“Everybody wants to be Black, until the police show up.”
I wonder if Rachel Dolezal took a deep breath when she marked her race as “Black” or “Negro” for the first time on a form; whether on paper or online. If you’re American, you know the kind. The section at the end of whatever application you’re completing that purports to be for “information purposes” only. People are just now starting worry about the NSA collecting data on them? Seriously?! The IRS and U.S. Census Bureau have been doing it for decades!
I used to select “Hispanic.” Then, if I could, I’d also select “White.” I mean, after all, I can’t deny my Spanish and German heritage, no matter how much I try. And I’ve never tried. Some folks, even here in the U.S., still find it hard to believe “Spaniards” classify as “White.” I guess it’s their close association with Mexicans that goes back some, oh, 500 years and occasionally pisses off some pure-blooded Spaniards. Germans, of course, are definitely “White.” You really can’t get any Whiter than that. If you do, you’re not White, you’re albino.
In recent years, however, I’ve opted to select “Choose Not to Disclose” on that race section, which is a polite way of saying, ‘What’s this have to do with it?’ Or, ‘None of your fucking business!’ When I’d apply for a job, I don’t expect special consideration because I’m Hispanic, shy, only 5’8”, and / or have a nice butt (which I do). I’ve always simply wanted people to look at my resume and base their decision on that. I feel the same way about my writing. Don’t look at me as a “Hispanic writer.” Just look at me as a writer. Damnit!
The ongoing race debate in this multi-cultural nation took on a new and very bizarre twist last month when Dolezal, head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington was outed as a White chick. Or, mostly White. Her parents back in Minnesota produced photos of their estranged daughter with her naturally blonde hair and blue eyes; noting that they’re of Nordic European heritage, with some Indian mixed into the bloodline. Why Dolezal decided to darken her hair and try to masquerade as a Negro remains the central question? (All those “central” questions begin with ‘why’ anyway.) It’s confounded people as much as it’s upset them.
In the early 1960s, my mother bought her father a blue tie to match his eyes for his birthday. During a gathering at the home of my paternal grandparents (her in-laws), she mentioned that to my grandmother who merely replied, “Well, I don’t like blue eyes.” It startled, and even offended my mother who didn’t know what to say. But, many years ago, my father told me that his younger brother was born with blue eyes, and that their mother prayed they’d change color. And they did – to green, like his oldest brother and their father. (My father came out with dark brown eyes and blue-black hair, like his mother.)
My grandmother’s anti-blue-eye sentiments were surprising, when I found out later that her youngest siblings were all blond and blue-eyed…like their father. Looking at antiquitous black and white photos of my father’s maternal grandfather reminds me of the late actor Richard Farnsworth. My great-grandfather was born in northeastern México in 1866 and became a captain in the Mexican Army. He was married twice; his first wife died relatively young, some time in the 1890s. He and his second wife had a slew of children (as people tended to do in those days), of which my grandmother was one. Sadly, her mother died of the “Spanish flu” in 1918. The following year my great-grandfather moved his family to South Texas.
My grandmother’s ‘I-don’t-like-blue-eyes’ comment had always been a sore point for my mother, but a curious statement for me. It reminds me of the “blue-eyed devil” slur many non-Whites bestowed upon people of European ancestry. It’s supposedly of Asian origin, but like many urban legends, who really knows? Toni Morrison focused on this sensitive issue in her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970. The story follows a Black girl named Pecola who, while growing up in early 1940s Ohio, reacts to the brutality of racism by wishing her eyes would turn blue. Morrison’s frankness punched bigotry in the nose, and the book faced banishment from many libraries and schools. As a writer, I know that’s the worst affront to free speech. But I also know that, in an America confronting the legacies of Black slavery and Indian genocide, few outside of the academic and progressive communities wanted to discuss these matters.
In 2008, researchers with the University of Copenhagen presented a study claiming every blue-eyed person on Earth has a “single, common ancestor.” According to the researchers, up until about 10,000 years ago, everyone on Earth had eyes that were some varying shade of brown. Then, inexplicably, a mutation occurred within the OCA2 (oculocutaneous albinism II) gene, which resulted in a “switch” that “turned off” the ability to produce brown eyes in some individuals. Formerly called the “P” gene, OCA2 is involved in the creation of pigmentation in three areas: skin, hair and eyes. Apparently, blue-eyed folks have the least amount of pigmentation without qualifying as albinos, but still – according to some – means they represent the ideal human being.
I’m not certain where green, hazel, amber or even lavender eyes fall into this genetic stew. Oddly, though, green eyes are rarer than blue ones.
Findings by the Human Genome Project (HGP), however, have pretty much destroyed that theory. Initiated in the 1980s, HPG was a collaborative effort by a gallery of scientists representing a variety of disciplines with the goal of understanding all of the genes that comprise human mammals. Its roots actually go back further and can be traced to a handful of forward-thinking individuals.
One of them was Alfred Henry Sturtevant who began studying genetics in the color heredity of horses. In 1908, Sturtevant presented a paper on the subject to Thomas Hunt Morgan, a professor of the then-burgeoning field of genetics at Columbia University. At the time, Morgan had focused his research on Drosophila (fruit flies), which turned out to be an ideal candidate for genetic study. They mature in ten days; are less than one-eight inch in length; can live by the hundreds in small vials; require nothing more substantial than yeast for food; and have only four pairs of chromosomes. In 1911, Sturtevant landed in Morgan’s lab and, within two years, determined the growth rate of six of the fruit fly’s traits. Sturtevant’s discovery is considered the starting point for modern genetics; it led the way for more detailed studies of human and animal genetics. It seems odd now that scientists made the leap from fruit flies to humans in less than a century. But scientific research doesn’t always take a logical path – at least not from a casual observation.
One of the most intriguing results from such intensive research and analyses is the determination of what people who lived hundreds – if not thousands – of years ago may have looked like. And I don’t mean ethereal ideas developed from artistic studies of Roman frescoes or lost Michelangelo paintings. DNA analyses of human skeletons have produced the seemingly impossible: actual data of people’s coloration, weight and diseases, among other factors. Two years ago Dutch and Polish geneticists announced the development of the HIrisPlex System, which can identify eye color (and sometimes hair color) by pulling genetic material from human teeth.
Still, the concept that fair-eyed also means fair-skinned weakened with a unique revelation last year. In 2006, archaeologists discovered two male skeletons in a cave in northeastern Spain. The area, known as La Braña-Arintero, sits about 5,000 feet above sea level; providing a cold enough environment to allow for preservation. After determining both sets of remains were about 7,000 years old, scientists set out to learn what the men may have looked like. Each apparently had dark skin and dark hair, common traits at the time. But one, dubbed La Braña 1, also had blue eyes. For years scientists have also stated that, for humans to turn blond, they had to migrate far into what is now Northern Europe. This is credible, when you consider that some 90% of Nordic Europeans are fair-colored. But other people who settled into neighboring Arctic regions, such as Siberia and Greenland, are also at least light-skinned.
Genetic research has discovered something else: the natural occurrence of blond hair among some dark-skinned Polynesians (or Melanesians) is a distinct genetic trait. For decades, scientists believed that the fair-colored locks of some islanders were the result of unions between amorous and lonely European sailors and local women. That sort of tale has played out across the globe for generations. But, in 2012, geneticists at Harvard and Stanford Universities proved the truth isn’t so clear-cut. They studied 43 fair-haired and 42 dark-haired Solomon Islanders and found a gene for the blond coloring, TYRP1, on chromosome 9. More importantly that gene doesn’t exist in the European genome. That means the blond-haired gene manifested by itself in the Solomon Island population. No White folks needed.
DNA analyses proved the same with the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Despite their dark skin, many Australian Aborigines have fair hair and fair eyes. This compelled scientists to place them into the Caucasian racial group decades ago. But, as with the Melanesians, genetic researchers confirmed what the Australians already knew: they’re not inherently White. They’re not a separate racial group, as they’ve often claimed, but rather the descendants of people who left Africa and arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago.
Rachel Dolezal isn’t the first person to lie about her race or ethnicity. George Herriman was best known for his cartoon, “Krazy Kat,” which ran in U.S. newspapers from 1913 to 1944. Quiet and introspective, Herriman didn’t generate much discussion about his race. Some of his closest friends thought he was of Greek extraction because of his olive-tinted skin. In fact, Herriman was of Black and White heritage; born in New Orleans in 1880. When he was a child, his family moved to Los Angeles, primarily to escape the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South. Herriman wasn’t alone. Many people of similar mixed heritage took advantage of their fair, or somewhat fair, skin to proclaim themselves as purely White. It’s unknown just how many Americans spent their lives passing as White, but were actually mulattoes. It’s sad in retrospect, but that’s the reality many people faced. It’s even more frustrating, when you realize that Herriman, in particular, often featured African-Americans in stereotypical fashion.
While some people thought George Herriman was Greek, Gregory Markopoulos really was Greek. For years, though, Markopoulos passed himself off as a Native American named Jamake Highwater. Markopoulos claimed he was born on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana in 1942 to a mother who was French Canadian and Blackfoot Indian and a father who was Cherokee. In other versions of his life, he told people his mother was full-blooded Cherokee; he was born in South Dakota; and he was born in France. He even exaggerated his educational background. Still, he developed a distinguished career as a writer and expert on Indigenous American culture; publishing over 30 books and even took part in the recording of an avant-garde / jazz album in 1968. But Markopoulos’ true identity was exposed in 1984, when Native American activist Hank Adams published a stinging editorial about him in the “Washington Post.” Afterwards Markopoulos stopped claiming he was Native American, but retained his self-anointed expertise on Native American culture up until his death in 2001.
In the 1950s, a man calling himself Korla Pandit became a musical sensation with his own show, “Musical Adventures with Korla Pandit,” where he’d played a Hammond organ or a piano. Claiming he was born in New Delhi to a French mother and an Indian father, Pandit was considered the godfather of the exotic musical genre at the time. Wearing a bejeweled turban and not saying a word during any of his shows helped to seal his mystic nature. But, in 2000, two years after his death, “Los Angeles Magazine” revealed that he was actually born John Roland Redd in St. Louis, Missouri, and was African-American.
Ethnic switches have reached comical levels. In 1984, the world of wrestling – no stranger to outrageous personalities – saw the arrival of Nikita Koloff, “The Russian Nightmare.” Alleging he was a Moscow transplant, Koloff didn’t speak English for some 13 months after his first televised appearance. His “uncle,” Ivan Koloff, translated for him. Nikita’s real name is Nelson Scott Simpson, and he was born in Minnesota in 1959. “Uncle Ivan” was a Canadian-born teammate named Oreal Perras. After his charade and wrestling career ended, Simpson became a “born-again Christian” and established his own ministry.
Ethnic alterations have resulted in legal disputes. In 1998, a man calling himself JoJo Chokal-Ingam was accepted into Saint Louis University Medical School. He identified as African-American. But JoJo’s first name was actually Vijay, and he was Indian-American (the “Slurpee” kind of Indian, not the casino kind) who grew up in Boston. Vijay wanted desperately to get into medical school, but felt his 3.1 GPA was a hindrance. The fact that about half of the 22 institutions to which he submitted applications, including Saint Louis, interviewed him seemed to confirm his anxiety. So, he shaved his head, cut his long eyelashes and represented himself as Black. That apparently got him the necessary academic attention and final acceptance into Saint Louis. It also garnered the unwanted suspicions of store owners and harassment by police; results, he admits, he didn’t expect. But it also got him into trouble with the university and raised the ire of several African-Americans who knew him.
Some people have changed racial identities for purely nefarious reasons. In 1988, police in Sacramento, California were horrified to discover dead bodies buried in the back yard of a group home run by a woman calling herself Dorothea Puente. Puente had slowly worked her way into the heart of Sacramento’s Hispanic community by helping the downtrodden; people who were homeless or had no family to look out for them as they aged. A long series of curious events in the 1980s revealed Puente was a cunning murderer who killed at least three (and perhaps as many as nine) of her tenants. Others disappeared. But it also revealed Puente’s true identity: Dorothea Helen Gray, a California native from a broken home who was married three times; had three children; and once ran a brothel. It was a blow to the local Hispanic community. No one really seemed to think much about Gray’s fair-colored physical attributes. That, like her ethnicity, was not important in the long run.
What does this all have to do with Rachel Dolezal? Well…a lot. If Dolezal wanted to bring any kind of awareness to racial injustices, she didn’t have to go so far as to darken and frizz her hair (which is somewhat patronizing), or visit tanning booths (which is unhealthy). John Howard Griffin underwent a similar experiment (using chemicals and ultraviolet light to darken his skin) to learn what it felt like to be a Negro traveling through segregated Mississippi in 1959. He documented his experiences – and their frightening repercussions – in his groundbreaking 1961 book, “Black Like Me.” Dolezal could have focused on her Native American heritage, even if it’s a small part of her ancestry. After all, the indigenous peoples of the Americas have endured the longest-lasting and most extensive genocide in human history. She also might want to read Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies,” and focus on Chapter 19: “How Africa Became Black.”
Coloring aside, I refer back to the Human Genome Project and something else its research discovered. We’re all part of the same race: the one called Human. I know that sounds like a touchy, feely, Kumbaya, hug a tree and sing a song type of things. But it’s the truth. Every individual on Earth shares 99.9% of human genes. There are roughly 3 billion pairs of DNA elements. That makes us all pretty tight.
I also want to turn your attention to artist and fellow blogger Bettye Harwell (Le Artiste Boots) and an essay she published after the Dolezal case blew up. Anyone who thinks they understand race relations in America could learn about Bettye’s own personal experiences. If you’re in a lighter mood, check out actress Maya Rudolph’s impersonation of Dolezal. Rudolph – who’s biracial – can also tell the wanna-be-a-Black-gal a few cold hard facts about ethnicity.
My father worked for a printing company for most of his life. One of his long-time constituents, an African-American man, once told him, “You know, it’s hell to be Black.” My father could relate. As a Mexican-American, he didn’t have it that much easier. He and the father of two of my closest friends, a brother and sister, grew up together in East Dallas. A few years ago the sister reiterated how surprised she was that our fathers knew one another and subsequently, that I’d come to know her and her brother.
“All those old Mexicans knew each other,” I informed her. “They all hung around each other. They had to! It was the only way they could survive back then.”
My mother mentioned once that the insurance company where she used to work didn’t get its first Black employee until 1971. This was the same company that, shortly thereafter, issued a survey to its female associates inquiring if any of them felt it was okay for women to wear slacks to work. My mother recounted another odd story from her youth. Her father, the blond, blue-eyed German-American, had trouble with some of his male colleagues at a car plant where he used to work in Dallas. They didn’t like the fact my grandfather was from Michigan, a Yankee. His supervisor – another White guy – was especially derogatory. My grandfather finally just looked at him and said, “You know, you have cow shit on your boots.” And then walked away.
During my own youth – grade school and high school – it was other White kids who slung racial slurs at me from time to time. Within the past two decades, however, things have changed. Other Hispanics (as well as some Blacks) are now the ones who make racist comments to me. But, whenever dark-skinned Hispanics mock my Teutonic heritage, I remind them that not all Mexicans – even the pure-blooded Indians – are “dark-skinned mojados.” I can’t recount how many times that almost resulted in a fist fight. But I feel it’s a fight worth the trouble.
People like Rachel Dolezal need to stop fighting so hard to feel empathy. Just treat people respect and move forward. Yes, we’re different in some ways. But yet, we’re all still the same.