People all over the nation were shocked to learn about the curious case of Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, who self-identifies as a Black woman, even though her biological parents are White.
Dolezal grew up in a family that included several adopted Black siblings. She completed graduate studies at a historically Black school, Howard University, and went on to become a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. Somewhere along the way, she began to feel more Black than White.
Realizing that she didn’t connect with the ethnicity she was born into, she did what she could to reinvent herself. She transformed her appearance on the outside to match the person she felt she was on the inside.
It may at first seem absurd to imagine that someone can change races, but this is not a new idea. Over the centuries, many lighter-skinned African Americans have tried to “pass” as White and succeeded. Historically, they were doing this as a means of escaping oppression. Life as a Black person was often difficult due to slavery, Jim Crow laws, institutionalized racism, and discrimination, depending on the era in which one lived. Black people have been passing as White for a long time, and although in past times this was illegal, the occurrence was rarely newsworthy.
Being racially Black is defined by the US Census Bureau as having ancestral origins in Africa, wholly or in part. Thus, persons we might call “mixed” (one Black and one White parent) would typically be considered Black. This definition goes all the way back to slavery, when such definitions were needed to identify who was property and who was free. “One drop” of African blood, made one Black, whereas one had to be wholly of European ancestry to be considered White.
The terminology itself can be confusing and is not always consistent. The word Black is typically used interchangeably with the term African American. However, use of the ethnic identifier, “African American” is specific to Black people raised in America, while Black is an all-inclusive word used to refer to people of African ancestry worldwide (e.g., Nigerian or Jamaican). The word White is used to indicate the European American ethnoracial group in America and can be applied to most Europeans as well.
One difference between race and ethnicity is related to the ability to self-identify. A person does not choose his or her race; it is assigned by society based on physical features. In other words, it’s the box you get placed in based on how you look. However, ethnicity is typically self-identified. A person can learn a language, social customs, cultural styles, and assimilate into a culture to belong to a specific ethnic group. The US Census Bureau allows Hispanic persons to choose Hispanic or Latino as an ethnicity, but they can also choose a race (e.g., Black, White, or something else).
Because of the way we have historically defined these terms as they apply to Black people, one cannot be an African American ethnically unless that person is also racially Black. However, this is problematic because race is not strictly biological. There is no bright line dividing one race from another, and most people in our country are a mixture of people groups. For example 10% of White people in the South actually have an African relative somewhere within the last seven generations. People with 15% or less African ancestry usually identify as White, while those with 50% or more African ancestry almost always identify as Black. My sister took a genetic test and was shocked to discover that she was 45% Scandinavian.
My children are what people would call "biracial." Due to the roll of the genetic dice, my youngest daughter appears White to most people. Whenever she asserts that she is African American or even mixed, they look astounded or say it’s not true. As a result, she often ends up succumbing to social pressure to identity as White, or she allows people to assume she is White. It’s hard to keep having the same argument to assert one’s Blackness in the face of disbelief and judgment. Contrary to certain mythologies, there are not many social advantages to being Black. So, why be Black if you can be White?
Given the advantages, privilege, and higher social status associated with Whiteness, why would a White person walk away from it? It can certainly seem like insanity to embrace the identity of a stigmatized minority, given the ongoing racism experienced by most African Americans.
But from a multicultural perspective, all ethnic groups have unique strengths and attributes, thus a person can come to love an ethnic group they were not born into. Likewise, a person can grow to hate a group they were born into. Many Black people learn to hate their group due to pervasive negative stereotypes and denigrating social messages propagated about Blacks. Likewise, some White people come to hate their group due to its legacy of enslavement, oppression, and exploitation of disadvantaged minorities. Many White people feel White guilt, and choose to take deliberate steps to right the wrongs of their predecessors. But few take this a step further and attempt to became an African American.
It’s easy to point the finger at Dolezal and call her a liar, but let's face it, we all lie. We lie about our weight, our height, our age, our “real” hair color. We lie to make ourselves look better. We lie to hide our vulnerabilities. We lie to avoid judgment. It’s a very human thing.
Wanting to change one’s race from White to Black is not easy, and there are no road maps on how to do it “right.” There are no examples, no role models, no Race Change Information Centers, no communities of similar others for support. In a situation like this it is inevitable that problems will arise, mistakes will be made, and face-saving measures may be employed. In other words, one can’t make a change like this and tell “the truth” to everyone’s satisfaction.
I can’t know all of Dolezal’s motivations for her actions, whether it was a love of Black culture, White guilt, or something more complex or even pathological. That being said, for a person to want so badly to be Black that they would renounce the advantages of Whiteness speaks to a very strong passion that shouldn’t be ignored. Some say that Dolezal, born White, never experienced the discrimination faced by real Black people. Based on the way she appears now, I would disagree. Others have compared Dolezal’s change to the transformation of Caitlyn Jenner, saying that if a man can become a woman, a White person can become Black. There are some notable similarities, although the context and unique histories of oppression makes these situations very different as well.
My question is this – what is so wrong with Blackness that our culture vilifies a person for trying to become Black? The real issue is that switching from White to Black defies the unspoken social order and therefore elicits social punishment. Dolezal's parents were so distressed with her “downgrade” that they needed to publicly “out” and humiliate her. After all, why would someone walk away from their genetic gift of all that wonderful Whiteness?
As an African American, I love my culture and heritage. I certainly denounce appropriation of it for the purposes of gaining attention, mockery, and exploitation, but I do welcome a greater appreciation of my ethnic group. There is a real social psychopathology surrounding race in our culture that fuels hate and shuts down productive conversation. We fear talking openly about race and resist learning about those who are different. Perhaps there would be greater racial harmony and more understanding if White people really could become Black.
Ingraham, C. (2014, December 22). A lot of Southern whites are a little bit black. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/12/22/a-lot-of-southern-whites-are-a-little-bit-black/
Johnson, K., Pérez-Peña, R., & Eligon, J. (2015, June 16). Rachel Dolezal, in Center of Storm, Is Defiant: ‘I Identify as Black’. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/us/rachel-dolezal-nbc-today-show.html?_r=0
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