The Rachel Dolezal story is an interesting one. Her story forces me back to my past, the late 70s when I was a teenager growing up in Tottenham, North London. For as long as I can remember, the black community would battle its way against racism as well as fighting to hold onto its self-respect and dignity. The encounters it experienced from the host community were many, but the one which intrigued me the most were those who hustled to befriend you, that is, to be you.
The girls I moved around with were black but there was a white girl, who also used to hang with us. Her name was Norma. She was pale in complexion, sported long blonde dreadlocks which she bunched up under a large tam bearing the colours of the Jamaican flag. Ackee and salt fish (a traditional Jamaican dish) was her favourite meal; Jamaican patois poured from her mouth as if its origins began there. We’d all meet up after school and most times our activities would involve roaming from each other’s house to the next and purposely checking out the High Rd (just so we didn’t miss the opportunity of accidentally bumping into some guy we were hoping to meet). Another one of our regular haunts was visiting the many record shops in the area. Norma would show off her knowledge on the latest reggae ‘tunes’, and could tell you about the forthcoming ‘pre-release’. Added to all these qualities was her relationship with black guys. They liked her. And if there was any resentment on our part, it was how we automatically melted into the background when she was around. She acted as if it was all natural to her. No one would confront her with any of this but we would discuss it behind her back.
There would be the odd occasion where she was challenged. During her predatory moments, when she was interested in a guy, it didn’t matter on whose toes she trod. Girls, whose boyfriends she took, would face her at one of the disco’s or at the local park where the fight would take place. In fact, when she was involved in a fight, it would not meet its expected conclusion. Guys would get involved and break it up before any damage was done. On another occasion, she was confronted by black girl named Rita from Stamford Hill. Rita had a reputation as a bully and she was also a good fighter. At one of the discos, Rita confronted Norma about her identity.
“And what do you look like?” Rita scowled with contempt. Norma just laughed with her locks swinging from side to side. Her blithe response was fearless. Rita, built like a tank could have floored Norma, easily. But as with Rita and the rest of us, there was an assumed feeling like some sort of edict, that physically attacking Norma would result in her parents, our parents and the police descending on you. In the days where Child Line was yet to be born, getting ‘lix’ from your parents was a fear, far greater than other parents or the police! Norma was sacrosanct: an untouchable, where she could do whatever she wanted and they’d be no consequences from us nor interference from her own community. Just as a pretender who has usurped the throne from its rightful Queen and remains unsurpassed, was like Norma. And just like a Queen holding court, she would ridicule her conquests and be untroubled by her defeats; she would inject and impose her opinions on top of our views while editing our experiences.
At times she would make it hard for us to criticise her when there were injustices. It would make her angry when young black men were being stopped and searched by the police or, pitied hard-working immigrants who could never satisfy the relentless criticism. And just like anyone of us, she was also contradictory. There were moments when her actions worked for us? I remember an incident which took place not too far from the Gestetner factory on Tottenham Hale, when one of us were called names by an elderly white woman. I remember Norma charging towards the woman, snatching her hat from her head and hitting her continuously with it. A crowd closed in as we all watched her belt the woman with such fury. It was incredulous to believe that Norma was doing this, on our behalf. We told her to stop, as the incident was taking place on the High street somebody was bound to have called the police. We dragged Norma away and the woman quickly retreated into one of the shops. I remember seeing the woman again, a week later. Maybe she recognized me, I don’t know, but she took one look, and crossed to the other side of the road.
Years later, one of the friends in the group, Brenda, told me she saw Norma in Enfield Town. She said Norma had married an English man and had two children. With the dreadlocks and patois gone, she spoke in a Standard English accent about her eldest getting into university and wanting the family to move to a better area. She appeared happy and satisfied but she did not ask any questions of us or the guys. Brenda, tempted to ask for her mobile number to arrange a reunion of sorts, sensed Norma’s disinterest to be reacquainted with the past. In fact, Norma wished her all the best when saying good-bye. ‘It felt final’, Brenda said ‘as if she didn’t expect to see me again.’
Brenda and I explored this. We remembered she did not have a good relationship with her family and perhaps found sanctuary in the people she moved around with. Being us, or having another identity perhaps enabled her to escape the shackles of her own life. Our readiness to accommodate her without question is what she embraced. Norma mimicking us or appropriating our culture, I did not see it as a threat because deep down, we all knew it wasn’t for real. How could it be? You could not compare her to the level Rachel Dolezal took it. Norma heading the Race Relations board or becoming a lecturer on Black Studies at Middlesex Poly by ticking the wrong ethnicity box? I don’t think so. I remember the time when we no longer saw Norma. We wondered what had happened to her. We called at her home where she had lived with her parents (they said she had moved out and staying with a relative, which I didn’t believe) checked her last boyfriend and she was nowhere to be seen. I think somewhere within us all we were not surprised. If I were to hazard a guess, perhaps black life was becoming too real. It was time to get rid of the disguise, since it had served its purpose, and head to the suburbs.
As for Rachel Dolezal, she had given lectures on black hair, helped to fight some of the injustices faced by the black community. You could say she had good intentions but spoilt it all by stating in one video that she is black. She used her make over, her knowledge to transition herself to secure a top job with the NAACP. But as one African-American writer Alicia Walters writes, ‘the black identity cannot be put on like a pair of shoes’. Norma did this and Dolezal is still doing this. I welcome Dolezal’s concern but I’m not sure whether pretending to be black or culturally nicking bits and pieces of a culture is the way to go about things. There are a number of white people who similarly hate injustices meted out to ethnic minorities but don’t find it necessary to pretend to be something they are not. Also I feel the dishonesty reduces the seriousness of a people’s experiences as well as mocking them.
The other key thing whilst practicing Mindfulness Meditation, you realise that you eventually learn to embrace and love who you are. As someone who has struggled over the years against the pervasive, dominant images that I see from the press and print media, forcing me to rework my look, hoping that one day, the reflection in the mirror will return the ‘look’ I want. Trying to exist in someone else’s image does not lead you anywhere. So whether I braid or relax my hair, I will always look like me. Rachel, I hope you’re listening…