Lines that Blur: Color, Race, and That Time I Published a Book at Age Fifteen

blurInitially, I had a different post in mind this week; something about my fear of flying as it’s travel season and the theme figures prominently in my forthcoming novel, “Wings of Wax.” Then the Rachel Dolezal controversy hit the net, and my flight plan changed.

As you undoubtedly already know, it came out last week that the head of the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP (who as of today has resigned from the position amid controversy) is a white woman, Rachel Dolezal who, in her lengthy fight for African-American rights, has been passing herself off as black. Dolezal, supposedly born to European-American parents in Montana, was raised with an affinity for black culture among adopted siblings, going so far as to deny her true identity.

For better or worse, this somewhat reminded me of myself as an adolescent growing up in Oakland, CA (Chocolate City) to a Greek-American mother and Greek immigrant father. As a teenager I often felt my heritage to be a burden, the Greek language and cultural traditions overzealously crammed down my throat. At the age of twelve, a time when most young people begin experimenting with identity, I identified more closely with black culture. Feeling a certain kinship to Jamaica (despite never actually having traveled there, though I’d been to Greece several times), I wore my hair in dreadlocks and wrote a whole collection of short stories highlighting the plight of urban, and mostly African-American youth. This book eventually became my first published collection of short stories, written under the lone name,“Apollo,” hitting the shelves when I was just fifteen-years-old. I knew I was Greek-American, but there was a temptation to pass myself off as something else as my publisher, Double Day, insisted on marketing my book (though they didn’t market it all that much) as “scribings from a a street-wise youth.” Looking back on that early accomplishment, I’m somewhat conflicted about the book being published at all–juvenilia though it is–but that’s a subject for another blog.

Science says during adolescence the brain’s frontal cortex is not yet fully developed, hence the tendency toward bad decision making and the ignoring of consequences. As I matured, I decided it was possible to hold an affinity for another culture while staying true to my own. I no longer saw my heritage as a burden, and the traditions I once tried to shun became the customs I willfully embraced.

I can identify with Dolezal’s strong feelings of wanting to inhabit another culture, but I couldn’t imagine going to the extent to which she did, to lie in order to gain access to college, and pass off an African-American man as her father. That seems wrong. She’s done good work for social justice, but it seems she’s even lied about cases of racial discrimination as well.

What’s most curious to me is that, in the case of Dolezal, we have a grown adult perpetuating this act. Race is a social construct, and racial identity certainly holds some fluidity, but it’s not right to view another culture as a costume one can simply wear for a while until they feel content to go back to their own heritage. As an adult, with a fully matured frontal cortex, one would assume Dolezal would have known better. I believe she’s at least partly coming from a good place, but I can see the point many in the African-American community argue, that European-Americans can’t truly be allies for black liberation unless they acknowledge their positions of privilege. And one can’t acknowledge such privilege from a place of self-misrepresentation.

Looking back on my angst-ridden teenage years, it seems an ironic era, given that I’ve recultivated so much love for my ethnic roots. I don’t want to pass judgement on Rachel Dolezal: I hope she can find a balance between loving her authentic self and holding a high esteem for another culture to which she feels kinship.

Posted in general on June 15th, 2015


  • Thank you for this thoughtful post! I live in this area. It’s been an issue that the ‘Inside Edition’s and ‘Access Hollywood’s have been eating up like caviar…First, I don’t know Rachel Dolezal. Never seen her, wouldn’t know her if she walked up to me and said ‘Remember me?’ No. But, I can say that there is a little more to this than what the countrywide media has posted.

    She may or may not be African American – and, if you lived in Troy, Montana and were African American (Ms. Dolezal’s parents), you might want to not let some things out. I’m not an expert, but it does seem as though Ms. Dolezal, on first blush, might not be all white – despite the recent revelation that she filed suit for discrimination against her grad-school college for racial discrimination and prefaced this suit with her declaration that she was white – many mixed raced folks do this. They have the choice. They have options that non-mixed people have.

    As I type this, there is a rally going on for Ms. Dolezal in Downtown Spokane. I can’t speak to her real ethnicity – and, really, neither can anyone else. What I can say is that she was a fearless advocate. And this is what the rally in downtown Spokane is about – despite what someone, or even she, claims to be, she was an effective advocate. This ‘effective advocacy’ is what this rally right now is promoting. The local chapter of the NAACP is behind her – they hope (and she complied) that she would step down as the chapter president (the NAACP has better things to do than defend a small chapter’s president) but, as was exposed by the NAACP’s hope that she not end her membership with the local NAACP, she was been exceptional in her role as advocate which begs the question: If she were so good at what she did, why would someone leak a SPD (Spokane Police Department) -sourced interview with her estranged parents?

    I think that this is more than it appears on the surface. And, I also don’t care if Ms. Dolezal is all African American or just a fraction. She was a woman who dared to complain in a community that doesn’t respond well to question, demands for justification, or ridicule. My biggest question in this situation is, what did Rachel Dolezal complain about that riled the Spokane Police Department?

    But, thank your for bringing this up. I think you have a sympathetic take on this and I suspect that whatever shakes out in the wash, it will need a sympathetic filter.


    1. And thank you for your thoughtful response to my article! I’m sure it’s an interesting time to be living in that area. I think most people don’t have an issue about whether she identifies herself as black, but the real problem seems to be that she fabricated so much of her background to get to where she is. Depending on one’s view, this could lessen a lot of the positive impact she’s had on the community through her good works. I agree that there does seem more to meets the eye here, no pun intended. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this situation.

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