Can You Change Your Race? Thoughts On Rachel Dolezal And Identity

Photo by Magdalena / Unsplash

When the initial story on Rachel Dolezal broke in 2015, I didn't see the issue—a white woman saying she was Black; who cares? That tends to be my view on a lot of "controversy"—if an individual's actions have no impact on my life, I don't have the energy to invest. Although I didn't truly understand the story at the time, the commentary and backlash she received seemed unwarranted because most people didn't understand either.

The conversation about Rachel died down until the release of her book, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, in 2017. The more she came across my social media feed, the more I wanted to understand her logic and her story. I figured buying the book would give me perspective on what led to her desire to be Black.

A few weeks ago, three friends sent me the same interview with Rachel: "The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black." Although the narrative was disappointing, I read on, hoping to find understanding. But great journalism, especially during an interview, shouldn't have an agenda, especially when the same questions and commentary have been in numerous media outlets for over two years.

"When we have been together for three hours, I feel it's time to ask The Question. It's the same question that other black interviewers have asked her." — Ijeoma Oluo

Why would a journalist ask the same questions other people had already asked? Where were the new angles and views? Where were the introspective questions to better individualize and humanize her actions? Where were the "why" and "what" questions? Questions like:

  • What does Blackness mean to you?
  • Why did you choose to transition to Black of all races?
  • What are your feelings on whiteness (not her whiteness but whiteness in general)
  • Do you think Black people can transition into being white?

Regardless of the content, it brought a fresh perspective on Rachel I was hoping to grasp from her book, which I never did end up purchasing (Never will).

Can You Change Your Race?

I'm biased when it comes to matters of the individual. I'll rarely oppose a topic involving an individual's right to choose and represent themselves. But when it comes to race, definitions aren't as clear. Race is a social construct, and denying that represents misunderstanding language, especially when most of the conversations on race place it solely into a binary (Black + white).

A few days ago, my niece's friend said, "I'm not Chinese. I'm American." She was transnational. Everyone is assigned a gender at birth people, but some people realize the gender they were assigned isn't what/who they truly are; they are transgender. Who am I to tell that young girl that since she was born in China, she is Chinese, and who are we to tell people their gender from birth is concrete?

Society regularly accepts people who change their nationality. Some people have dual citizenship or emigrate to another country and become citizens. Countries are more real than race, but we don't call people traitors for moving to another country to start a new life. And although there are still people who disagree, there's huge support and acceptance of people's right to change their gender. Why is gender fluidity OK but not race?

Who Is Allowed Fluidity?

There are people I've had discussions with or who I follow on social media who argue against racial fluidity yet accept gender fluidity. Fluidity is acceptable on certain terms.

In a follow-up Facebook post, Ijeoma Rachel Dolezal explains "why I didn't include discussion of transgender identity with Rachel Dolezal in the piece." The argument rests along the line of white privilege and inequality; since races aren't socially equal, whites being able to transition race is a privilege, especially since Black people can't become white (more binary language).

But genders aren't equal either. If we only view gender as binary (male + female since these are the only choices at birth currently), it seems most people who argue against racial fluidity accept other forms of fluidity.

Men are socially privileged. Therefore, it should be wrong for men (Bruce Jenner) to become women (Caitlyn Jenner) since men oppress women. More importantly, it should be wrong for white women to become white men since this places them at the top of privilege. This rests on the idea that no one is aware of the transition. And in professional life, no one needs to know, just like no one knew Rachel Dolezal was transracial for years.

Rachel's race only became an issue once it was discovered she was white and had been dishonest. Dishonesty quickly led to her being criticized for her actions the same way transgender people are criticized just for merely existing. By that standard of requiring equality for acceptance, gender fluidity should be wrong also, or both gender and race fluidity should be acceptable.

More Than Two

Race is more visible, whereas gender is a bit tricky, especially with the more than 58 options now available. Looking at pictures of Rachel, she looks like a mixed (Black/white) woman, but by societal standards, she's Black by the one-drop rule. And whether she's tans regularly or eats foods rich in beta-carotene and Vitamin A to get her bronzed skin tone, how is it different than a trans person taking hormones to aid in their transition?

By the one-drop rule, Louis CK is  Mexican, Aubrey Plaza is Puerto Rican, the whole Sheen family are descents of Spain (Charlie Sheen was born Carlos Irwin Estévez), and Cameron Diaz is Cuban. Their careers are set on white privilege since no one—especially them—notes their heritage. They easily hide their race (Hispanic/Latin if we finally decide to step out of binary language) like  many white-passing "Hispanic/Latin/Spanish" people.

Racial fluidity seems to be actively going on in society, and it appears to be well accepted in America (America, moving forward, notes being a citizen in the United States of America). Former President Barack Obama is more white than he is Black in relation to race in America (his father was Kenyan), but by American standard, he is Black. Black people accept his transnationalism and claim him based on his experiences growing up within the Black experience.

In many countries where the majority of the people look the same, race as Americans use it, doesn't fit. In the U.S., the Asian "race" makes up Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Filipino, etc, yet Asia is a continent with over 48 unique countries. In China, Japanese people are Japanese. In South Korea, the North Koreans are North Koreans. In Kenya, someone from Ethiopia is Ethiopian, Brits are British, and Americans (white or Black from the United States) are American—even though North and South America both exist and have 37 combined countries).

Where you're born is what you are outside of the U.S. Only in America, where mass integration is the norm, is there a requirement to be placed in a box for bookkeeping and inclusivity measures, since H.R. departments apparently can't just look at the team and say, "Hey, we need some diversty here."

Alwasy Mad

Unfortunately, it feels like the only people who have an issue with racial fluidity are Black people in America because they can't change their race; that nose, hair, and skin will always be there, mostly. It's not equal, so it's not right.

But Michael Jackson externally changed his race, and that was acceptable; white skin + flat nose. Black people in America knew what it was, but who cared; it's the King of Pop. There are 37 million Black people in the United States, according to the 2010 census. And within that are people who color their hair blonde, perm their hair to straighten it, place color contacts in their eyes, bleach their skin, and a whole list of other acts that can be viewed as a subconscious attempt to be transracial. (It's cool when I do it, it's a problem when you do it.)

It should be acceptable for a person to deny their origin and identify as being Black by embodying what they interpret as Black culture. And it should be people who add weaves to their hair, put color contacts in their eyes, straighten their nose, or bleach their skin, yet still claim to be adamant about their Blackness/race while claiming these alterations as part of their identity, that should be placed under a microscope. There have been extensive conversations surrounding desiring white euro-centric features and how body alterations subconsciously perpetuate mental oppression and enslavement.

Who Owns Group Identity?

At a certain point, Rachel decided to identify as Black. For her, identifying meant customs and habits most would view as identifying with Black culture. But what does it truly mean to identify? What are the criteria to identify as a group, and who sets the standards? What are the limitations? Who owns a group's culture?

This falls into the issue of cultural appropriation. Another area that seems grey when defining boundaries and deciding what is acceptable. Why isn't the appropriation of the Christian religion by Black people—a religion that was never their own, yet they still claim to this day—and transitioning from a system of enslavement to being free and learning to adjust to another group's (white) society not a form of cultural appropriation? Appropriation rests on embracing the behaviors of other groups and making them your own. Why isn't whiteness upset?

"The white man came to this country holding the Bible in his left hand and a gun in his right." — Devil on the Cross Novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Whites aren't upset because they are the oppressors—they created the social climate.

Through the conditions that whiteness set, combined with Black (formerly African) enslavement and mixed with hundreds of years of social conditioning, Black people made a clear line between who they'll accept certain behaviors from. You can see it in their welcoming of other groups who embrace what it means to be Black. Socially and globally, media sets the condition and false narrative that Black and Hip-Hop are synonymous. Yet, for some reason, appropriation through Hip-Hop is acceptable.

Everybody Wanna Be a N...

Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, and traveling throughout Manhattan and the Bronx in the 2000s, my interactions and awareness of young Puerto Ricans and Dominicans was a pure embodiment of Hip-Hop. These two Hispanic groups talked, dressed, and embodied the Hip-Hop/Black culture. Yet in the majority of conversations where I asked Hispanic men and women, who were teens and in their early 20s, if they knew their ancestry involved Africa and slavery, the majority of the feedback was a quick dismissal and offense to the idea.

Puerto Ricans and Dominicans make up 30% and 28% of the Latino/Hispanic population in New York City, respectively. Out of the 29% of Latinos who live in New York City, they are the two largest groups. And of the total Latino population in NYC, only 7% identify as being Black, 37% identify as white, and 55% consider themselves Other.

So although Hispanics seem to deny being Black, they accept and embody the Black culture in America. They even say, "nigga." Jennifer Lopez also said it, and Black people don't even bat an eyelid. So it's acceptable sometimes?

But currently, there is a new wave of acceptance from a large population of Latin Americans/LatinXers/etc. who embrace their heritage and identity with being Afro-Latin Americans. Social media has been a huge factor in allowing that group to galvanize and bring knowledge and awareness to the culture. Not all Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have direct ties to Africa, of course. But there is a history and mixing of "race" bloodlines in both countries, if not most, if not all.

There's even a considerable segment of Japanese and Chinese culture that loves Hip-Hop overseas, and in America. There's Eddie Huang, whose life is loosely depicted in the new ABC series Fresh Off the Boat, which is based on his memoir of the same name. The JABBAWOCKEEZ who breakdance, which is a Hip-hop rooted dance. There's even a group in Japan called "B-Stylers," which is a contraction of the words "Black" and "Lifestyle." There are Black people who love Japanese culture and anime. Who's policing culture?

white Is Not Right

The real issue Black people have with cultural appropriation is when white people do it; and not so much that white people do it, but they profit off it, whereas other groups don't ("Since my group can't do it, neither can yours." because it's unfair). That's the more significant issue for people upset by cultural appropriation: stealing from a group that you continually oppress and taking someone else's culture and detaching them from it. Some notable appropriations from whites are yoga, box braids, dreadlocks, Cinco De Mayo, St. Patrick's Day, and emphasizing baby hairs.

But Rachel became transracial and worked in the NAACP. An organization whose sole purpose is to advance and enrich the lives of minorities, Black people especially. All the other people (J. Lo, Eddie Huang, JABBAWOCKEEZ, etc.) profit from it. The frustration seems misguided.

Who owns a culture and dictates who or what can be represented? We all appropriate each other's culture to an extent—media and capitalism ensure that. And living in a global community means there is no real way around it. Although minority groups in America are still socially demonized for their culture because they don't fit in with what white America views as acceptable, in a fluid and fully integrated society, anyone can take credit for anything that is not their own.

"You made it a hot line. I made it a hot song." — Jay-Z, Takeover

It doesn't mean it's right, but the constant backlash of "we did that first" offers little to change the conversation or the behavior of the so-called appropriators. Are only certain groups allowed to wear certain clothing, have certain hairstyles, get certain tattoos, and eat certain foods? If I go to a pizza shop and see a Mexican making my large pepperoni pie, should I walk out? When I go to a Ramen shop and see Black people in the kitchen, should I leave? Should Black Americans, who are fully removed from their ancestry, be allowed to wear Kenyan and  Ethiopian garments or Kentes from Ghana? Are Japanese people nnot allowed to freestyle dance?

She's Still Wrong

One benefit of the article was that it provided a better understanding of Rachel. Although the questions I would have liked answered weren't there, the author's attempt at making Rachel seem faulty worked—but not in the way the author wanted.

I support Rachel Dolezal's right and anyone's right to transition, define, and identify with whatever group/tribe they want: white male to Black female, Black male to white female, Black to Asian, Male to female, and Cis to Transgender. Transitions should be morally and legally acceptable in our society because, again, it's an individual's right to choose and exist. As long as their actions don't cause direct harm to someone's life, what's the issue?

But Rachel's fault lies in her inability to be responsible for her misguiding, in owning her transracial identity, and in the deceit about her past and history; but even that is difficult to navigate. Just as a transgender person might say, "I was born male, but identify as a female," saying, "I was born white but identify as Black," would be more honest. But then again, whose business is it anyway? I support Rachel’s right, but I disagree with her method and her perspective, especially when she compares her travails to slavery.

Who Are You?

Why does it matter who or what someone identifies as and who they used to be? What does anyone gain by placing someone in a box versus understanding them as an individual? This falls into the same logic minority groups complain about when being asked, "Where are you from?" by white people. Everyone doesn't need to disclose their past, and people have a right to be identified as who they are in the moment, instead of having external sources dictate who and what they are presently based on their past. Titles serve a purpose to an extent. However, if someone doesn't want to be labeled a certain way, they shouldn't have to. Isn't that one of the pillars of modern progressiveness?

That's where society continuously falters; the false sense of duty and tribalism to one's group. Yes, there are oppressors who do things for the sake of their group (e.g., Neo-Nazis, the wealthy). But for the most part, humans commit acts based on their own self-interest. White cops aren't killing Black men for the safety of the white race (unless they are disguised as Neo-Nazis); they're doing it for fear of their own life due to what media has portrayed Blackness to be. When a white hiring manager reads "Marina Lopez" on an application, she doesn't throw it in the garbage for the sake of white people; she does it in favor of her comfort in not having to deal with or work with someone who doesn't look like her.

Society no longer tiesto individualize—we're not conditioned to. Your race, gender, skin tone, and nationality tell me a story that I believe, based on things I've read, programs I've watched, experiences I've had, and ideas taught to me through those experiences and interactions. I don't deny that defining has benefits, but we can do more than just accept what's assigned and make an effort to understand and accept or understand and deny. But we're lacking in choosing to make an effort to understand. Everything is just a reaction.

We're always worried about what other people are doing. In truth, most of us don't even decide what we care about—again, conditioning. With our short attention spans and social media platforms, search engines, and agenda-ridden media, we don't decide what our reality is.

With Rachel Dolezal and all other topics discussing identity and transitioning, if you don't truly understand an issue and aren't willing to educate yourself or invoke dialogue, or if something doesn't impact your life and never will, the best option that'll guarantee you peace, is not getting involved. Respect an individual's right to choose just as you want your right to complain and judge to be respected.

Clifford Genece

Clifford Genece