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Ariel Gore

Author’s Note

Ariel Gore

Author of The End of Eve

The Year We Were Jewish: My Mother, Rachel Dolezal, White Nationalism, and Me

Posted by Ariel Gore on 14 Dec 2016

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Whenever I do a reading from The End of Eve, a memoir about my crazy mother’s last dying years, someone in the audience inevitably asks me if I think my mother would have liked the book.
“She would have loved it,” I say, “if it hadn’t been about her.” And I think that’s true.
It honestly pained my mother when anything negative went unsaid. She regularly panned other people’s memorial services if she thought the deceased’s Jungian “shadow” had been left out of the remembrances. She knew that the cycle of abuse thrived on secrecy and denial. She appreciated knowing the truth about human fallibility—as long as it didn’t challenge her own vanity.

*

I had the most uncomfortable dinner with a couple of teenage relatives before the recent election: Over spaghetti I’d made, they mansplained wild justifications for racism. They said “Black Lives Matter” was a terrorist organization. They talked about random crimes committed by illegal aliens. They said that Christians and white people had created the best and most just civilizations ever.
I was taken aback.
I argued with them.
They responded by citing statistics I hadn’t done the research to challenge.
Yes, they were Trump supporters.
Later, I learned that most of their impassioned arguments were taken, verbatim, from Breitbart News.
I realize that this is an admission that I’ve lived a sheltered life, but I’d never before shared dinner people who were vocally proud—really proud—of their white, imperialist heritage.

*

In the summer of 2015, when Rachel Dolezal, then-president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, was outed by her white family for being, well, white, the internet understandably lost its shit.
How could she pretend to be black?
And for years!
It was outrageous.
Almost unbelievable.
Except that somehow in America it was totally believable.
Punk writer Michelle Gonzales soon proposed the word “Dolezal” as one for the dictionaries: “The word dolezal, Czech and Slovak in origin, meaning lazy—as of late, has come to mean quite the opposite,” she wrote on her blog, Pretty Bold for a Mexican. “By popular usage the word is used to describe someone who works rather hard, going to extensive lengths to pose as someone they are not.”
Likewise, Gonzales argued, we could morph the word into a verb: “To dolezal, or to dozal for short, describes the act of expending a great deal of energy, time, and even money to coopt and perform another ethnic identity while concealing one’s own.—zalling (informal) – Verb: She married a guy from Mexico, and she’s zalling like she’s Mexican.”
I laughed hard when I read Michelle’s post, but it was a laugh of embarrassed recognition.
Because Rachel Dolezal wasn’t the first to be zalling.
Not at all.
White liberals been zalling for generations.
My mother was one of them. Her 1941 Los Angeles birth certificate doesn’t list an ethnicity beyond white. Her 2012 Santa Fe death certificate says she’s Hispanic.
After she died I went to visit my surrogate grandmother—an old Jew from Brooklyn my family bonded with the year we were Jewish. She roared with laugher thinking about my mom: “Remembah the year she claimed to be Native American so you could go to all the Pow Wows?!”
I didn’t remember the Native American year. I mean, how embarrassing. I must have blocked that entire year out.
I remembered the Jewish year, of course, and the African American year, and the more specifically Creole year, and of course the Chicana years. Dios mío, there were so many Chicana years.
“And she was from Beverly Hills!” My would-be grandmother howled.

*

Did I mention the part where my Trump-supporting teenage relatives are actually white-passing people of color? I can only hope we’ll be able to laugh about it someday: “Remembah the year you claimed to be white so you could be a white nationalist?!”
But it doesn’t sound that funny right now.

*

To her credit, my mother spoke near-fluent Spanish. (If you’re going to appropriate someone else’s culture, learn the language.) She had a master’s degree in Chicana art. She was infatuated with Frida Kahlo. But, as it turned out, that was about as Chicana as my mother got.
She often changed her name from Eve De Bona to Eva De Bona, but she wasn’t completely shameless. When she got offered a job teaching art on death row at San Quentin and the hiring staff member sighed into the speakerphone that blared into our living room, “I’m so excited that I get to hire a Chicana,” my mother caved and admitted the truth.
I guess it was one thing for everyone to assume she was Chicana based on her performances, but in that formal context of being offered a job her conscience—or something—couldn’t stay quiet: “I’m not,” she said, “I’m not actually Chicana.” Whatever her rationale, the revelation was news to my child-ass.
I was maybe eleven years old.
I’d been feeling like a jerk for not speaking Spanish myself. I mean, I was half Chicana, wasn’t I? I didn’t know why my grandmother always claimed to be French.
She, like my mother, dressed in embroidered Mexican peasant blouses and lots of silver and turquoise jewelry. She, like my mother, had a good tan.
“We’re not Chicana?” I asked my mother, confused, after she hung up with the woman who’d just hired her at San Quentin, regardless.
My mother waved me off. “Nana and Aunt Eva arrived in Los Angeles as orphans in 1910. We could be anything!”
And of course that’s true.
Like most children of multiple diasporas, I could be anything.
My pale-skinned, blue-eyed ass could be Jewish or Chicana or part Cherokee or part African American—or more specifically part Creole. This, too, is part of the American identity: Many of us have branches of our family trees no one talks about.
But more than that, we lie about who we are to gain and deflect power.
If we appear white, we can use that to our advantage when dealing with institutional racism, then appropriate the underdog to deny our culpability in that same institutional racism, and finally we can shed the new identity when we think it might get us into trouble.
Privilege a little? Here’s the icing on the cake: We’ll break down in tears if you call us on any of it—because “we’re not racists!”

*

Now that I know I’ve got young relatives who believe in justifications for racism and now that we’ve got white nationalists poised to take over the White House, it’s maybe more tempting than ever to disavow myself of this race of terrorists.
But we all know that would just be saying, “not my problem.”
“Not my fault.”
Denying our ancestors’ “shadows,” as Jung and my mother called them—and denying our own profit every time we’ve accepted unearned privilege—becomes a kind of vanity.
How about this instead: I’m white. And most of my ancestors were hard-working, complicated, and loveable in their own way, but they were wrong about whether they should subjugate the Earth or other people. Very specifically, they were wrong about white supremacist racism. I don’t know if they would go along with it if they had their lives to live over, but they were wrong when they didn’t stand up to it, given the living chance. And we are currently wrong every time we shrug off racism as either nonexistent or “just the way things are.”

*

I did a reading from The End of Eve in Manzanita, Oregon, last spring.
Of course someone in the audience asked me if I thought my mother would have liked the book.
“She would have loved it,” I said, “if it hadn’t been about her.” And I still think that’s true. We’re all interested in human cowardice as long as we don’t have to face our own.
After the reading, my friend Moe Bowstern said, “What’s up with the people who always ask if your mother would like your book? Who cares if she would like your book? You outlived her. It’s not your job to write a book that would please your mother.”
I’d never thought about it that way.
It’s not our job, either, white or not, to defend what our ancestors were up to.
We don’t do them any favors when we refuse to acknowledge their cruelties or their blind spots.
We don’t honor them by refusing to wake up ourselves.

*

Now the white nationalists say they’re tired of being ashamed of their whiteness. So don’t be ashamed. Just remedy your ignorances. And not with Breitbart News.
I’m not ashamed that my mother was crazy.
I just try to do better.
Our job is like Mother Jones said—to “fight like hell for the living.” And speaking of white ancestors, there’s one you can be damn proud of.

*

The “Founding Fathers” were hella bigoted.
But it’s not our job to forgive them or not forgive them, to write a book they would like or wouldn’t like. They’re dead. We outlived them. They’re not invested anymore. They’ve already taken it up with their gods.

Thank you. I am finding it so hard to put into words my frustration at my mixed race White Nationalist nephews.  I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve recently been hoping they are subjected to some serious racism as it might shake them loose of their delusions that they are white and that racism is acceptable. I recognize that is bad aunt behavior. Your perspective helps.

The Actually White Aunt on 15 Dec 2016

amazing article really interesting.Keep posting like that.

imagiacian from pakistan on 15 Feb 2017

Well?

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