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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rachel Dolezal. No really. Not about the race thing, but the rest of it.

The story of Rachel Dolezal fascinated me. I'm not interested in delving into the ethical questions. I'm more interested in the story,--capitol Story-- and where researching it has taken me.

Most of us know the outline of Dolezal's story: she seems to have painted herself black (literally) but only after her parents adopted four younger children of color, after she attended a predominantly African-American college for grad school, after she married a Black man, gave birth to a mixed-race child, and legally adopted one of her brothers who had asked to be emancipated from his (and Rachel's childhood) family.

Her story includes possibly shaky details of race crimes against her that may or may not have been committed by Rachel, herself, though a neighbor did agree that he left a rope (from dressing a deer) tied to a tree on or near his property.

And, it appears that she does believe that she has become black, which I think is a strange concept, but certainly not outside history. This has happened in the past, more often than you would imagine. And  in the past, she would have been able to get away with it. Nobody would ever have been able to figure it out, as was true of those who crossed the color line either way in the days leading up until--well, now.

From a blog called Homeschool Anonymous, written by somebody named R.L. Stollar (before they shut down this line of exploration after deciding it was racial insensitive) there was quite a bit of background material about the church to which Dolazel's family belong (along with the Duggars, another cultural icon that I somehow missed until very recently.) Dolazel's family homeschooled, in a militantly fundamentalist Christian world where anyone might be a minion of Satan, family's are supposed to have a "quiver full" of children, and babies are "blanket trained" by being set on a small blanket and then punished (physically) if they put one toe off it. 

In this world, multiple children are often adopted, primarily so their souls can be saved for Jesus. If these new children don't look their adopted parents in the eye, they may be punished, often by older siblings who are required to do this. (One favorite tool for discipline is flexible plumbing pipe.)

The founder of this organization, an old guy named Bill Gothard, with Reagan-like magically black hair, stands accused of sexual harassment by thirty-four young women who worked for or with him, when he was head of the Advanced Training Institute, a Bible-based homeschooling program. 

Here is Jay Hathaway, a blogger on Gawker, writing about Gothard and the Duggars:

"Gothard last year denied accusations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted 34(!) women, claiming “I have never kissed a girl nor have I touched a girl immorally or with sexual intent.” He was 79 years old at the time.
Although Gothard was forced to resign as the head of the Advanced Training Institute due to the accusations, the Duggars apparently still follow the organization’s teaching plans, which include lessons on how to deal with sexual abuse in the home. 
These lessons include blaming the victim, avoiding any shame being drawn to the perpetrator, and having each child involved in the sexual abuse search their soul as to why they were so chosen--was it a lack of modesty? Temptation? Why were they unable to resist evil? The damage to the younger children, the ridicule to the cause of Christ, the shame of detailed publicity, and the scars to the life and reputation of the boy were indescribably painful to the family and their friends,” one lesson says, and then the boy describes what he did wrong and what he learned from it. 
This is the world in which Rachel Dolezal and her older brother, Joshua, were raised. (Joshua Dolazel is a memoirist and writing teacher facing charges of sexually abusing a younger sibling, in court in August.) This is the world where their younger siblings--those who refused to follow the family's rigid rules--were sent away to even more exploitive and physically abusive "camps." It's a world of isolation, paranoia, and patriarchy. It's the world that created Rachel Dolezal. T

And its that tension that fascinates me. I'm not justifying her behavior. I can't really draw conclusions about it, just as the African-American community is not of one mind about what she did. (Not much of a surprise, given that millions of people are not going to react with one mind about anything, no matter how much eumelanin they have in their skin.) 

But it's also a world that, because of homeschooling, can pass virtually unnoticed within a larger society, even when some of its members are reality show stars like the Duggars. I'm not saying this is about homeschooling per say, but rather about homeschooling within a rigid, patriarchal and controlling community--which could just as easily be Muslim or Jewish because, frankly, there are plenty of rigid, patriarchal, removed-from-the-modern-world Jewish communities where such abuse could happen and nobody would know and no children would speak about it, because they would think this was normal. 

But I live in a big city, an educated city, where the homeschoolers that I know seem to be mostly respectful Unitarians, and the only serious conversations I might have with someone about Satan are with Somali moms at school, very recent immigrants.

Except:  Someone who used to be a friend, a Lutheran, daughter of a Methodist minister, recently knocked on my door, asking me to come for a walk so she could explain her family situation. It has to do with a struggling child, a depression, a straying husband, a child out of wedlock, joint custody, and a lot of self-blame. This woman is trim, pretty, competent, educated, personably, a natural leader, and socially involved. She lives in a major city, but said her depression was her own fault because she had focused on the outside, on looking good. Later, on the walk, she spoke of her mother's criticism of said struggling child as "Satan working in" her mother's life.

I mentioned, lightly, that coping with a child in crisis is a huge drain, and emotional drains over long time are one of the primary causes of depression--not Satan, brain chemistry. I also said that I love the Jewish concept of Good and Evil, the good and evil inclination. Think of it as the angel and devil on the shoulder routine, except both are parts of us--and God created us this way.


Well, theologically, that's complicated. It has to do with the gift of choice--that we are not animals, but are given the gift of choosing between good and evil. It has to do with the ways we humans gain strength from challenges and how smug perfect people would be. It has to do with--well, it's easier to tell it in a story (of course): some rabbis caught the Evil Inclination in a cage. They were about to kill it, when one of them said, "Look around you." Nobody was working in the fields. Nobody was creating any children. Nobody was starting a business, or working to improve what they had, to learn more, to gain more. "Okay," they said, and let the evil inclination out, and people got back to it. The evil inclination can do a lot of good.

The ex-friend and I were close to home, but I mentioned this, hoping that it might create a window in her self-blaming prison. Working to change depressive thinking is hard enough without thinking it's your fault because you listened to Satan.

But the Dolezals and Duggars of the world don't--or didn't--have a window into another way of thinking, or even into a mental health support system that doesn't blame younger children for being molested by an older sibling--because of lack of modesty. Kept at home, taking care of a quiverful of children, they had few chances to learn other ways of looking at the world.

And okay, I'm sure there are tons of folk who have come out of that world, and recovered, who aren't lying about their race--to themselves, their employers, and to the people they care about.

But it sure makes you think. . . Dolazel didn't have to dye her skin to become one of the oppressed. She was oppressed, at least in her childhood. It seems more like she felt she had to dye her skin and lie to people who trusted her, so she could belong to a people who have created pride from their oppression. It's creepy and weird and bold fascinating. And unnecessary in so many way--Because she automatically belongs to the world of color due to loving Black children, whether it was her sisters and brothers or her sons, young men and women who face the potentially fatal consequences of being a person of color in the U.S., from higher blood pressure and premature birth risks due to stress, to a vastly uneven legal system, to the risks of driving/shopping/sitting in a skyway While Black.  Wherever she is these days, licking her wounds, I hope she does, finally, find a good place to truthfully belong.

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