Rachel Dolezal came to national attention in 2015 when people discovered that she was a White person living and identifying as a Black person. You can read more details in a recent New York Times article and interview.
I would question the standard liberal reaction to Rachel Dolezal–that is, that she’s a waste of space, mentally ill, and worthy of hatred. I am not playing devil’s advocate. Dolezal’s story has been of personal interest to me since I saw it in 2015, because I immediately recognized some of myself in it.
There were obviously many relevant differences between us, and many critiques of Dolezal seem justified. But it bothered me to see her receive so much hatred. Two years later, I’ve now had more time to think about it and sort out the issues.
So the thing is, I identify as Filipino, because my mother immigrated to the US from the Philippines. Her family was not Filipino by blood, they were Chinese. They had immigrated from China to the Philippines when the communists took over. So my mother grew up in the Philippines, went to veterinary school in the Philippines, and is culturally Filipino.
When I was growing up I mostly identified as half-Chinese, because what’s in your blood is what’s important, right? A few people would try to tell me I was Korean since I was born in South Korea, but I knew that was wrong. I was too young to remember any of Korea, and at some age I figured out that being born in a place doesn’t magically imbue you with the physical characteristics of the people living there.
It was only as I got older that I gradually realized that my Filipino identity was actually the important one. It just explains so much! I come from a Catholic background because the Philippines was colonized by Spain centuries ago and is extremely Catholic. People have often asked me whether I speak any Chinese, and the answer is no because the Philippines was later colonized by the US, and English was instituted as an official language. I also have many memories of Filipino foods like longanisa, chicken adobo, paella, and tikoy.
My Filipino identity can at times feel rather tenuous, because I’m a second-generation immigrant and half-White. Also, Filipino-American identity is rather tenuous to begin with–note the lack of concentrated communities or restaurants serving Filipino cuisine, despite Filipinos being the second-largest Asian-American group. But Filipino identity isn’t something I would give up, or even could give up.
My Filipino identity is not remotely transgressive. I am not breaking any culturally constructed boundaries of race or ethnicity. They way I identify is in fact widely accepted in every Asian American group I have ever participated in. I admit, it took me a while to figure out that it was broadly acceptable, since it’s not like Chinese-Filipinos who immigrate to the US are a common topic of conversation. But in general, people agree that it just makes sense to identify with the country that my mother immigrated from.
I do worry, however, that if the general public got a hold of my story, people without any familiarity with the construction of Asian American identities would simply assume that it was identical to the construction of Black American identities. They’d think I was claiming to be “transracial” or that I was engaging in some sort of cultural appropriation. When really, no, this is just how it works.
One good thing Dolezal did was make me reflect more on the issue. This has improved my cultural awareness, and increased my conviction that a Filipino identity makes sense for me.
Culture, blood, and appearance
Dolezal isn’t especially clear on why she adopted a Black identity, and no I’m not going to read her memoir to find out. But I imagine it has something to do with the fact that her White parents adopted several Black children,* and Dolezal picked up a lot of Black culture from her siblings. So she basically identifies according to a definition that emphasizes culture, rather than blood or appearance.
This is not unlike the way I identify. The country that my family immigrated from is important because it impacts my culture, not because it impacts my blood or appearance. The difference, though, is that emphasizing culture and nationality is standard for Asian American identities, but definitely not standard for Black American identities.
And there’s some justification for the differences. Asian American identities are based on immigration. What makes immigration hard is that you become immersed in a new culture. In particular, you have to learn a new language (although this doesn’t apply to Filipino Americans, thus the tenuousness of Filipino American identity). What makes being Black hard is socioeconomic disparities maintained by prejudice, and prejudice maintained by socioeconomic disparities. So the important thing is that physical appearance is the primary cue for prejudice, and that disparities are inherited. As for blood, it tends to be a useful proxy for both appearance and inherited disparities.
So, Dolezal appears to be defying what’s important. Do people see her as Black and treat her accordingly? Actually, yes, she says. But certainly that has not been true her whole life. Did she come from a family that suffered for being Black? No, not unless you count her siblings. I don’t mind that Dolezal defies our socially constructed boundaries of race, but I’m just not seeing the justification for the particular way she does it.
These are only broad strokes. Culture can still matter, such as when people make fun of Black names or AAVE. There’s also a thing where some people’s Blackness is questioned based on insufficient demonstration of Black culture–although I’ve been raised to believe that this a nasty and wrong thing to say. Wasn’t that a running theme in Fresh Prince? It’s an expedient definition of race that you wouldn’t otherwise use, but is used to put people down. Dolezal appears to have had an inverted experience, where even when she was presenting as White, people insisted that she must be Black based on her behavior. I don’t like that Dolezal appears to have accepted the same expedient definition that is used to put other people down.
But listen, Dolezal is just one person, and it doesn’t particularly matter whether you hate her or not. Dolezal piqued my interest because it’s one of the few things in the news relevant to my personal experience with race. It would have been nice if some of the energy spent on dogpiling Dolezal were instead spent talking about mixed-race experiences, which are otherwise talked about so little.
*Incidentally, Dolezal is sometimes called “transracial”, but such usage doesn’t respect the historical meaning. Historically, “transracial” has referred to black adoptees of white parents, such as Dolezal’s siblings. I would go along with this redefinition of “transracial”, except that it suggests comparison to transgender, a comparison I find completely off-base.**
**Since some people, including Dolezal herself, have a hard time with the transracial/transgender analogy, I’ll say more. Basically the only thing the analogy has going for it is that they are both involve identities that are popularly contested. The analogy does nothing to address the different reasons why the identities are contested. It’s also the kind of analogy you’d come up with if you thought LGBT people were the only ones with identities, and that everyone else just “is”. Dolezal could have compared herself to women whose identities as “gamers” are contested, and that analogy would have been just as uninformative.