Rachel Dolezal and the Ineffectiveness of "Going Native"

Sabrina celebrating New Years the Brazilian way in Brazil.

Sabrina celebrating New Years the Brazilian way in Brazil.

Recently, I was introduced as Brazilian in a meeting with the upper management of an organization. Now, anyone who really knows me, knows that I am not Brazilian. While this piece of information was incorrect, I chose to save the person giving my introduction some embarrassment by not correcting them. In that instance I knew that this group of people would leave the room believing that I was Brazilian and that I would be responsible for making the choice to clarify my actual cultural heritage. But I won't lie, the thought of them believing that I was from a place that I so adore was flattering to me. I even thought, "hey, let them think what they want," for a brief moment. I mean why not? I've lived in Brazil, I've studied Portuguese, I can cook a mean Moqueca de camarão and I Samba my butt off anytime I have the chance.

The temptation to "go native," or completely adapt and assimilate to another culture is real (especially for interculturalist and expatriates). So if it is my life's work to understand this culture, why can't I just let people believe that I am Brazilian?

The answer is two-fold. First, how can one truly relate to the culture of another if they have no understanding of what develops their own culture and second, credibility is everything. Since Rachel Dolezal is the hot-topic of the moment I will use her as an illustration of my points.

Losing one's self to go native jeopardizes one's credibility.

Culture can be defined as "the way of life passed down from one generation to another through learning." It is made up of behaviors, beliefs, values and thought patterns.

In the case of Rachel Dolezal, who made the choice to "go native," abandoning her Caucasian-american culture a few questions must be asked. Where and how did Rachel get her generational knowledge and understanding of the African-American way of living? If Rachel disowned her own cultural heritage what foundation does she have to build or understand another culture's behaviors, beliefs, values and thought patterns? What is her point of reference? The answers to these questions all point to the fundamental problems associated with attempting assimilation. Furthermore, any interculturalist will tell you it is impossible to completely rid yourself of your primary culture. No matter what she does, Rachel will always have the primary culture of a white woman.

Instead of building a stronger bond with the African-American community she has instead alienated herself. In addition, she has become a point of contention within a community she hoped to join and uplift. By allowing a false perception of herself she jeopardized her credibility as an individual and a thought-leader in the field.

The unfortunate result of her behavior has been predicted in many intercultural texts including the Handbook of Intercultural Training by Dan Landis, Janet Bennett and Milton Bennett. Truth is, she would have been better off, accepting who she is and integrating, or asserting both her identities openly. A passage in the handbook states that the, "integration strategy" causes the least amount of psychological stress and is most positive for both the "new-comer" to a culture and the established members. It goes on to say that "going native" is less successful than integration where a sense of one's own cultural roots provides a secure basis for reaching out to establish intercultural relations with others.

For those of us who are aficionados and allies, it is important that we take time to heed these lessons and learn more about culture than our perception of the behaviors, beliefs, values and thought patterns that make up identities. It is critical that we understand culture as a whole and how we can embrace our own identities to enhance our greater mission of serving these communities.