By any financial standard, I've always been middle class. My family took vacations regularly when I was a kid and we lived in a house my parents owned. I had braces as a teenager and now I have nice, straight teeth.
But in a particularly immigrant-kid way, I wasn't exactly middle class, culturally. I pronounced a lot of words "wrong" because my parents have accents, and I never knew what bands or TV shows were cool. My parents, who were both hand-me-down-wearing youngest siblings in huge families, would never, ever buy me that classic Roots sweatshirt with a beaver on it.
When I left home to go to university, I still didn't fit in with the middle-class white kids I shared classrooms with, and so I spent a lot of my social time hanging out with a bunch of (very cute) skateboarding high-school dropouts. Many of them came from families that had gone nuclear instead of staying nuclear, and had lived without real parental supervision since they were adolescents. They were funny, and honest, and often called me out when I was being pretentious – they also often had trouble scraping together rent, which is not a problem I've ever had. I guess I was slumming in a way, which is a hard thing to admit. It wasn't on purpose, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.
I've been thinking about this in light of the runaway tale of Rachel Dolezal, the ex-president of the Spokane NAACP, who maintains that she feels, or is, "culturally black," despite growing up as blond as can be. One of the most interesting ideas I've come across in the endless pixels of digital ink that have been produced on this story is that of "immersion" – a term used mainly to describe how white people adopt the practices or look of another ethnicity, but one that I think applies pretty widely across the identity board. It applies just as well to sexuality (remember that '90s term "fag hag"?) or, in my case, to social class.
The idea is that immersion into a marginalized culture is one way we deal with the brutalities of historical oppression when our people are assigned the villainous role. A realization of personal privilege comes with a lot of guilt, and confusion, and uncertainty.
That's true whether you're talking about the horrors of colonial history – or, say, how the cute coffee shop I'm sitting in as I type this has displaced working-class businesses frequented by the people currently being pushed out of my neighbourhood.
And so, we immerse ourselves in a culture populated by people who are sort of hurt by our mere existence. Blond kids get dreads, or wear bindis; after a short stay in a foreign country, we pronounce the names of faraway cities with insufferable "correct" vowels, or start businesses selling their ancient goods. It's well-meaning, in a way: we want to show that we're different, that we think about this stuff, and we want to push away our advantages rather than figure out how to make sacrifices that mean something.
I think it's a normal, albeit very juvenile response. Hopefully, most of us get this out of our systems by, say, age 25.
Immersion might have been how Ms. Dolezal started, because victimhood was always her empowered perspective: Having sued the historically African-American Howard University for discriminating against her as a white person, she seems to have turned around and made herself black. The privileged have a special way of making these issues about their own, rather insignificant pain: think moviestar Ben Affleck convincing celebrated African-American professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to obfuscate Mr. Affleck's ancestors' slave-owning past.
One reason that it's particularly painful for a white person to pose as black (or, I think, indigenous North American) is because often truly multiracial people have been pushed out of those communities because they are physical reminders of the genuine rape of their ancestors. Attempting to escape who you are rather than grappling with it is a cowardly move, especially if who you are is the person on the lucky side of history.