There is a buzz in the news about Rachel Dolezal, the White woman who appropriated a Black identity.
Traditional Indigenous knowledge informs me that identity is in large part a social process versus merely a genetic process. Historically Indigenous people adopted and assimilated outsiders into our families, communities, and nations. As we did this we formed relationships and networks. Adoption and assimilation were a part of our governance system which helped us build allies with other nations. While this is the way we were historically I am not so sure that in the contemporary world adopting adults is useful. There is much corruption in the process.
As I think about the Rachel Dolezal’s situation I keep coming back to a personal experience I had as a student where a privileged White woman took on the identity of an Indigenous person. This White woman claimed she was an Indian in another life. Within the context of this White woman’s appropriation, and as this White woman interfered in many situations, my experience as an Indigenous woman trying to learn my Indigenous knowledge and trying to remain loyal to the Indigenous women’s causes became more brutal.
As a non-Indigenous White woman she was particularly needful of Indigenous knowledge where as a result she would more eagerly take on tasks that Indigenous women would not. This made Indigenous women look as if they were uncooperative when the real issue was that they were more concerned with avoiding the fortification of a new oppressor of Indigenous women. In doing this, this White woman caused great harm to me and other Indigenous women. For me this context became increasingly miserably depressing and isolating. While she was applauded; I was perceived as the bitch. She did not care though as it was her opinion that she was doing good work and that was all that really mattered to her. As such she used her privilege to further harm.
It has recently come to my attention that she is still using this excuse to interfere.
When I think about Rachel Dolezal and this needful White woman I have come to know that when someone claims to be Black or Indigenous when they are not, they need to be informed that because their parents, and their ancestors, and they have not lived, and as such embodied the intergenerational knowledge of being Black or Indigenous, they are not Black or Indigenous.
When it comes to identity, a person’s subjectivity has huge limitations in the knowledge of what it means to be Black or Indigenous. For a White person to claim they are Black or Indigenous when they are not is yet again another White privilege.
If you believe you were Black or Indigenous in another life or Black or Indigenous in this life when really you are White then your responsibility in this life is to be a good ally: An Ally that does not fortify a new oppressor, but rather stands behind the most oppressed.
Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process. She has three books: Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts, The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin of the Algonquin Land Claims Process, and Mkadengwe: Sharing Canada's Colonial Process through Black Face Methodology. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.