Monday, June 15, 2015

Thoughts on Racial Identity

The story about Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader in Spokane, Wash., whose parents say she is white although she has apparently identified herself as black, is pretty darn interesting, isn't it?

My first reaction to the story was, "So what?" In an age when we allow people to express their gender regardless of their outward biology, is expressing race that much different? It seems to me that Dolezal -- who married and has a child with a black man, has black adopted siblings, went to a historically black university and has spent her life in the black community working with racial issues -- clearly identifies with that community, regardless of her childhood blue eyes and blond hair.

In fact, I'm a bit mystified by the hostile reactions some have exhibited toward her. To call what she's done "blackface" is stretching it. Blackface means playing black for laughs, for entertainment, in a way that is harmful or derisive. She apparently identifies as black (actually, multi-racial) and apparently lives it, which isn't the same thing.

Maybe the parallel with transgender individuals came to mind so quickly because, coincidentally, I just read Chaz Bono's book "Transition," which discusses his lifelong identification as male -- which he belatedly recognized -- despite being born female. If we accept the idea that gender identity is not strictly binary but falls along a spectrum, subject to many factors both physical and psychological, why shouldn't we make similar allowances for race? Especially at a time when humanity is more blended than ever before, and old racial definitions are less clear.

(Incidentally, I was interested to read that drawing a parallel with transgenderism was apparently the response of some political conservatives to the Dolezal story. God forbid that I am conservative! It doesn't seem like a particularly conservative argument to me, though.)

I do think Dolezal has some explaining to do about her motives. Did she merely lie to exploit the system and gain an advantage -- which given the levels of pervasive discrimination in our culture seems misguided -- or is this really how she sees herself? And on a deeper level, it raises questions about how society allows individuals to define themselves. President Obama is routinely identified as black, despite the fact that half his family tree is white. Is it really such an extreme step to allow a woman who may not have a single African-American genetic ancestor, but who grew up and lives immersed in black culture, identify that way? Given her experiences, I'd agree that she's blacker than I am.

Are all these definitions -- these social constructs, these lines -- really even necessary? Why do we have to check boxes on forms declaring our gender, our race? (And I say that as a lifelong supporter of affirmative action programs, recognizing that in the modern world such classifications are becoming less distinct. Where that ultimately leaves affirmative action I'm not sure. Perhaps that's where the conservatives are heading with their arguments.)

If there's a growing understanding among many of us that gender is fluid, then maybe, just maybe, race can be fluid too?

(Photo: A lion medallion on the Houses of Parliament, mid-May.)


  1. That Lion Medellian looks very scary!­čśž I work in a medical centre and we have to ask our patients upon registration whether they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander because the vaccinations they need for some diseases are different to Caucasions and also some are free for them too. We do not ask Negroid or Asian questions so I guess that Asian vaccination etc is the same as Caucasions and we have had few people who are Negroid until recently. There have been a number of Somalian and Sudanese refugees but probably not enough to worry about changing health policy for. Though the Australian Aborigine / Torres Strait Islanders only make up 3% of our population! They are excellent footballers though and make up 15% of Australian Rules Football players­čĆë

  2. I've thought about this a lot too and have come to the conclusion that I don't know enough about it to really cast any judgement. There's something a it. And her parents, too.
    What does disturb me is her claim of more than one hate crime against her, or at least that's what I've read. To me, that's taking it too far.
    I just don't know.

  3. I don't know a thing about living in the US and what this woman's action could mean and to whom but sometimes it helps to remember that we are all descendents of a small family/tribe originating from a forest in east Africa. And we as individuals of whatever race we consider ourselves to be got to be where we are and how we look now through migration and adaptation.

  4. I love this post, and I love Sabine's comment too. It's interesting to me that Whites are more up in arms about it than Black people are. Black folks are kind of amused, black women flat out give credit for how she managed to approximate the hair, but most Black people are like, hey, come on over here if you want. I'm not mad at you. And her colleagues at the NAACP are standing firmly behind her, which says something to me.

    If the claims of hate crimes against her do turn out to be false, that is problematic however.

    There have been some interesting stories posted on Facebook about the whole thing. I might search out and link a few of them on my blog (if I get far enough along in my work today! priorities!)

    So here's what I heard: Rachel Dolezal took her adopted brother because there was some abuse in her original family and she wanted to get him away from it. She passed him off as her son. She was also helping someone else bring sexual abuse charges against her older biological brother, and the case was coming to trial soon, and so her parents blew her cover now as a way to undermine her credibility in that case.

    I'm really intrigued by Dave Chapelle saying he will not be doing any comedy around Rachel Dolezal. There was a thoughtful interview with him in the Washington Post this morning.

    In any case, I appreciate your openness to the world, and your comparison with transgender identification resonates, even though its unlikely that any obviously Black person saying he or she identifies as White will get very far.

    Great post. Sorry for the rambling comment.

  5. My reaction what. But that's what we do, our national pastime seems to be destroying lives for entertainment. I have seen posts on FB that say she is manipulative, liar, has hurt her family, that she is a power hungry narcissistic user. I guess it depends on whose side of the family you are on. My opinion? It's none of our business.

  6. I hadn't really given this story much thought but, I read both articles you linked here and I can see the points being made. I don't have any problem with her identifying as black I think the difficult issue here is that she lied about it. I think that is where she's hurt herself. People with gender identity issues can say, "I'm male/female in every way except physically". She probably should have said "I'm black in every way but bloodline". It will be interesting to see how she handles things from here.

  7. More details of the Rachel Dolezal story broke today. Oh dear. The plot thickens. I think now that I don't know what I think! But I like your hopeful take.

  8. The whole thing makes me tired, to tell you the truth. But nearly everything is making me tired of late. I think the immediate dissemination of stories and everyone's opinions warps things beyond understanding. Can't we all just get along?

  9. JennieB: I can see asking those questions for medical reasons. Some conditions are prevalent only among certain races (sickle cell anemia, for example) so it would make sense to identify racial ancestry in medical situations.

    Ms Moon: Well, as Angella pointed out, more of the story is emerging! The situation DOES seem a bit off, as you say, but at the same time I still think she should be able to identify herself as black if she in fact BELIEVES herself to be experientially black.

    Sabine: I wish people would remember that more often! In a way it's a shame racial distinctions ever evolved.

    37P: Angella, you have a lot more background on the case than I did! It's a fascinating situation, isn't it? And it's too bad she wound up resigning, as it seems she was an effective leader, though it sounds like she could be a bit scary too. What's done Dolezal in, in the end, is her lying -- not just about racial identity, it seems, but about other things as well. She could have handled all this better -- been honest about her genetic background while pointing out her deep connections to blacks and black culture. She could have said, "I believe I am black by virtue of the way I grew up and the connections I've made in my life," and left it there. Who knows what people's reaction would have been? I think she may have found support.

    Ellen: Yeah, I must admit I don't know anything about her beyond what I read in the NYT. It's our business only in the sense that it raises interesting questions about self-identity.

    Sharon: Exactly. The lying was the problem. She should have handled it better.

    Elizabeth: There's a lot to be tired about! And you're right -- the way stories flare up and create knee-jerk reactions doesn't help any deep consideration of issues.