There’s a line in The Jerk when Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, the adopted, simpleton white son of black sharecropping parents, receives some sobering news. His mother tells him: “Navin, it’s your birthday, and it’s time you knew….You’re not our natural-born child.” And Navin replies:
“I’m not? You mean I’m gonna STAY this color?”
I’ve been unable to stop thinking about this scene lately, ever since Rachel Dolezal took racial immersion to a whole new level. Now we are in uncharted territory. Jokes can be a great stop-gap to address the complex realities of the world, but Dolezal’s actions have forced us to reexamine the racial identities that have defined our lives to a large degree. America has always joined black ancestry, identity, and culture as inseparable attributes, and Dolezal makes us wonder if a greater nuance or flexibility is needed in this discussion.
On the Today show Tuesday, and to MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Dolezal in essence called herself black. I’m torn between responding with outrage toward her claim that she identifies as black and embracing her commitment to becoming a member of the black community and raising two black boys. The deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, and numerous others has only increased the awareness of how difficult it can be to raise black children in America. Taking on that struggle while also disguising yourself as a black woman is bizarrely admirable. And it is not a situation that members of the black community, myself included, would have ever anticipated.