Rachel Dolezal, born white of white parents has spent years pretending to be black. This has caused controversy, spilling into Twitterstorm; learned articles by all sorts of people; a statement by Rachel herself.
I am not Rachel Dolezal and therefore cannot understand fully why she felt the need to do this. I can see why people are upset at Rachel and her blackface charade but, being neither American nor black, it has little to do with me, and I can’t take an informed position on it. Enough people have said enough things that I have none to add to them, even if I wished to. This post is not about Rachel Dolezal.
I once interviewed a man whose South Asian father had left his white mother when he was very young. Though his skin was far darker than mine, he self-identified as white, which struck me as odd at the time given that anyone who met him was unlikely to agree with his self-definition. How important it is for people to identify with a group! This self-definition is our ethnicity: the cultural group with which we identify most closely. I expect that normally our self-identified ethnicity correlates closely with the colour of our skin; where we are born; the language we speak but sometimes, as in the case above and, apparently with Ms. Dolezal, there’s a disconnect.
There have been reports recently about the exclusion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds from top level jobs because of some informal posh test of cultural fit which excludes less well spoken young people who have not been independently educated or been to the “right universities.”
In my consulting career, I always took issue with the concept of best fit. Selecting for best fit often means selecting people with whom you are familiar, whose cultural background you can understand. A mini me. While this might well make for workplace harmony and assumptions of shared understanding, recruiting for the best fit ignores healthy diversity in a team. This can lead to poor decisions being reflected right up to the top of the organisation and never challenged by those of a different mindset simply because there is no-one of a different mindset or background around. To my mind, the cosy concept of best cultural fit is both exclusive and can lead to wrong-headed history repeating itself. In decision making, it’s always good to have a range of views and this is, of course, the business case for greater diversity.
An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.
Alan Jay Lerner: My Fair Lady
Part of the assumed posh test criteria is assumed to be people’s accent or dialect, with some accents deemed less favourable than others. Although the days of mandatory Received Pronunciation seem gone, and regional accents are much more “acceptable’ than they were, there still lingers some snobbery over accents deemed less intelligent than others. Lazy stereotypes still persist that suggest that a West Midlands or Brummie accent sounds stupid, whereas the Glaswegian accent is unintelligible.
Personally I like accents, and it makes me smile when people identify so strongly with a region that they cleave strongly to their regional identity. If I were an employer, however, I would look for an ability to communicate intelligibly and clearly and a wide-ranging articulacy.
I grew up bilingually but my dad always spoke English in the house with a very pure Home Counties accent. My mum spoke to me in Marathi but, especially as I grew up, I would always respond to her in English. As time went on, I became embarrassed by the at times awkward English of my parents and, having picked up idiomatic English only incidentally through school and college, I still get things wrong on occasion.
My father’s way of fitting in was that of assimilation. It was clear that the way I spoke made me more able to fit in with the aspirational middle class suburbanites who lived up the road. The way I spoke and my manners – instilled in me by a very elderly neighbour who had been a nanny “in service”- together with my sensible demeanour and school achievement ensured that I was accepted as a suitable playmate from all the white girls around me, whilst still ensuring that there was some curiosity value and kudos in knowing me, invariably the only Indian girl in the school: this was the 1970’s, don’t forget. People were right on.
And yet, perhaps because of this, I found it difficult to fit in with my parents’ small and widely-dispersed community. I spoke English without an Indian accent, I lived in a leafy white suburb and I learnt the piano. As time went on, I debated politics on the same level as adults around me; studied languages rather than science at school; did stuff on my own rather than as part of a group and NEVER dressed up in saris or Indian clothes to go to community gatherings. The music I followed was all western and I’ve only ever seen a few Bollywood films.I did not know how to be Indian enough.
And this was the paradox: I sounded English, and fairly posh English at that but to the English I looked, look, Indian. People who have spoken to me on the phone are often astounded to see a brown Indian woman when they meet me for the first time.
But I am a fish out of water in an Indian environment: I never learnt to cook Indian food and the one time I wore a sari to an awards ceremony where I was due to receive an award, I spent most of the evening in the loos at the Globe Theatre re-wrapping my sari which kept falling off. My atheism means that I’ve never paid much attention at religious ceremonies and I never know which way round to wave the oil lamp or the flowers. I’m simply not imbued with Indian ways of doing things. I’m not used to being Indian.
Uncharitably, some people might call me a coconut: brown on the outside and white within, it’s a really derogatory term of abuse. It’s not strictly true, of course. As usual there is a deal more complexity involved. Yes, most of my cultural identification is with liberal European values but I retain an understanding of the way things are seen in India. Truly, I’m a mix of both of these cultures. Above all, I’m an individual.
Perhaps that’s the point. We can choose whether we prefer to be are part of a group or whether we remain outside it. It takes some courage to stand up outside the security of a group and their received wisdom but we are who we are and that’s not really for others to judge, is it?