Changing racial identities

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.)


  1. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    For discussion of the Dolezal family, see Libby Anne’s post at . Libby Anne, who is the product of a Christian home-schooling family and often writes about that peculiar cultural world, is not at all forgiving of Rachel Dolezal’s imposture, but she cites third-party evidence that the parents were child-abusers and may well have come forward specifically at this time in order to discredit Rachel as a witness in an upcoming abuse trial.

  2. says

    We Mexican Americans are often mixed race individuals. I know my mother always wanted to be considered white, although she never was. How easy is it for a person of color to change what their perceived race is compared to a white person?

  3. says

    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

    And I think the response is that it isn’t simply one or the other. It is a combination of both, as well as other factors. I mean, if biology wasn’t a factor, then if a black person didn’t want to be discriminated against, all they’d have to do is not be black anymore. But they really can’t do that because they are who they are biologically.

    Now, they can reduce discrimination by “acting” white. I.e, adopting things that are culturally white, because culture is another factor of the social construct of race. But they’d still have a hard time fully eliminating the biological components and would still likely face some discrimination, though perhaps less than had they not adopted white culture.

    This, I think, is some of the problem people, including myself (but not to the extent of the media) have with Dolezal is that, while she can adopt the black culture, she’s in a similar situation in that she really can’t do much about the biological factor.

    Also, I think it is the biological factor that factors the strongest into the discrimination aspect of that social construct of race. After all, white people have adopted aspects of black (and other) culture for decades. As an example, jazz used to be a black thing 100 years ago. But now it’s a big thing for rich white people.

    To put this last paragraph another way, I think culture isn’t much of a factor if the biology isn’t there. White people adopting black culture are still seen as white in the social construct.

    One last point that I would make (sorry, my thoughts are getting jumbled at this point) is that it is a social construct, meaning society decides how the construct works. One person can’t just come along and create there own construct and expect society to adopt it. Per the previous point, the social construct that has already been in place sees a white person adopting black culture as white (granted, though, few white people have adopted the culture to the extent that Dolezal has), so Dolezal can’t come along and cause that part of the construct to change.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    But even though race is based on biology, it isn’t really a thing from a biological point of view. If you shrunk a biologist down into a Fantastic Voyage submarine and injected her into a person, she wouldn’t be able to tell very easily what race the person was. The best she could do was to scan the DNA and figure out how many ancestors came from the African subcontinent within the last few centuries. But even then — just about every American whose family goes back more than a hundred years probably has both black and white ancestors. So it’s primarily a social construct.

    Whether what Dolezal did is ethical or not is, to me, less important than the excellent national dialogue that she has helped to spark about what race really means. Hopefully she may encourage people to realize more about how fluid our racial consciousness really is, and how much it informs the way we perceive people.

    One more point. There’s a lot of discussion about being a colorblind society, and whether we are or we aren’t . Well, obviously we aren’t, and this episode just underlines that. But I don’t see anything wrong with making it a societal aspiration. After all, the gay issue has shown us that society can change, often in less time than one might think. I don’t think it’s utopian to believe that we might become a whole lot more colorblind within another two or three generations. What would a colorblind society look like, and more important, what can we do to help advance society towards that goal? I think the Dolezal conversation (if not her actual act) may do a tiny amount to help us further towards that vision.

  5. doublereed says

    Well, describing race as a social construct just makes it even more confusing about what it means to identify as another race. That doesn’t get around the question at all. Still not a simple answer. I mean the comparison people seem to go for is transgender, but obviously that is a highly physical, biological thing, hence the surgeries and hormonal treatments.

    Calling a race a social construct doesn’t simplify the issue like you’re describing.

    @4 brucegee

    I see absolutely nothing utopian about a colorblind society. If anything, expressing cultural niches and trading specific cultural traits is extremely important. What we should strive for is not colorblindness, but non-discrimination and open-mindedness. We should be open about what colors we see, though.

  6. mnb0 says

    “The reason is of course because questions of race are always hot-button ones”
    In the USA. In Suriname we have a president who sometimes claims he’s black (actually a negro -- it’s not a condescending word here) and sometimes claims that he’s native Surinamese (actually indian -- not condescending here either). My son is sometimes white (Dutch, because of me) and sometimes Asian (Javanese, because of his mother). Everyone is OK with it.
    So it’s not switching ethnical identities that upsets me; I’m used to it. What upsets me is the accusation of fake hate mail. I read preciously little about it. You don’t write about it either, MS.

  7. A Masked Avenger says

    I’ve been pondering this.

    It seems as if Ms. Dolezal is in the grip of some… cognitive distortions, and is lying to others and probably herself, so she’s not the poster child for “transracial” people…

    But what about a child adopted and raised by a black family? Is that child fundamentally different from their biological child that might “pass” for white? Not in any meaningful way I can see. And so much the more if the child is swarthy and taken for African-American by appearance.

    So it does seem self-evident that some people should get to “belong” to a race that isn’t biologically theirs.

    It’s just that this woman isn’t a good test case, whatever it is that’s driving her.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    @5 doublereed,

    “Colorblind” may be one of those words that means different things to different people. I’m not thinking about it in terms of being monocultural — I just mean that maybe in a hundred years or so, it might be possible that our grandchildren, when they meet one another, won’t immediately be pegging each other based upon their skin color, and making assumptions based thereupon — a bit like what our friend from Suriname describes. You would notice skin color the way you notice hair color — it won’t necessarily come with a bunch of cultural assumption baggage.

    Have you ever seen the movie “The Last Dragon”? It’s far from being a great movie, but it portrays a fascinating picture of a world where peoples’ ethnicity seems to be something they choose, rather than something they’re born into. The hero is black, but his father runs an Italian pizzeria. The hero wears Chinese clothing and is trying to become a martial artist, but all the Asians he meets are doing breakdancing. It looked like a cool world to visit.

  9. anat says

    ‘Socially constructed’ tells you the concept depends on how society collectively defines it. But the definition that a society accepts at any given time can be based on all sorts of things including biological information.

    Whether the biological information is being used rationally or consistently is another matter.

    Once upon a time people from the southern or eastern parts of Europe, or even Ireland, were not considered ‘white’. It is possible that in response to white people becoming a plurality rather than a majority people from parts of western or central Asia or from northern Africa will suddenly be declared ‘white’ (as long as they are not Muslims).

    OTOH ‘socially constructed’ does not equal ‘individuals can choose’, it means individuals can choose only to the degree that society accepts their choice. Theoretically a younger Obama could choose to identify with his white heritage, but people mistaking him for the janitor would be telling him that choice is not a legitimate one for him.

  10. lorn says

    For a very long time there was the “one drop rule” but, with a few exceptions, mostly in the 20th century, it was not a legally accepted standard simply because it was well understood that a great number of families accepted as white could not pass such a stringent test. More recently DNA testing has confirmed the antebellum understanding that precious few southerners could pass the “one drop rule”.

    It is pretty well accepted that while people may be more or less African, just as one may be more or less Amer-Indian, almost all people are a melange of inherited characteristics picked up from a variety of sources. Race is a rough sociological construct based primarily on visible characteristic. Most of which do not reliably map to any particular group.

    Personally, but without having spent any great amount of time studying or contemplating the issue, I think people should be allowed to self-identify their race. Obvious visual discrepancies would serve to enhance our understanding of genetic depth and the artificiality of race as a concept, and might be turned to advantage for political or comedic effect.

    If Rachel Dolezal wants to describe herself as “black” I don’t have any problems with that. One has to assume that she has risen up within the NAACP because of her effectiveness and good works in advancing the goals of the organization, not the spray-tan and dye job. The whole thing gets strange when I contemplate that she went to work every day, for years, in a slightly more sophisticated form of black-face. Albeit, it is assumed, that she was not putting on an act to parody or make fun of black ethnicity as is much more commonly associated with black-face. Much as people coming from a dark skinned lineage might ‘pass’ for white if their skin tone is, or can be made, light enough and it is not considered parody. Passing for Italian or Amer-Indian, or other groups commonly considered ‘swarthy’ is another option. Irony being that Italians were not considered white for a long time and Amer-Indian were, at times, considered lower than blacks. That later part being a throwback to antebellum estimations of blacks which described them as trustworthy, honest, reliable and hard working even as they were not quite up to the standards of white people. That first part being flipped on its head after the war as their status changed from property to be admired to potential competitors to be denigrated.

    Clearly all of these considerations are perched high up on the very thin, flexible, and wildly inconsistent, but quite enduring, social construct of race so conclusions are contradictory, tenuous, and subject to change.

  11. anat says

    lorn, I don’t know all the details, but there are all sorts of wrongness in Rachel Dolezal’s actions. First there is the history of her suing a historically black college for discrimination as a white person. This suggests that she was motivated by personal gain more than by any kind of sincere motives.

    Regarding her role as an activist within NAACP -- claiming to be black when she isn’t is dishonest to the people she claims to be serving. A black person will have their personal experience of discrimination and day-to-day bigotry. A black person will have the disadvantages stemming from the cumulative effect of generations of discrimination. She has neither of these (though she may have the experience of being forced to oppress her black adopted siblings). She could work for black people as a white ally in the NAACP, and that would have been the honest thing. As it stands, she betrayed the trust of the people she interacted with within the organization.

    I don’t know if Dolezal ever benefited from anything tangible that was reserved for a black person. If she did, she took the place of someone else.

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