Thoughts on my father

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Dad died on Sunday. I’m still waiting for the emotions to kick in, although I’m mainly concerned for my mother who’d spent three years visiting him daily – watching the decline of a once-proud man. A good day was one where she’d managed to feed him, or where they’d been a flicker of recognition at her arrival. On bad days he hardly woke, or lashed out angrily at the care staff trying to clothe him or change him or walk him to the dining room.

For 10 years the decline had been relentless. Each irreversible step pushing him further into the mental wilderness he eventually occupied: staring blankly at the wife he married and the children he reared. He saw my eldest born. Held him, in fact. But the photos reveal a man already in the throes of being hollowed out from the inside. Uncertain he could hold a baby safely, he clung on too tightly, his eyes betraying a mix of panic, pride and encroaching bewilderment. By the birth of my youngest he could barely speak – a thought would occur to him and be lost by the time the words were in his mouth.

Slowly, surely, the ravages of Alzheimer’s took him away from us, as if some internal janitor was wandering the corridors of his mind, switching off the lights as he went. And at certain points the lights were extinguished in the rooms containing us: first the grandchildren, then my sister and I, then his wife, and then any sense of himself. After that, it was a watching brief as all semblance of the father I knew was disassembled and removed: piece by piece, light by light.

Three years ago my mother could no longer cope with the human shell she’d once married and still loved. He moved to one of the two care homes that were to punctuate the last sad act of a life that had been marked by progress. Born in Plaistow in East London, he’d been brought up in a terraced house just off Green Street, probably the Newham thoroughfare most known to visitors because its course runs between Upton Park Station and the Boleyn Ground.

Indeed, he remained a West Ham supporter all his life – in fact one of the few ways to win a reaction from him in his final years. Yet he was always more interested than passionate: keen to see them prosper, though equally able to shrug off the inevitable setbacks. Of course, the stoicism of West Ham fans is legendary, and somewhat typifies the area – values that were to spill into the exurban Essex flatlands with the post-war diaspora that my parents were a part of. “White flight” some called it, though that’s to put a negative spin on people looking for a better life beyond Abercrombie’s greenbelt: fresher air for the children and a garage for the car.

That said, his most formative years – and an experience that returned to obsess him as his mental decline kicked in – were as an evacuee. Between 1940 and 1945 – aged between five and 10 – he shared a bed with two other grimy East London urchins in the house of a childless couple in the small town of Bishops Castle, Shropshire (pictured above, dad is the small guy on our left wearing a West Ham Speedway pin). “Uncle” George and “Aunt” Hilda loved him as one of their own. Meanwhile his mother, Ethel – her husband away fighting Mussolini – had moved to nearby Shrewsbury for the duration of the war and visited him no more than two or three times despite being just a 30-minute bus ride away. Once she came with a stranger he was told to call daddy.

It was a detachment that impacted the relationships he forged as an adult, although – as part of his later-life redemption – he came to recognise the damage such emotional neglect and confusion caused him, and to make amends.

Despite the war, my father was in many ways part of a lucky generation. The 1944 Education Act meant he was a beneficiary of a system that took the brightest working class kids and projected them into the professional classes – often via the sciences. He won a place at Stratford Grammar, which led – via Southwest Essex Technical College in Walthamstow – to him qualifying as a structural engineer. And that – in turn – became his ticket out of East London.

The values this gave him: of the link between hard work and self-improvement; of overcoming the genuine barriers to progress through sheer determination; of the power of education to change lives – eventually became my values, for which I’m grateful. He recognised that many doors remained closed to the working class, but that didn’t stop people from disadvantaged backgrounds making enormous progress. They just had to strive for it.

And his progress was certainly marked. Within a few years of qualifying he was made a partner at a firm of London structural engineers – soon starting their Brentwood office as the junior then equal partner to Arthur Crowe, who I remembered fondly as the kind man with the generous Christmas presents. By 1980 the firm had been renamed Crowe Kelsey and employed over 30 people. Soon after that it became Peter Kelsey & Associates and developed a national reputation for subsidence.

So I remember a moderately-comfortable upbringing in the leafy lanes of Writtle, near Chelmsford. I also remember a man with an acute work-ethic, as well as a deep pride in his achievements. He owned a Rover 3800 (numberplate SHK 444K) and the garage to keep it in. We went on foreign holidays (to Spain and Portugal and even on a cruise). And he was a member of a Masonic Lodge, although he gave this up: a step too far towards middle class respectability perhaps.

Yet he also had two children and a beautiful wife he’d met one Saturday night at the Ilford Palais. Partly to escape his now over-bearing parents (conceivably making up for their war-time neglect), he married aged 23 – immediately after his college-delayed National Service in the RAF. And it was here where he struggled. Too young for the responsibilities of family, he saw us as one more aspect of his arrival in the middle classes. We were the picture in the frame: the girl, the boy, the wife. We represented an idea of success – of respectability – while the reality of emotional neediness, of selfless investment, of unconditional love, dawned on him only slowly, and perhaps too late to prevent some collateral damage.

So his successes as a working class East Londoner turned middle class professional were nearly negated by the challenges he faced as a husband and father. I say nearly because in middle age he experienced a Damascene conversion. Seeing his mistakes, he spent 20 years as the model husband, as well as one of the best friends I’m ever likely to have.

Over late nights drinking single-malt whiskies and with a background of classical music (both tastes he acquired in later life but enjoyed all the more for it) we’d put the world to rights: our mutual interests in history, politics and economics gelling into unshakable – shared – beliefs.

Indeed, a final aspect to my father was his obsessiveness. History was his hobby, something he indulged with an almost unhealthy intensity. As a young child, I wondered whether books existed that were not about the Second World War, or whether there was a book on that conflict he hadn’t read. He then developed a keen interest in the English Civil War, so much so he became a leading light in the English Civil War Society: on the parliamentary side, of course.

And in later life he returned to his childhood – writing a book on his experiences as an evacuee. Mentally, his life had come full-circle, which was perhaps his preparation for the decline to come. By the time he was found wandering alone in a Chelmsford multi-story car park – an aggressive lift door causing mum to lose him – the only remaining badge of the man that once was were the letters after his name on the business card she’d put in his pocket for just such an emergency. No longer even able to ask for help, he still carried the qualifications that made him, and that the illness could never take away: FIStructE, CEng, FConsE, FGS.

It was a pathetic and drawn-out end, eased by the excellent care of Hatfield Peverel Lodge, and by the profound love of his wife, my mother Dorothy, who’d stuck with him during good times, bad times, and the ugly denouement that he didn’t deserve and from which he’s now been – thankfully – released.

Peter John Kelsey 1934-2015

The Service of Remembrance is at the South Chapel, Chelmsford Crematorium on July 16th, 3.30pm

Essex breeds outsiders like nowhere else

A version of this article appeared in the Essex Chronicle

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Bestselling author Robert Kelsey has just written The Outside Edge with the aim of helping those that “don’t belong” succeed on their own terms

What does a white male know about being an outsider at work or in business? Since the publication of The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World made by Insiders I’ve been asked this question several times. It’s a fair one: not least because the media usually describes “outsiders” as those not from the clubby world of white-male insiders that, for millennia, have carved up the upper echelons of business, politics and the arts between them.

Dominant media outlets such as the BBC assume outsiders are people like Christine Legarde – the first female head of the IMF – or Tidjane Thiam, the first black-African CEO of a FTSE-100 company. Sure, they deserve praise for reaching the top while overcoming barriers. But being an outsider wasn’t one of them. Both were brought up within elite families, and attended the best Paris universities. They knew the rules and manners of being an insider: how to behave, what to say, who to know and what doors to knock on. They had insider knowledge, in other words: a code of conduct reserved for an insider elite.

So imagine knowing none of that. Imagine leaving a mid-Essex comprehensive (one that would, these days, find itself in “special measures”) with one O’level (in geography). And imagine having the uncouth accent, manners, slouch, dress-sense and – let’s face it – attitude that came with the territory for 1980s products of what can only be described as a “lowest common denominator” education system. And then imagine banging on those same doors – trying to break into the elite (privately-educated) salons of the London media industry.

That, my friend, is what being an outsider feels like. And it’s something people from Essex know all about, whether white, black, male, female, gay or straight.

Yet that’s just half the story. True outsiders feel estranged from their own social group and even their families. No matter what the occasion, true outsiders look around them and wonder why they cannot relate. Why they feel mentally distant – even alienated – from the jollity and bonhomie others enjoy.

Outsiders are culturally and psychologically adrift – rejecting their own group or tribe, and even their family, yet being unable to find another group to call their own, though some jump between groups in the effort. It’s a common phenomenon, especially from people suffering childhood stress in one form or another (family break-up, bullying, sibling rivalry) or who, in adolescence, develop what psychologists call an “identity crisis” – one lasting into adulthood and even middle age.

For normal careers, such traits are a disaster, as you’d expect. Cynicism, disrespect for authority, rebelliousness – all combine to make us ineffective, even troublesome, employees. We end up the office clown or the bitch or laggard or blamer: all signs that we’re on the outside, looking in – feeling like we don’t belong.

And yet outsiders also have positive traits – ones that could be highly effective in careers and business if only we knew how to employ them. For instance, many – if not most – outsiders are highly creative. They see things differently, which makes them inventive. They’re rule breakers: “out of the box” thinkers, often because they struggle when thinking “inside the box”.

 

Essex culture produces outsiders

Certainly, that describes me, but I think it describes many Essex men and women. Something in Essex culture produces creative people that disrespect authority – potentially as a reaction to suburban conformity but also in defiance of the snobbery we face when trying to integrate with artistic London cliques.

The county’s famous for it. Whether comedy (Russell Brand, Rik Mayall, Phil Jupitus, Dudley Moore), art (Grayson Perry, William Morris, Arthur Mackmurdo), music (Depeche Mode, Blur, Prodigy, Billy Bragg), or even literature (Jilly Cooper, Martina Cole, Tony Parsons), there’s something in the culture that produces – well – culture, though subversive culture that’s novel, confrontational and somehow rebelling against the London elite.

It’s the same in business. Shut-out from the wood-paneled boardrooms reserved for the old-school-tie, Essex men and women have taken their outsider status and used it to their advantage – generating some of Britain’s most famous entrepreneurs (Alan Sugar, Barry Hearn, David Sullivan, Deborah Meaden and even Jamie Oliver).

In fact, if there’s one thing all the people named above have in common it’s that they’re entrepreneurs. Whether in business or the arts, they’ve done their own thing – often going against the advice and warnings of others to do so: the classic attitude of the outsider.

Yet outsiders succeed not because they’re mavericks. That’s just the start. What they need are the key attributes for turning their creative or business genius into success. These include:

  • A growth mindset – opening your mind to learning and opportunities.
  • A plan. Dreams are not enough: a routemap is required.
  • A strategy for getting through those shut doors – especially the ones saying “Essex man/woman not invited”.
  • Influence over others – including the gift of persuasion.
  • Judgement – helping you make strong decisions.

 

I guess hard work can be added to this, but – if there’s one thing most Essex people have in common – it’s a strong work ethic. Certainly, we’re grafters – an Essex trait that makes me proud to put my name to my homeland. Indeed, writing The Outside Edge has made me admire my home county and all its maverick “entrepreneurs”. I guess that now includes me, which is strange because – having rejected Essex as a young man battling my own identity issues – I now realise it’s the place that made me who I am.

I get it now: thanks Essex.

www.robert-kelsey.co.uk

 

Can outsiders make good leaders?

A version of this article appeared in The Director.

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Robert Kelsey, author of The Outside Edge, says their failings can be turned into strengths with a few simple steps

There’s no use denying it – outsiders make awful leaders. Our individuality and selfishness, along with our sensitivity and defensiveness, are an explosive mix, making us ignorant of the needs of any team.

Sure, our innate creativity can inspire others to follow – as long as their admiration outweighs the shame and humiliation we heap upon them. But successfully creating and corralling team activities, as well as spotting, developing and motivating talent? Very unlikely.

Or, at least, very unlikely without some form of Damascene conversion. If outsiders can step through the mirror and realise the impact we have on them – rather than remain focused on the impact others have on us – we can become excellent leaders.

Leaders, what’s more, in tune with the needs of our team, able to unleash their creativity, organisational competence and execution skills. Yet this is an uphill task for outsiders. Here are five steps that can help outsiders become leaders:

1. Leaders need to go on a mission

Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl opined that “what man actually needs is not some tensionless state but rather the struggling and striving of some goal worthy of him”.

Outsiders must find their mission: a cause – going way beyond any need for seniority – that all those involved can mentally invest in. If others can at least share that mission, they’ll see beyond your other failings.

2. Leaders need to develop a growth mindset

Stanford psychologist and Mindset author Carol Dweck divides the world into those with fixed, and those with growth, mindsets.

The former consider their attributes set in stone and spend much of their time concealing self-perceived weaknesses, which is a disaster when it comes to managing or persuading others. Those with a growth mindset, meanwhile, accept they have everything to learn and treat every encounter – including with juniors – accordingly, something that helps win people over.

3. Leaders need to set goals and delegate

Appreciating your team is one thing, setting them free to achieve quite another. But the mantle of great leadership is only bestowed on those who can.

A big leap in the right direction comes from meaningful delegation – what Ken Blanchard called “one-minute management”, in which we develop a joint vision of the final result before backing off completely.

This way, they not only learn skills (other than simply carrying out instructions), they own the work, which unleashes their creativity and is highly motivating. This should be combined with personal goal-setting for every team member so they can see how their involvement in the project furthers their own “mission” as much as the team’s.

4. Leaders need to control their emotions

Emotions are probably an outsider’s biggest barrier – not least because it’s our emotions that destroy rational judgement.

Many catastrophise their fears, accentuating their paranoia and making them poor decision-makers. Others – perhaps succeeding despite themselves – develop a preening arrogance that can lead to an inevitable, and disastrous, reckoning.

Yet controlling our emotions is, oddly, a matter of including them. If we first confess our hopes and fears we can ensure they’re just one part of our decision-making, alongside other elements such as process, control and creativity.

This will prevent your team feeling they’re being held hostage to your emotions and may help defuse your reactivity: a classic outsider trait you should learn to control. At the very least, practise your apology.

5. Leaders need to develop empathy

Many outsiders have what can be called “distorted empathy”, in which we find ourselves sympathising with society’s wrongdoers because we understand the alienation that generates deviant behaviour.

Of course, it’s not unhealthy to understand the motives of others – even what drives extreme behaviour. It simply needs to be strategically employed, allowing outsiders to empathise with the agonies of colleagues and, especially, juniors.

Being in tune with their emotional needs – not just our own – helps motivate them: not through terror or false incentives, but through the shoulder-to-shoulder pursuit of personal growth.

Ultimately, as outsiders we have it in our power to develop strong leadership skills, which – in turn – will help sharpen our creativity and multiply our output.

But we must first notice the impact we have on others rather than vice versa. If not, we’ll remain the lone wolf with, at best, some disciples who have yet to tire of our egocentric and selfish pursuits. And that hardly counts as leadership at all.

The Outside Edge: How outsiders can succeed in a world made by insiders, by Robert Kelsey – £9.99 Capstone

robert-kelsey.co.uk

@RobertKelseyWSY

Employing outsiders: a survival guide

A version of this article recently appeared in Management Issues magazine

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Outsiders are usually the disruptive workplace mavericks that employers cannot wait to see the back of. So how can managers turn them into positive employees? Robert Kelsey – author of The Outside Edge: How Outsiders can Succeed in a World Made by Insiders – explores the challenges and opportunities of employing misfits

 

There’s no denying it, employing outsiders can be painful. Sure, most misfits are creative – capable of thinking outside the box etc. But their individuality and selfishness – along with their sensitivity, defensiveness and dislike for authority – are an explosive mix, making them ignorant of the needs of any team, and certainly any leader. They can be viewed as troublemakers and condemned as rebels. And they’re a manager’s worst nightmare.

Of course, by outsiders I don’t mean vertical divides such as race or gender. Sure, being the “woman in a man’s world” is a challenge – generating self-consciousness, as well as concerns such as imposter syndrome. But they’re not intrinsically incapable of fitting in, unlike true outsiders. No, I mean the psychological, often behavioural, differences that divide sometimes troubled individuals from the group.

As I explain in The Outside Edge, the roots of such an estrangement are actually tribal, with certain individuals being incapable of adopting the norms, customs and practices of their allotted tribe (which, these days, can also mean their workplace community). This leads them to challenge conventions and even hierarchies, usually with negative consequences.

The roots of such estrangement can often be found in childhood stress: hence the defensiveness. By the time they reach adolescence, however, the feelings of “not belonging” have usually gelled into a full-blown identity crisis. Here, outsiders stop looking inwards and instead search beyond their community and peer group for identity. Of course, this makes them adventurers. But it also makes them almost impossible to control.

In the workplace, outsiders can feel trapped. They’re frustrated, though often highly competent. Many are risk-takers or mavericks. They’re creative, crafty, determined and certainly brave. Of course, some go on to become ground-breaking innovators in one form or another (music, art, film), while many more become entrepreneurs. Yet they can work well within a formalised company setting, as long as their managers know what they’re dealing with, as well as how best to incentivise them.

Certainly, utilising the skills of an outsider while keeping a lid on their destructive and self-destructive attitudes and behaviours, as well as their sometimes highly-volatile reactivity, can be an exhausting task for any manager. Most give up and plot their exit. Yet that’s a waste of energy and potential: far better to find a way of incorporating outsiders.

As a self-declared outsider I was a difficult employee, for sure. As an entrepreneur, can I now be a better employer of “difficult” people? Well – now that I’m the one managing, rather than indulging in, the sulks, paranoia and histrionics of the typical outsider – I try and utilise the insight gained from my own behaviour in my “terrible-twenties”.

Given this, what advice would I have for the poor employers of younger self? How should they have managed me? Six things:

  1. I’d have sold me the big picture. Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl opined that “what man requires is not some tensionless state but rather the struggling and striving of some goal worthy of him”. Outsiders struggle and strive but to no purpose. Give them a purpose and they’ll fight for you like no other employees. But that requires bringing them in on the big picture. What are the greatest goals of the company? And its founding principles? And how is our outsider employee a core part of that quest?
  2. I’d have set personal goals, and then backed off. Outsiders react badly to being over managed. So set some personal goals, and then set them free to achieve. A big leap in the right direction comes from meaningful delegation: what Ken Blanchard called “One-Minute Management” in which a joint vision of the final result is agreed before backing-off completely to allow them to, not only execute, but discover the route to execution. This way, they learn skills rather than carry out instructions, which unleashes their creativity and motivates. Yet, this should be combined with personal goal-setting: so the tasks they undertake are clearly within a required framework – part of their personal big-picture.
  3. I’d have encouraged better decision-making. Outsiders make terrible decisions, largely because they’re too driven by their emotions to make rational judgements. Indeed, emotions are probably an outsider’s biggest issue. Yet controlling their emotions is, oddly, a matter of including them – as advised by Edward de Bono in Six Thinking Hats. De Bono states that preventing emotions from being the secret saboteurs of decision-making requires an admission that they’re important (so shouldn’t be suppressed). But that they’re just one part of any decision-making process. Other elements – such as process, control, optimism and creativity – are also relevant. Both fear and pessimism have a legitimate place in the process, just not a dominant one.
  4. I’d have encouraged empathy. Outsiders have a problem with empathy. In fact, many have what I call “distorted empathy”, in which they become divorced from what society judges good and bad – even finding themselves sympathising with the people most others condemn. Of course, this can be disastrous at work – with outsiders potentially causing offence with every utterance. Yet you – as their manager – should try the same trick. Stand in their shoes, just for a moment. See their struggles. And you’ll see that being aloof, pompous and hard-nosed only entrenches their estrangement – pushing them further to the edge. In fact, one effective trick when defusing a situation is to apologise (for anything). It shows respect and appeals to their overly-honed sense of injustice. And it usually has them doing the same back to you.
  5. I’d have praised liberally, but watched closely. Outsiders love praise. It’s their currency, far more than money or power. To have their work validated by their seniors helps overcome the self-esteem issues that secretly boil away within them. Yet they do need watching. Too much praise and they can become arrogant – buying the propaganda. So keep an eye on their reactions for signs of hubris, which can be dealt by liberally-praising others (rather than through destructively criticising them).
  6. Finally, I’d have given me real responsibility. Outsiders are mavericks requiring containment. But they’re also brave, competent and (usually) clever. In fact, stripped of the emotional baggage they can make great leaders, which is interesting as the process of making them a leader also prevents them being disruptive mavericks. Though it’s a courageous manager….

The Outside Edge: How Outsiders can Succeed in a World made by Insiders, by Robert Kelsey – £9.99 Capstone.

Rachel Dolezal’s identity issues are America’s problem, not hers

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As a teenager, my father gave me a serious lecture about the fluidity of tribal identity.

“You can change your name,” he stated. “You can also change your job, your religion, your mates, your nationality and even – these days – your sex. But you can never – ever – change your football team.”

Yes, another relegation-threatened season was challenging my allegiance to the Hammers, which – to my father – was a tribal crime beyond contemplation. He was half-joking, of course, yet there was serious intent behind the flippancy: that identity matters. You can alter everything about yourself, it seems. But there’s no denying where you come from – your “tribe”: the badge of which – for post-industrial “working-class” men in Britain – was the football club you supported on Saturday afternoon.

So what would my unreconstructed father have made of this week’s hoo-ha about Rachel Dolezal’s identity “confusion”? To those who’ve spend the week on Mars, Rachel Dolezal has won an extraordinary level of media attention for being outed as a white woman while pretending to be black. No big deal, you might say – people can surely claim what they like? Yet Rachel was a regional president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), America’s most-influential African-American lobby group (going right back to the civil rights era), as well as an African-studies professor at her local university in Spokane (a rather pleasant-looking town in the north-western US state of Washington).

She wore her colour on her sleeve, so to speak, though it turned out her skin tone was out of a bottle and her tight perm the result of curling tongs. As for the family lineage – it was a lie, eventually revealed by a video in which her apple-pie parents (of Caucasian Czech-German American stock) offered-up photos of a blond, green-eyed young Rachel (see above compared to the later images of the new Rachel sporting her “natural look”).

For America’s outrage industry, Rachel’s crime has been her attempt to carry herself as someone she wasn’t: a black woman representing her minority in professional circles. Yet opinion divides regarding whether this was due to some form of personality disorder (“histrionic” being the most cited), or whether she was “gaming the system” to use the euphemistic phrase of Gary Younge’s in The Guardian (i.e. she was committing a form of identity fraud for personal advancement).

“Rachel has wanted to be somebody she’s not,” said her mother Ruthanne on the show-and-tell video – leading the advocacy of the “nutjob” defence. “She’s chosen not to just be herself, but to represent herself as an African American woman or a bi-racial person and that’s simply not true.”

Unsurprisingly, the “she’s a fraud” prosecutors are even less sympathetic. Here’s Alicia Walters, a “race expert” actually from Spokane (though now living in California) on Rachel’s subterfuge:

“Dolezal managed to put on an identity – that of a black woman – in a way that renders invisible the experiences that actually forged for us our identities as black women. She presented to the world the trappings of black womanhood without the burden of having to have lived them for most of her life. She represented us and gained status in both black and white communities as one of us, even though she could have worn her whiteness and talked to white people about their racism – something sorely needed in a town like Spokane.”

Indeed, the notion she could have “worn her whiteness” and still campaigned for the NAACP is a common refrain from those angered by Rachel’s deceit. But could she have become the regional president, or a professor in African studies (though admittedly one confessing to have never been to Africa)? We’ll never know.

But I don’t think Rachel a nutjob or a fraud. What I think is that she developed “role confusion” in adolescence, resulting in an identity crisis, which settled into a desire for a new identity (Erik Erikson’s the shrink on this one, in case you wondered). Psychologically, this is similar to the day I almost became a Chelsea supporter, or maybe the times I over-egged my Cockney credentials at college, or even like the day some of my heavy-metalist school-acquaintances turned up at the town disco in full mod regalia (Weller-cuts and parkas) and started picking fights with their former associates.

But, of course, we’re talking about race, which cuts through identity like a knife. The racial divide is America’s “original sin” (Obama’s phrase) – a cleavage cut so deep and so early into the country’s psyche that it permeates everything and everyone (something that truly shocked me while living in the US in the late 1990s). It’s an emphatic – genetic – divide: you’re either black or you ain’t – there’s no getting the right gear and haircut and simply joining in. And Dolezal most definitely ain’t.

That said, her role confusion is not all her doing. Her parents raised Rachel in a predominantly black area in the racially-charged Deep South state of Mississippi. Here: blond, pale, green-eyed Rachel was the misfit, trying to fit in. Her parents even adopted two sons, both black. So the white Rachel lived in a black neighbourhood with black friends and siblings, which means – just maybe – she does have some insight into what it feels like to be a minority.

Soon she had a black husband too, although it was the failure of this marriage in 2004 that started Rachel’s slide in self-identity – something that accelerated after a start-over migration west. Here she could reinvent herself, a very typical move from an outsider seeking meaning: one giving her life a new purpose through the pursuit of what really motivated her – the struggles, identity and politics of African Americans, as experienced by those closest to her at various points in her life.

Of course, as many people have claimed, Dolezal could have done the same while remaining officially white. After all, there are many white campaigners in the NAACP (as there were in the original civil rights campaigns of the 1960s). Yet these are mostly middle class liberals, condemned – both by white conservatives and black purists – as “bleeding hearts”. For her, the affinity with black identity went far deeper than white “guilt”. It defined who she was – in thought and (to an extent) in background, if not in actual genes.

So we should cut her some slack, in my view. After all, wasn’t it Dr. Martin Luther King who wanted Americans judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin?

That said – and given the deception – many would say it’s her character that’s being questioned. In her desire for authenticity, she took that fateful step. She lied that her white father was her step-father and her biological father was in fact black (even producing pictures of an unrelated black man from Idaho to prove it). Sure, it was a falsehood. Yes – given the quota applications of many university teaching posts – she may have technically denied a black person employment. But, for Rachel, it confirmed her intense affinity with the black community and, more importantly, her estrangement with the white tribe to which she was genetically – and arbitrarily – ascribed.

A new life, new ambitions and a new identity: using what’s useful from her past while ditching unhelpful complications. She’s hardly the first to do it and she most certainly shouldn’t be the last. Indeed, it’s something I advocate in The Outside Edge. For outsiders, seeking new identities as part of our quest for meaning is a very necessary part of the process. Rachel’s problem was that part of her lost baggage was her biological inheritance, which is a pretty unforgiving concern in American society. Yet that’s America’s problem. It isn’t Rachel’s.

 

www.robert-kelsey.co.uk