Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and Racial Identity

Identity is complicated. We're becoming more aware of the complexities of gender identity through the stories of transgender folks like Caitlyn Jenner. But what about racial identity? Is it possible to be "transracial," and is that what's going on with Rachel Dolezal?

I don't have the answer to that question, and I'm not suggesting that Dolezal's deception about her race can be compared with the experience of Caitlyn Jenner and others like her. But I do know that racial identity is not simply about biology, either. 

During my field research among high school students, I witnessed an interesting interaction about this very topic. Here's an excerpt from my field notes:

Donna, a substitute teacher, and one of the few African Americans on staff at EA, sits chatting with four African American girls. The conversation gravitates to boys. Adrienne, the only senior in the group, says in amazement, “You know, we only have two black boys in the whole senior class. Two out of forty-two!”
They spend a few minutes naming the cute black boys at the school, and complaining that there aren’t more of them. They mention one boy in particular, Henry. Chelsea, asks, “Is he black or does he just look black?”
The other girls glance up in surprise. “What kind of question is that?” asks Keisha from the middle position on the sofa. “If his skin is black, he’s black.”
Chelsea defends her question. “Well, like, he could be Dominican or something, and have dark skin but not be black.” 
They agree on this. Keisha, nodding, says “Yeah, that’s how it is with my uncle.”*

Chelsea's question, "Is he black, or does he just look black?" and the ensuing conversation show that these girls were in the process of figuring out what it means to be black. What makes one black?Clearly, these girls believed it was possible to look black, but not be black. For them, being black meant acting in a certain way. And, in fact, many students at the school had very strong opinions about racial identity performance. Although the school boasted a friendly environment, students continually talked about "acting white" and "acting black" and were not shy about correcting their friends should someone cross the line of what they considered proper racial behavior.

All of this is to say that all of us perform race (just as we perform gender) every day. We behave in ways that people generally ascribe to specific racial groups. It may not be fair, it may not be productive, but that's the way racial identity has evolved in the U.S., a country with a brutally racist past. So, in that context, Dolezal's claim that she "identifies" as African American may not seem so outrageous.

Except for a few small problems (and by small I mean gargantuan). First, Dolezal was raised as a white person in a white family, and so received all the benefits of whiteness. If you are not familiar with the idea of white privilege, see McIntosh's famous essay on the subject here: Unpacking Invisible Knapsack. In denying her whiteness, Dolezal is denying the way her whiteness worked for her early in her life. 

I'm not sure why Dolezal lied about being white. She is a social activist who, apparently, has done much to advance the cause of racial justice. Perhaps she felt guilty and ashamed of her whiteness. As I explained in my post about Ben Afleck's cover up of his slave-owning ancestor, guilt and shame are not uncommon responses when white people first begin to think deeply about racism. 

But here's the gargantuan part of the problem with Dolezal's behavior - in 2002, Dolezal sued Howard University, claiming she was denied a scholarship and teacher assistant position because she is white. She invoked the "reverse racism" discourse that positioned her, a white woman, as the victim of racial discrimination. She failed to recognize (maybe she forgot?) that places like Howard University were founded in response to the centuries of racism that denied higher education to African Americans, and that "minority" scholarships were established as an attempt to equal a playing field that is still largely unequal. (See previous post on institutional racism in education). 

So, when push came to shove, Rachel Dolezal, who "identifies" as black, performed her whiteness very, very well.

*This excerpt and more discussion of racial identity can be found in my upcoming text, Race Among Friends, available from Rutgers University Press in late October 2015.