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The GEM Debate: Race, Rachel Dolezal And Why It Matters

11406924_885275688206520_4068635727800776456_nThe GEM Debate:
Race, Rachel Dolezal And Why It Matters

Years ago I hosted a network news program. I made a lot of money, was driven to work everyday in a big black car and had one of the shinier American Express cards, among other fancy things in my life.

None of that changed one crucial fact.

I am a black woman.

The fact that I was going to pay for my Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses with my shiny AMEX then throw my packages in the back of a big black car and be driven home didn’t stop me from being followed in Bergdorf Goodman.

Once on assignment in North Carolina, I went to a small shop with my hairdresser and floor director, both of whom are white. The shop attendant followed me through the store, even as the others moved to the register to pay for their items.

None of this, being treated a certain way because of skin color, is new or different or specific to Rene Syler. And if you think it is, you better ask someone…

Related: Good Enough Mother; Race And Racism; Why It’s Still Too Hot To Handle 

When I was nine-years-old, my mother let me ride my bike to the store.

I will never forget the young, white kid who called out from across the street, words that hit me so hard I almost fell off my little, orange Huffy.


My mother talks of experiences traveling with her younger sister on the train to visit relatives in Jacksonville, Florida. While stopping somewhere in the south, the two girls just wanted an ice cream cone on a hot, dusty day.

Clutching their money, they were greeted by an elderly white woman who said, “Oh sugar , I’m sorry.. but you know I can’t serve you here.”

She couldn’t serve them there because.. they were black.

Related: Ask Rene: We’re Adopting A Child Of Color And My In-laws Are FREAKED! 

Buff tells a story about driving with his dad across country. Casey Parham was a truck driver who worked very hard to earn enough money to own his own rig. He was a proud, black businessman. But that didn’t stop the white waitress with a nasty attitude when they stopped for a bite to eat in Arkansas at the middle of the night.

“What y’all niggers want?” Buff recalls his dad squeezing his 8-year-old hand.

“Ma’am.. my son and I have been traveling all night. We were just hoping to get something to eat.”

“Y’all niggers will have to eat in the kitchen then.”

And they did. In humiliated silence.

“Now you know why I left here” Casey Parham told his son.

Related: Good Enough Mother: Rape, Racism And Teachable Moments

Why am I sharing all this?

Because in light of the Rachel Dolezal episode something needs to be stated clearly.

While the lying and level of deceit certainly needs to be examined, there’s one more thing. Rachel Dolezal, though married to a black man and the sister (but claims to be mother) of a black boy, is not African American.

She is black by choice meaning she can put it on when convenient and take it off when it’s not.

Being black is not a piece of jewelry or a leather jacket; it is an indelible part of your being.

That is the case for me and everyone in my family as well as a lot of other people I know. We are black 24 and 7 and that means being treated some kinda way by some kinda folks.

I’m not saying she cannot effectively lead the local chapter of the NAACP; in fact the organization is standing behind Dolezal. I am saying she needs to be honest about who she is (too late?) and admit that she cannot fully understand the entire black experience in America.

So your thoughts? Should Dolezal step down? Can she effectively leave the organization as a white woman?



  1. DawnKA

    June 12, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    I agree with you being black has a heavy history. We live in an era that is still dealing with racism. We have to hear others who have no idea or are uncomfortable with our experiences that they say we’re pulling out the race card. I just can’t understand what motivated her to go this far.

  2. Mark Androvich

    June 16, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    I agree with you that Rachel should have been honest about her race, and that she probably has no idea what it is like to live as a minority. However, her deception seems to be the logical progression of two current trends.

    First, we accept the fact that a person who is born genetically male can choose to live as a female because he “identifies” more with that gender than his own. So, is it such a stretch that a person born of one race decides to identify with another? If gender is no longer immutable, why is race? And if that’s the case, aren’t we supposed to accept a person’s choice?

    Second, somehow we now have the notion (quite racist, in my opinion) that people of the same race should act and think alike. Just listen to some of the comments surrounding Rachel– “She’s more black than [insert conservative/moderate black name here]” or “She’s done more for the black community than [Justice Clarence Thomas, Dr. Thomas Sowell, etc.]” This isn’t any different than when I heard State Senator Diane Watson call Ward Connerly an “Uncle Tom” and “wanna-be white” because he didn’t support affirmative action. The assumption seems to be that, if someone doesn’t agree with the NAACP or leaders such as the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton, somehow they are not “black” enough.

    I always thought that race was a genetic characteristic that we have no control over. It can have an effect on the way we experience life, but it doesn’t need to define us…unless we want it to. I also don’t expect all blacks or whites or Hispanics or Asians to think alike, and I don’t think people ought to be condemned for not following the party line. A wise man once said that people ought to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. In this case, Rachel ought to be criticized for her poor character, lying for personal gain, no matter what race she is.

  3. Rene Syler

    June 17, 2015 at 7:39 am

    @Mark Androvich: Again, she was black out of convenience which is an affront for those who are black 24/7. Black is not a costume (unless it’s Blackface, which is HIGHLY offensive). I don’t see Caityln Jenner as a choice; this is who she says she is. Rachel Dolezal was black when it suited her.. along with duplicitous.

  4. Aleasa Word

    July 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    I hadn’t seen this write up until today. I agree wholeheartedly with your commentary. So many just didn’t understand people weren’t upset about her doing work for the NAACP but the manner in which she perpetuated a lie of a struggle not inherent to her or her family. The struggle, to your point being one that we as people of color can not take off and put on when convenient. I’m glad she ultimately stepped down; however, I hope she gets the psychological help she is obviously in need of. More importantly, this should serve as a lesson to all parents to teach their children to be proud of who they are regardless of the skin they are born in.

  5. Mitch Mitchell

    July 27, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    You got it right. People wanting to associate themselves with being black are kidding themselves because they got to miss out on all the really hard stuff. To say you’re a part of it because of what’s going on now just doesn’t cut it.

    Although I’m not old enough to remember a lot of it, I was alive when Jim Crow laws disallowed black people from drinking and eating at certain places. My dad used to tell the story of having to pull over to the side of a road to get some sleep because black people weren’t allowed in hotels in some states. I had my own issues as a child of the 60’s and 70’s.

    Without the shared experience, folks are just pretending… and when real trouble comes, they’ll stop pretending in a heartbeat.

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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