Identity and the Rachel Dolezal controversy

Like many, I find the Rachel Dolezal controversy both fascinating and troubling.

Ms Dolezal, head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in Spokane, Washington, resigned last week after an explosion of criticism over claims she has long made about her racial identity. In the past, she may also have pretended to be a victim of so-called hate crimes. Credibility questions hover like buzzards over her head.

Ms Dolezal's parents produced a birth certificate several days before her resignation from her very visible post as an advocate for racial justice. The birth record indicated she lacks any strain of African-American ancestry. This contradicts the way she had previously represented herself. She is actually of Czech and German heritage, her parents say (now the Internet adds "Swedish"), with some Native American roots.

The rights activist reportedly stepped down from her post without remorse or contrition. Rightfully, she said in a Facebook statement, and has since repeated, any matter of her personal life pales in significance beside pressing issues for racial justice in America. She strongly insists that she identifies with African-Americans, and does not see herself as "white" (Caucasian).

First there is the problem of identity. "Identity". How do we define that word?

There are thousands of people like me in Taiwan today. Rooted here for seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for two, three years at a stretch, and having lived in Taiwan for more than 30 years, what and who have I become?

I know what my identity was 40 years ago, but what is it today? Although I am still very much an American, in fact, during sporadic visits to my homeland over the years, I have truly longed to come back here. I feel more at home in Taiwan than anywhere else.

Other questions remain. What choices do we make in our lives which, over time, reveal values inside us which may perhaps surprise us?

Back in my former country, I knew over 40 years ago that I am a Democrat. I am that way by sentiment, but by choice, too. I am just far more at home with what I believe is the soul of that party than I am with anything else I see over there. Part of what defines us, inevitably, is our politics. We respect people of different views, but we know who we are, are at peace with that fact, and contemplate no changes. But politics is not automatic. To a degree, we choose our stripes.

I am certain my involvement with students over the years has deepened my heartfelt feelings for the people of Taiwan. This is why the future of Taiwan concerns me so much. (And that of Hong Kong as well.)

In the Dolezal situation, we might ask how the people to whom we give ourselves affect our sense of identity. Feelings of deep empathy for people who are of a different background may gradually change us for the better, and change how we look at ourselves, too.

Since her youth, Ms Dolezal has made choices in her education, career, lifestyle and focus of public service that have made her appear in the public eye to be of a member of the African-American community. She grew up in a family in which her parents adopted four children of colour. She married an African-American man. Perhaps on some deep inner level, she all but talked herself into believing that she had burrowed into the skin of another race.

She has burned herself, however, and burned herself badly indeed, by crossing the boundaries of the truth. She has stated publicly and, at times in circumstances that benefited her by so doing, that she is materially, physically, if you will, someone who she is not.

Many from the West or from other origins in Asia call Taiwan their home today. But they do not lie about their origins.

Now all the good that Ms Dolezal has accomplished in making Spokane and our world a fairer, gentler place for minorities lies somewhere tossed to the side of the road. People are not looking at the good she has done. They are looking in a figurative sense at her way of doing cosplay. They are conscious of the appearances, not the essence of her life.

How important it is to be who we say we are. How important not to play games and not to pretend.

Daniel Bauer is a priest and associate professor in the English Department of Fu Jen Catholic University.