Storm over racial identity of US campaigner
A woman who lived as an African American and worked as a civil rights advocate is under fire after revelations about her Caucasian heritage. Is she lying, or is the reality more complicated?
Rachel Dolezal was one of the most prominent advocates for African American rights in the state of Washington. She led the regional branch of a group advocating black causes; she wrote articles from a black woman’s perspective about race relations in the USA; she tweeted about the frustrations of daily life for African Americans and even gave a lecture on the cultural history of black hair.
Then, earlier this month, an interviewer confronted her with an unexpected question: ‘Are you African American?’ Dolezal was caught off-guard. ‘I don’t understand your question,’ she said, and immediately cut the interview short.
A media frenzy ensued. Dolezal’s white parents confirmed that she was ‘Caucasian’ and labelled her African American identity a ‘disguise’. Photographs emerged of her as a younger woman, with pale skin and blonde hair. Newspapers raked over her past and discovered apparent hypocrisies. Within days she had resigned from her professional posts and become an international figure of derision.
Did Rachel Dolezal simply lie? According to the woman at the centre of the storm, it’s not as simple as that: although she now confesses that she was born into a white family, she also insists that she is ‘culturally black’ and ‘transracial’. Some have expressed sympathy with her, pointing out that racial categories are a social myth rather than a biological reality: there is no significant genetic difference between people of varying racial backgrounds.
For many African Americans, however, Dolezal’s claim to a black identity is offensive and even ‘destructive’. African American culture is a product of daily experience of discrimination as well as centuries of struggle against slavery and oppression: ‘To belong to the black community is to inherit a rich and important culture,’ says Jamelle Bouie of Slate; ‘to be racially black is to face discrimination and violence.’ Adopting the culture without inheriting the trauma and disadvantage strikes many people as deeply wrong.
Not just black and white?
Most commentators agree that Rachel Dolezal is wrong to lay claim to an African American identity. But some say she has exposed the hollowness of our racial identities: we are clothed in ‘a fictive garb of race whose determinations are as arbitrary as they are damaging,’ says Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker. ‘The emperor is naked.’
Maybe so, respond other critics, but we cannot simply abandon the concept of race: that might sound tolerant and idealistic, but it is essential to recognise the inequality of privilege and opportunity that exists between different communities. Racial categories might be socially constructed, but that doesn’t mean they are not real.
- What race do you consider yourself to be? Could you imagine being anything else? Does it matter?
- Is it possible to imagine a world in which racial categories didn’t exist?
- Write down five aspects of your identity that you think are important. Then compare your answers to the rest of the class. Did you write similar things? Did you decide these identities or were they decided for you?
- Pick a period you have studied in history and research how people thought about race in that society. Make a presentation or plan a short essay explaining what you find.
Some People Say...
“Ignorance of how we are shaped racially is the first sign of privilege.”Tim Wise
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should it matter whether someone is black or white?
- It shouldn’t, but it does. In the UK, black people are over six times more likely than white people to be searched by the police for drugs. Studies show that white people have an advantage when it comes to job interviews. White people dominate media, politics and the arts. That’s not to say that your individual qualities don’t matter — you can succeed or fail regardless of ethnicity — but recognising the disparity of opportunity is an important step towards fixing it.
- So why would anybody pretend to be black?
- Nobody knows except Rachel Dolezal herself. But she does have a long history of campaigning for African American rights. Perhaps she felt enough solidarity with the civil rights cause that she gradually adopted a black identity.
- A state on the west coast — not to be confused with the east-coast capital city, Washington DC.
- One thing that has attracted particular criticism is the story that Dolezal sued her traditionally black university for discriminating against her for her white background.
- Being transracial is not like being transgender: whereas switching between races is a voluntary decision, most transgender people do not feel that they have a choice over their identity.
- Racial categories
- Although it is obviously true that people’s skin colour varies, these differences do not correspond to distinct categories. A mixed race person, for instance, might easily be defined as black in a majority white community and white in a predominantly black one.
- Genetic difference
- There are some genetic traits that are distinct to particular populations — for instance, particular genetic diseases are far commoner in certain communities — but none have any effect on our innate personality or abilities, and in any case almost everybody’s ethnic heritage is mixed.