I was thinking about Rachel Dolezal identifying as black. In a racist society, race is used to differentiate and oppress. In a world where race truly didn’t matter Rachel would be free to identify with any culture she’s comfortable with. Were women who broke gender roles either as “feminists” or “lesbians” wearing pants (when that was radical) “lying” about being “women” or “passing” as “men”? Is identifying as “black” a crime? When a person dyes their hair are they passing as blonde or brunette – are they lying? The NAACP only exists because of racism – When Rachel headed up the chapter in Spokane was she engaged in advancing conditions for African Americans in the US? Protecting racial division by shaming her is ironic when the whole point of the NAACP is to eventually make pointless its own existence. It’s a complicated story that says more about the culture at large than Dolezal herself. Here are some comments from Laurie Shrage:
UPDATE (6/15/15): Laurie Shrage (Florida International University) was interviewed by BBC Newsnight last Friday about the Dolezal case. The interview prompted her to write the following, which she kindly agreed to share with Daily Nous readers:
Suppose a person is brought up in a white family and is treated from birth as a white person. Imagine further that this person discovers that one of her parents or grandparents, with whom she has had no contact, is black. Based on this new knowledge, if she were to “come out” as black, would we see her new identity as inauthentic, fraudulent, a kind of fakery, and an instance of cultural appropriation and opportunism? If she didn’t begin to identify as black, would we now see her as trying to pass as white?
Now imagine a person who is brought up in a mixed black/white family. No one in this family identifies as “mixed race,” instead they are all either black or white. Suppose one of the white members begins to identify as black. She has no known black ancestors, but she has black siblings. To gain acceptance in this new identity, she cuts herself off from white members of her family, and she closets her past as a white person. Should such a person be viewed as an imposter, fraud, liar, and fake?
The case of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane NAACP, who was recently “outed” by her parents as a white person, is being treated in the media as a bizarre instance of deception and fraud. This would make perfect sense if race was a genetically inherited trait. But decades of scientific research has shown that there are no racial genes, and there is more genetic variation within any recognized racial group than between groups. While there are genes for skin color, hair texture, and physiognomic traits, the classification of bodily traits as racial is culturally based and variable.
In the scientific community, race is regarded as a social construct because the rules for assigning people to racial categories are socially and historically created, and do not have any significance in a biological or genetic sense. A person’s bodily features may tell us something about the human populations around the globe her ancestors swapped genes with, but they tell us little about her culture, personality, abilities, traditions, and so on.
Saying that race is social construct does not mean race is not a socially significant and real category. Nor does it imply that racism is not real. Indeed, one thing we might be able to infer correctly from people’s bodily appearance is that they have faced a history of social discrimination in one form or another—experiences that have shaped their social ties, perspectives, and understanding of themselves.
Given that one’s racial identity is socially created, can we change our racial identities or the rules for assigning people to racial categories? For example, the “one-drop” rule assigns someone to the category “black” if they have one black ancestor. This rule once served an exclusionary purpose that many today would regard as racist and oppressive. Yet, if the person in our first example were to be accepted as a black person, it would be based on a “one-drop” understanding of blackness. Shouldn’t we contest this understanding, given its historical purpose and consequences, and also the choice of someone to identify as black based on it?
A person who identifies as black based on a problematic and historically racist rule may have good reasons for self-identifying as black. She may want to show her social solidarity with the black community, and she may feel that she cannot do so while she enjoys the privileges of whiteness. She may feel that others will identify her as black, based on the one-drop rule, and so if she goes on identifying as white, others will perceive her as racist.
Rachel Dolezal’s racial identity does not follow the historically racist rules of race assignment. Because of this, the media has treated her case as one of deception and fraud, and we see reporters trying to catch her in an outright misrepresentation of her familial relationships, and thereby publicly shame her. The media has uncritically accepted her parents’ understanding of her racial identity—parents whose motives should be questioned for forcibly “outing” their daughter and potentially causing her significant harm.
Whether Rachel Dolezal is really black is not a question I can answer here. Whether she can live a life as a black person depends to a significant degree on whether she can be accepted by others and by her community as a black person. With most social identities, there’s a gate-keeping process in which other members of the group are invested with the authority to say who’s in and who’s out. In the wake of the media storm, many black leaders and commentators have said she should be put out. One reason seems to be that because she does not have the characteristic experiences growing up as a black person, she cannot truly understand what it means to be black. This reason, of course, should exclude the person in my first hypothetical example too.
One difference though between the hypothetical case and this real one is that, once people find out that someone has a black ancestor, they will be viewed by others as black and begin to experience what life is like living as a black person. In Rachel’s case, in order to experience this, she had to hide the fact that she has no known black ancestors, and therefore is not black by conventional criteria. Importantly, Rachel has the choice not to be black, while someone with one drop of “black blood” does not. While this is problematic, the problem seems to be with the exclusionary one-drop rule, and the inevitable social discrimination that someone in my hypothetical case would likely experience. That is, there is a genuine problem that someone like Rachel has a choice to retain or not the privileges of whiteness, while others are denied this choice, and more importantly, the privileges of whiteness. These privileges include automatic social respect, trust, and inclusion. The real problem is that white identity is still a source of social privilege, something that the many recent stories of police violence underscore.
The upshot is that we should focus less on whether Rachel Dolezal is a fake, and focus more on how her story illuminates our own still very troubled and unscientific understandings of race.