She identifies as black: identifying with is not the same as identifying as

Insofar as we can tell from news reports so far, Rachel Dolezal got herself mired in a deep web of deception. She “identifies as black,” but has misrepresented a range of matters, including but not limited to her genetic ancestry. Further, she reportedly identified herself as white in a lawsuit against Howard University (perhaps that was just “for legal purposes”). Given that some African-Americans in the past tried to pass as white to evade racism, a white person trying to pass as black might, though expressed in the wrong way, suggest an experience of or desire for belonging in the African-American community. Conversely, especially where one’s employment is involved, it might be seen as exploiting them for personal gain or notoriety. At least at the moment, this seems to be the dominant public interpretation of her behavior.

In any case, her self-identification, whether intended disingenuously or not, raises an issue noteworthy apart from her (and most of what follows really is “apart from her”; articles do sometimes use sneaky lead-ins to get you to read them). There are genuine reasons why some people feel at home in some other cultural communities, especially when they have experienced grace, belonging and healing there.

Identifying “with” versus identity “as”

It’s not true that one can change one’s genetics or one’s past upbringing; it’s also not true that some experience of another community makes you as versatile with it as someone who lived their whole life there, or whose skin color subjects them to special scrutiny anywhere they go.

It is true, however, that we can identify socially with a racial, ethnic, national or other sort of community other than one determined by our complexion, our genes or our birth location. (And obviously if we do so, we should do it without misrepresentation or fabrication, in contrast to the behavior reported about Ms. Dolezal.)

In fact, many people today, whether because they are biracial, are second-generation children of immigrants, or because of where we’ve experienced a sense of belonging, experience multiple community identifications and loyalties. Some of these identifications we’re born with or inherit, such as those we wear on our skin. Some people who see our outward features, whether racial identifiers, body mass or other features, will always evaluate us through them. (Who can see me, for example, and not think, “Look, Mom, there’s a bald guy!”? Seriously, most kids these days are more polite than that; they’d probably instead remark first, “There goes an old guy!”)

Other characteristics, especially loyalties—whether religious, cultural, or otherwise—are often matters of personal decisions. Like many others, I identify with different communities on different levels—like most seminary professors, for example, I am part of both church and academy, which are sometimes very separate worlds. I likewise feel at home with my post-conversion Pentecostal background, my African-American Baptist ordination and church experience, my teaching at Asbury in a predominantly Methodist setting, and so forth. Multiple communities are natural to many of us with multiple experiences, even when some communities are also mutually exclusive. For example, in one location where I lived I enjoyed spending time with some friends for, most importantly, spiritual fellowship, and with other friends for intellectual stimulation. (Unfortunately, the circles at that time did not overlap very much.)

My experience of the African-American community’s hospitality

Closer to the question at hand, some Christians have found welcome and often a spiritual refuge in Christian communities where we differ from the dominant ethnicity. I know some Christians of Asian Indian descent whose friends are mostly white, white/Anglo Christians who feel a special bond in Latino/a or Korean circles, Latino/a Christians who feel at home in largely African-American churches, and so on.

I’m white, and there’s no getting around it. Sometimes when my wife or daughter braid another African woman’s hair, I ask them to do something attractive with mine; but, as they’ve pointed out, it’s pretty hard to make it work for a bald white guy. Nevertheless, the Black Church brought me healing during my time of deepest brokenness, and the love and welcome I found in the African-American community made it feel like forever home to me. Had there been a rite of passage like circumcision (as there is for entering the Jewish community), I would have undergone it!

People can’t infer that background about me from looking at me, but it’s an important part of my personal story. Yet I’ve learned over time that I ought to make use of my whiteness where it’s most valuable; my color offers me a distinctive vantage point for addressing racism in the white community. When I address racism, usually detractors won’t complain, “He just says that because he’s black!” (One reviewer of one of my early books did complain, however, that my “wrong” view on a racially-involved matter was understandable, given that I’m black. That makes at least two points where I suspect that the reviewer was mistaken.)

White though I am, it’s a special joy to be among African-American friends with a shared appreciation for African-American culture, and I have always cherished it when, usually toward the beginning of our relationship, some friends have apologized, “Oh, Craig, I forgot that you’re white!” (I won’t elaborate the context.) I was ordained in an African-American church a quarter of a century ago, for more than fifteen years served in several African-American churches as an associate minister, lived for a few years completely in African-American communities, and am the only white member in my immediate family. (Admittedly, the last datum is cheating, since my wife is Congolese, though she wrote a nice doctoral dissertation regarding African-American history.)

Nevertheless, I unfortunately still need to wear a hat outside to keep from getting skin cancer.

The pain in crossing barriers

We can connect with people from various backgrounds on various levels, though I always feel a very special connection in an African-American setting. I seem to be secure enough in my own identity to feel comfortable in multiple environments today (aside from being uncomfortable almost everywhere because I’m an introvert). We don’t need to worry too much about how others define us: the people who know us well know who we are, and we don’t need to worry about the opinions of people who don’t know us (unless they are heavily armed or want to offer us a nice research position).

Yet in the early days, I felt a yearning to prove myself every time I went into a new African-American setting where people didn’t know me. That was after I learned how real racism was and decided to join the black side of the racial divide in the community where I lived. Eventually the barriers (when they existed) came down with every individual, without exception. Sometimes the beginnings of the process, however, were painful.

Nevertheless, one young African-American man helpfully articulated the lesson that experience provided for me: “Now you know how we feel in white settings.” Some of the other African-Americans present at the time scolded him for being hard on me, but he was absolutely right. At least in the community where we lived, each of us would always be viewed by strangers primarily in terms of our race. Color is of course one of the first things strangers see; that’s not only natural, it’s unavoidable. In this community, however, that color perception often came, at least from whites, with a set of negative assumptions as well.

A live issue

Maybe not equally in every location and every way, but race remains a live issue in America today. Ethnic prejudice is not an issue just of complexion—it takes very different forms in many parts of the world, including in most of Africa, as my wife, who lived the majority of her life there, readily points out. Ethnicity is also a cultural construct and not just (or in many cases around the world, not primarily) a biological one. But because of the distinctive social history of this country, race remains a real issue here. To my pleasant surprise, my kids, who are black, haven’t yet reported conspicuous experiences of racism, I think partly because of where they’re growing up. (It has not been for lack of warnings about the reality of racism.)

But things were different in communities where I learned about racism, where, for example, one of my seminary professor colleagues (we taught in a rural southern town) told me that he had a cross burned on his lawn. Indeed, even in a pleasant suburb of Philadelphia, neighbors gathered in protest when our seminary president’s administrative assistant, who was African-American, was going to rent a home for one summer in their neighborhood. She was one of the kindest people we knew, but the neighbors protested her presence because it would “lower property values.” (I don’t know if they would care that, in Genesis 13:10-13, Lot chose to live near Sodom because property values were more important to him than the moral integrity of his neighbors. One gets the impression from Genesis 19:26-34 that this was not the healthiest moral choice for his family’s future.) For some different, further details, see

Because of this country’s distinctive racial history, the Black Church here has centuries of experience dealing with pain in a special way, and that’s one reason I found healing there at a time of my great need. For that reason, I owe a special and lifelong debt to the Black Church, and to my African-American friends who treated me, not like a generic white person, but as a brother in Christ and a member of their family. Wherever I am, I can never be the same because of that.

It’s very sad that Ms. Dolezal felt a need to misrepresent her ethnicity. But the news about her affords the opportunity to discuss why some other people find homes in cultural communities that differ from their own. I wish more white Christians in my country could experience the wonderful fellowship, love and hospitality I have experienced in the Black Church (or at least the parts of the Black Church where I have known it). Indeed, those who have not experienced living in and serving and receiving welcome from other ethnic and cultural communities don’t know what they’re missing. The bonds that we form can give us friendships that last and shape us for a lifetime.

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