record is. The identity of the black woman is so something rich and complex that even as a black male there are parts I wouldn’t attempt to lay calm to speak on as an expert.
Sadly, whenever there is the idea to exploit a group and to keep us separated and unequal based on our ethnicity, one cannot help but be more sensitive to things that have an exploitative feel or at minimum some serious lack of awareness. “To be poor is a crime” Freddie MacGregor sang once; it would appear that same sentiment is applicable to being black in 2017.
So how do we use our access and privileges in our own various circles to facilitate better inter-ethnic relationships to truly create a society that reflects the different but equal experience?