The Rachel Dolezal story (the 37-year old woman president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP with white parents who for some time since leaving college has presented herself as black) has certainly got people’s attention. Given that at bottom it seems to be a story of one person’s attempt to start a new life with a new identity in a new community, something that is not at all unusual given the mobile nature of modern society, the media buzz is extraordinary. The reason is of course because questions of race are always hot-button ones and also because of this story’s man-bites-dog nature. Stories of black people passing as white are not uncommon and, given the history of slavery and anti-black racism in the US, quite understandable. But white people adopting a black identity, while not unprecedented, is certainly unusual.
Nowadays it is widely accepted that race is something that is socially constructed and not biologically determined. But what does that mean operationally? While that statement can be understood when talking in general sociological terms, it becomes less clear when applied to any given individual. Who gets to make the ‘social construction’? Who gets to say what race any given person belongs to? The community? The family? The person?
The problem is that although we say that race is socially constructed, when it comes to individuals we act as if it is biologically determined by one’s ancestry. For example, in Dolezal’s case, commentators are saying that since her parents say that their ancestors were white and since Dolezal herself called herself white while in college, that means that she is white forever. But if race is socially constructed, why would one not be able to change one’s racial identity if one’s social situation changes?
The reason such a switch is looked at askance is partly tradition but also partly because what race one is said to belong to has practical consequences in a few situations, most controversially when it comes to affirmative action policies whereby attempts are made to partially compensate people for the negative effects of belonging to groups that have historically been discriminated against. The idea of acting as if race is not a matter of personal choice but determined by ancestry is to prevent people who have had all the benefits of being white in America suddenly declaring that they are black at the moment when that might qualify them for a slight benefit, say in college admissions. If you have not had to deal all your life with the discrimination that comes with being black, should you be able to claim that you are black on the rare occasion when it might be advantageous? White people who claim that affirmative action policies are unfair to whites should be asked if they would have been willing to live their entire lives as black just so that they can check that box on college admissions forms. I think the answer they would give is pretty obvious, unless they are delusional enough to think that we live in a post-racial America where everyone is treated equally.
On the other hand if, for whatever reason, a person identifies strongly with a particular culture so that they have adopted all its salient features and want to belong to that group, why not allow them to call themselves that? Perhaps we should treat a person’s racial identity like we treat their name. They are assigned one at birth that is used as they are growing up but we allow them to later label themselves as they choose unless it is done for fraudulent purposes. If one is open about one’s identity history and says “I was born to parents who called themselves white and have grown up being identified as a white person but now feel more comfortable in the black culture and wish to commit myself to it, and so from now on will consider myself black”, why should we not accept the switch?
Viewed this way, the question becomes whether Dolezal’s switch was done for genuine or fraudulent purposes. I don’t know for sure in her particular case but reports suggest that as far as commitment to being black goes, she seemed to have gone all in, walking the walk as they say, and working hard to improve the conditions of the black community in the area where she lives. Kareem Abdul Jabbar for one says he has no problem with Dolezal adopting a black identity because of her demonstrated commitment to the cause of black people, though the tone of his essay has a slight tongue-in-cheek quality that made me a little uncertain as to whether he was being genuine in his support of her claim to be black.
[Y]ou can’t deny that Dolezal has proven herself a fierce and unrelenting champion for African-Americans politically and culturally. Perhaps some of this sensitivity comes from her adoptive black siblings. Whatever the reason, she has been fighting the fight for several years and seemingly doing a first-rate job. Not only has she led her local chapter of the NAACP, she teaches classes related to African-American culture at Eastern Washington University and is chairwoman of a police oversight committee monitoring fairness in police activities. Bottom line: The black community is better off because of her efforts.
Al Jolson, once considered the most popular entertainer in the world, rose to fame wearing blackface. He also used his considerable influence to help blacks. At one time, he was the only white man allowed into some of the nightclubs in Harlem. Ironically, Jolson admitted that when he performed the same songs without blackface he never felt he did as good a job. Some critics say it’s because while singing in blackface, he was singing for all downtrodden people, including his own Jewish people. And he found his strength and passion and power while identifying with another culture.
But Dolezal herself has not taken the ‘race is a social construction and I should have the freedom to choose’ stance. She has gone all in with her claims of being black based on seemingly biological reasons. When her own parents, who had adopted four black children in addition to her and her older brother, denied that she had any black ancestry, she went so far as to suggest that they may not be her biological parents.
I found this claim to be particularly interesting because I had just watched the documentary Little White Lie (2014) made by a young woman Lacey Schwartz born to white Jewish parents in the very white community of Woodstock, NY and who grows up thinking she is white, with her darker skin and hair texture being explained away by an Italian ancestor who was swarthy. (I discussed this film earlier.) She later discovers during her college years that her biological father was black and that her mother had had an affair with him. Schwartz grew up completely identifying as white but now identifies herself as black, even though her black biological father had no influence on her life. There is no evidence to suggest that something similar to Schwartz happened with Dolezal’s mother but should it even matter?
The whole Dolezal thing has now become a complicated mess with all manner of charges and countercharges being thrown around and new reports claiming that Dolezal’s parents are creationists who practiced home-schooling, and charges of child abuse against members of the family. I fear that the story will focus on the soap opera aspects of this case rather than explore the more interesting (to me at least) question of how we should deal with racial labels on an individual level.
This kind of story was ripe for The Daily Show to tackle and I knew they would be all over it.
(These clips aired on June 15, 2015. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)