So there’s the Rachel Dolezal thing, that I feel I should say something about.
Maybe she lied. Did she lie because she wanted to take advantage of opportunities that didn’t belong to her? Or did she lie because everyone else’s lie was her inner truth? Does the motivation even matter?
(Are transgender men lying to take back that $0.30 on the dollar that women are typically underpaid? Is a gay man lying if he doesn’t overtly bring up the fact that he sleeps with men in casual conversation?)
I’m not persecuting or defending Dolezal. Personally, I think her lies and truths need only be an issue to the people she had direct interactions with that feel duped. I think the national stage really doesn’t care about Rachel Dolezal. They care about identity.
When I look up the word “race” on Google, this is the result:
each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.
“people of all races, colors, and creeds”
- a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group.
“we Scots were a bloodthirsty race then”
- the fact or condition of belonging to a racial division or group; the qualities or characteristics associated with this.
“people of mixed race”
- a group or set of people or things with a common feature or features.
“some male firefighters still regarded women as a race apart“
So. Rachel Dolezal passed for black. I look white–but I’m only half. How distinct are these physical characteristics, anyhow? I’ve had people doubt the fact that I’m part black–basically every time it’s come up, ever. Before smartphones, there was no evidence I could produce on the spot to prove my multiracial heritage. And I’m pretty sure I have the same culture, history, and language as Dolezal–we are both American.
Am I lying if I join the NAACP?
Let’s take this from some different angles. Was Michael Jackson less black because he bleached his skin? What about Asians who surgically add folds to their eyelids? Are they less Asian after surgery?
How about Arabs who move to America. What do their children mark on the government Census as their race? Some people think they should self-identity as Muslim. And speaking of the Census, did you know we lump Indians (from India) as part of the Asian race? That pretty much blows the “distinct physical characteristics” definition right out of the water.
If you ask most white Americans “what kind of white are you”, they will generally respond with a breakdown of their cultural heritage: “I’m half Italian, a quarter Irish, and a quarter English.” Or French, or Dutch, or Portuguese, etc. These responses are legitimate ethnic groups with their own culture, history, and language–as noted in the definition above–but they are all identified as the same race.
“Race” is actually an indefinite umbrella term for a melting pot of physical attributes, culture, religion, and bloodlines. The more you try to clarify race, the murkier it gets. (Have you tried looking up the definitions of “Hispanic” and “Latino”?) What “my race” really defines is “people who are like me.” People who are not my race are “unlike me.”
This is what the reactions to Rachel Dolezal’s story bring up for me–our insistence that we need to obsessively characterize and label who is like us and who isn’t like us. Dolezal is raising questions about what the black race is: is it a clearly-defined range of common physical characteristics? But what about bloodlines, or partial bloodlines (remember the term “mulatto?”)? But isn’t it also a culture? And is that culture open to people who do not have any African descent? Is it open to people who have some African descent but look white? Should it be? What would that mean to the distinctions between white people and black people? Dolezal’s skirting between lies and truth is shaking a foundation no one wants to mess with. Most people–of both races–want this woman to shut up and get back into her designated box.
The ridiculousness that I see in all of it is that there’s no way out of being labeled–even when the label is incorrect, or only partly-correct, or meaningless when you get to know the person attached to the label. And worse, we have to acknowledge this arbitrary labeling because if we don’t, people will be treated unfairly based on their label and have no recourse for justice or route to equality.