I have to admit, when Dolezal’s parents “outed” her as white, my initial reaction was that once again, corporate media was sensationalizing a nonstory for ratings. Of course, revelations since then have changed my initial reaction, but I still am experiencing ambiguity regarding this recent headline. In reflecting on this story with my students last week, one consensus we came to was that the most disturbing part of the story was the apparent intent to deceive on the part of Dolezal. Had she come out and been upfront that despite having been born to white parents, she identifies as black, I wonder whether the backlash against her would be so swift and full of vitriol.
Since I have been reflecting on this story, of course a far more significant event has occurred that has once again put the collision of race relations and violence in America on display—the horrific act of terrorism in South Carolina by a white supremacist. I mention this only by way of highlighting that our culture is far from having confronted its racist past (and present) and to also keep the Dolezal story in perspective.
Here is where I am experiencing skepticism in condemning Dolezal as much of the mainstream media has been doing. Firstly, the notion of race as a fixed category—and biological one at that—is wildly inaccurate. Race is by and large a social construct. This is perhaps one of the most misunderstood facts about race—and I cannot stress the significance of this truth. While there are certainly some underlying genetic markers regarding race (but more so regarding ancestry rather than race per se), race is in fact not a biological concept. For instance, “biologically speaking we are all mixed. That is, we have genetic material from a variety of populations, and we all exhibit physical characteristics that testify to mixed ancestry. Biologically speaking, there have never been any pure races—all populations are mixed” (Spickard, 2014, para 10). This is a particularly salient truth given that one of the philosophical foundations underlying white supremacy is the notion that white superiority is genetic and immutable.
Having established that the concept of race is a social construct, or as some scholars refer to it, a “sociopolitical construct” that has received significant reconstructions over time, perhaps this establishes a more honest framework with which to analyze Dolezal’s contention of being black, despite the fact that her biological parents are white. Let me preface this by saying that in my view where Dolezal went wrong was with her deception—had she just stated that despite being the daughter of white parents she started to identify more and more with the black community as she developed her identity and personality, it is plausible that public outcry when the revelations of her ancestry did come to light would have been far milder. And I understand this—it is the masquerade that is turning many people off, and I agree with this. Moreover, Dolezal’s litigious history as it pertains to race also suggests more sinister motivations regarding her self-reported racial identity.
In a compelling opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Rachel Dolezal’s Unintended Gift to America” Hobbs (2015) similarly questions the backlash against her when she writes:
As a historian who has spent the last 12 years studying ‘passing,’ I am disheartened that there is so little sympathy for Ms. Dolezal or understanding of her life circumstances. The harsh criticism of her sounds frighteningly similar to the way African-Americans were treated when it was discovered that they had passed as white. They were vilified, accused of deception and condemned for trying to gain membership to a group to which they did not and could not ever belong. (para 5-6).
Similar to my argument here, Hobbs (2015) takes offense with Dolezal’s deception, and also goes on to point out that the revelation “…reveals an essential truth about race: it is a fiction, a social construct based in culture and not biology” (para 9). Of course, regardless of its origins, there are real systemic barriers that people of color have experienced and continue to battle every single day because of their racial identity. It is not my intention to overlook the racial disparities in this culture or to present this notion that people can claim to be any race of their choice.
In fact, what I am hoping to do by writing this article is to raise awareness regarding not only the malleability of race, but also the complexity of racial identity in the 21st century. To use myself as an example, as the child of immigrants whose parents’ native home was in the middle east, my siblings and I are first generation Americans, having all been born in the states. I do not, however, identify as white. Nor am I generally perceived as being white by others. I bring this up to point out the very critical role that perception plays in not only how we identify ourselves, but also in how others view us.
I self-identify as Iranian American, however, because that category does not exist on any official forms that I have to fill out, I check the “White” or “Other” box when filling out any official paperwork. However, I feel that neither of these categories fully define my identity, and in fact, can relate countless examples of discrimination that I have faced because other people have perceived me as belonging to other social, racial, or ethnic categories (I have been told more times than I can count, for instance to “go back to my country,” which always baffles me since I was born and raised in America). My experience also highlights that one need not “officially” belong to a given social or racial group to be discriminated against—it is the perception of belonging to a given group that drives prejudicial attitudes or discriminatory behaviors.
Of course, what has angered many in the aftermath of Dolezal’s deceit is the position that the fluidity she exhibited in identifying with a race other than the one of her parents in and of itself represents a form of white privilege. In perhaps one of the most eloquent responses to this story, another opinion piece in the New York Times offers such a view when the writer laments that, “Racial identity cannot be fluid as long as the definition of whiteness is fixed. And historically, the path to whiteness has been extremely narrow” (Harris, 2015, para 5). Harris (2015) goes on to conclude her compelling reflection by stating, “I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her” (para 13).
Lastly, I want to also point out that for even a casual observer of Dolezal’s behavior in interviews or given parts of her history that the media has revealed, it is plausible that she is not an entirely stable individual. That instability may have played a profound role in the deception that she lived in addition to her history of litigation. I find it perplexing, however, that “mental illness” has generally not been fused with the public dialogue surrounding this headline (whether or not her instability merits an actual diagnosis remains unclear, of course). However, in the aftermath of the massacre in South Carolina, “mental illness” has been fused with the perpetrator.
The notion that the perpetrator’s violence can be explained by mental illness is particularly problematic given that this oftentimes becomes the go-to of corporate media in the aftermath of violent shootings as a façade against a deeper dialogue regarding violence in America; in this case, namely, a deadly intersection of racism, access to firearms, and white supremacy.
It is my hope that the Dolezal case not be similarly reduced down to sensationalism, and that we take the opportunity as a culture to reflect upon the complexities of racial identity in this country. It is also important that we not lose sight of the fact that she is a human being who though perhaps misguided, has not committed the type of indiscretion that warrants such vitriol, particularly online. In lieu of the most recent explosion of racial hatred in South Carolina, I think it is important to keep the Dolezal story in perspective. It is also an important time for all allies in the fight against racism in America to continue our advocacy, despite our racial identification or categorizations. The most important box to check is the one in favor of equality and justice for all.
Harris, T.W. (2015, June 16). Black Like Who? Rachel Dolezal’s Harmful Masquerade. The New York Times, Opinion. Retrieved on June 22, 2015 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/16/opinion/rachel-dolezals-harmful-masque...
Hobbs, A. (2015, June 17). Rachel Dolezal’s Unintended Gift to America. The New York Times, Opinion. Retrieved on June 22, 2015 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/opinion/rachel-dolezals-unintended-gif...
Spickard, P.R. (2014). The Illogic of American Racial Categories. Frontline/PBS. Retrieved on June 22, 2015 from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/spickard.html
Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2015