In 1959, in the film “Imitation of Life,” African-American actress Juanita Moore in the first meaningful role in her acting career played a mother who was rejected by her light-skinned daughter who was trying to pass as white.
She won a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the part, and years later recalled that her role in the film was challenging and rewarding because it spoke to her experience as an African-American.
“I cried a lot in the making of this movie because it was real easy for me to cry,” she said.
“I had a lot to cry about. Conditions for black actors were unbelievable back then. Very few actors got the opportunity to hone their craft in the same way white actors did.”
For Ms. Moore, the hurt and pain of the rejection that brought tears in the movie were founded on her real-life experience.
We are today seeing a modern-day, real-life imitation of the role she played in the controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal, a white woman choosing to live her life as an African-American.
Ms. Dolezal, who has been passing as black for decades, resigned her position as president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP after she was outed by her parents.
I suppose there are many ways in which to view this story. Some, for example, find it disturbing, a parody of the African-American experience.
I am, however, fascinated by the twist it has thrown on how race plays out in this country. Indeed, Ms. Dolezal’s story has long been a constant occurrence in the lives of African-American families.
Many are aware, for example, of the research of Kenneth and Mamie Clark that showed “Black children preferred White dolls and attributed more positive characteristics to White dolls than to Black dolls,” and a number of African-Americans whose skin tone allowed them to do so have passed as whites.
The social dynamics that influence black children to prefer white dolls, and some African Americans to pass themselves off as white, would seem to negate the reverse - whites passing as black - but does it?
Other races have long embraced much of African-American culture — music, speech and dress for example. That Ms. Dolezal went all in is perhaps explained by her childhood experience. According to her mother, Ms. Dolezal began disguising herself after the family had adopted four African-American children.
Ms. Dolezal admitted as much in a television interview.
As a 5-year-old, “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and the black curly hair,” she said.
“That was shot down. I was socially conditioned to not own that, and to be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me and narrated to me.”
And even now, after her parents have exposed her, Ms. Dolezal remained steadfast and unapologetic in her cultural identity choice.
“While challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness, we can NOT afford to lose sight of the five Game Changers (Criminal Justice & Public Safety, Health & Healthcare, Education, Economic Sustainability and Voting Rights & Political Representation) that affect millions, often with a life or death outcome,” she wrote in her resignation statement.
“The movement is larger than a moment in time or a single person’s story, and I hope that everyone offers their robust support of the Journey for Justice Campaign that the NAACP launches today!”
Whether or not she is genuine in her social justice pursuits, I can’t bring myself to condemn her. Perhaps it is because she and her family have provided a painful lesson in race rejection that African-Americans, who have experienced it for centuries, could not convey to the general public, not in the way her parents have.
“I noticed in her letter of resignation there was no actual addressing of the issue of being dishonest about her ethnicity, nor was there any apology,” her mother said in an interview.
“So I see that as a first step in her path to moving away from the negative feelings that she’s had toward her family members, and I pray that she will take the steps necessary to embrace her true personal identity and not feel compelled any longer to be false or malicious toward her family.”