Can You Change Your Race? Thoughts On Rachel Dolezal And Identity
When the initial story on Rachel Dolezal broke out 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 the act truly has no impact on my life, regardless if from afar or if I was directly involved, I don't have much energy to invest. Although, at the time, I didn't truly understand the story, the commentary and backlash she received seemed unwarranted because most people didn't truly understand either.
The conversation about Rachel died down until the release of her book earlier this year. The more she came across my social media feed, the more I wanted to understand her mind and her story. I figured buying the book would give me perspective on what led to her desire in being black.
"Everybody wanna be a nigga but don't nobody wanna be a nigga."
A few weeks ago, three people sent me an interview on Rachel. Although the narrative was disappointing, I read on to hopefully find understanding. Great journalism, especially during an interview, shouldn't have an agenda; and especially at this point where the same questions and commentary have been portrayed 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."
Where were the new angles and views? Where are the introspective questions to better individualize and humanize her actions? Where are the "why" questions? Questions like:
- What does Blackness mean to you?
- Why did you choose to transition to Black?
- What are your feelings on whiteness (not her whiteness but whiteness in general)
- Do you think Blacks can transition into being white?
Regardless of the content, it brought an early perspective on Rachel I was hoping to grasp from her book.
Can You Change Your Race?
I'm biased when it comes to matters of the individual. When a topic involves an individuals right to choose and represent themselves as they see fit, I'll rarely oppose. When it comes to race, things aren't as defined as we like to imagine. Race is a social construct and denying that represents a misunderstanding of language, especially when most of the conversations on race view it as binary (white + black).
A few days ago, my niece's friend said, "I'm not Chinese, I'm American;" she was trans-national. There are people who are born and at some point in their life realize the gender they were born into 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. In fact, we accept people who change their nationality, and although there are still people who do not agree, there is still large support and acceptance of people's right to change their gender. Why is gender fluidity OK (i.e.: trans people) but not race?
Who Is Allowed Fluidity?
Most of the people I've come across who argue against racial fluidity quickly accept gender fluidity.
In a follow-up Facebook post, the author who interviewed Rachel Dolezal explained "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 blacks are unable to 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), as it seems most people who argue against racial fluidity view it, societal standing denotes that men are 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 puts them at the top of privilege. This rests on the idea that no one is aware oef the transition, and realistically, in relation to a professional life, no one needs to know, just like no one knew Rachel Dolezal was transracial. It only became an issue once it was discovered she was white and had been dishonest. This quickly led to her being demonized the same way transgender people are demonized by bigots once people discover their birth gender. By that standard of requiring equality for acceptance, gender fluidity should be wrong also. This seems hypocritical to the proponents of gender fluidity who oppose racial fluidity.
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.
By the one drop rule Louis CK is a Mexican, Aubrey Plaza is Puerto Rican, the whole Sheen family are descents from Spain (Charlie Sheen was born Carlos Irwin Estévez), and Cameran Diaz is Cuban. Their careers are set on white privilege since no one, especially them, makes note of their heritage. In fact, they can easily hide their race (Hispanic/Latin?) like so many white skinned "Hispanic/Latin/Spanish" people. Racial fluidity seems to be going on and seems to be accepted in this country. As I once noted, former President Barack Obama is more white in relation to America than he is black American (his father was Kenyan), but by our standard he is black. Blacks accept his transnationalism and claim him based on his experiences growing up black in America.
I don't really consider Africans black. In any country where the majority of the people look the same, race as we use it in the U.S. doesn't fit. In the U.S., the Asian "race" makes up Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Filipino, etc. In China, Japanese people are Japanese. In Kenya, someone from Ethiopia is Ethiopian, Americans (white or black) are American, and Brits are British. Where you're born is what you are. But in America, mass integration requires a more simple way of dividing who is who.
Unfortunately, the only people who have an issue with racial fluidity are blacks 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. No other group cares the way blacks care, yet many groups are just as oppressed.
Michael Jackson externally changed his race and that was acceptable. The country knew what it was but no one truly cared. I can find more respect for a person who chooses to refute their origin and identify as being black by embodying what they interpret as black culture than I can for someone who colors or adds weave to their hair, puts color contacts in their eye, straightens their nose, or bleaches their skin yet is still adamant about their blackness/ethnicity.
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?
This falls into the issue of cultural appropriation. Another area that seems grey when defining boundaries and deciding what is acceptable. Historically, I would argue that blacks are the greatest cultural appropriators ever: appropriating the Christian religion that was never their own and going from a system to being enslaved to being free and learning to adjust in another group's society is a form of cultural appropriation. Appropriation rests on embracing behaviors of other groups and making them your own.
The real issue 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 (once again, "since my group can't do it, neither can yours" mindset). That's the bigger issue for people upset by cultural appropriation: stealing from a group that you continually oppress or taking someone else's culture and totally detaching them from it; yoga, box braids, dreadlocks, Cinco De Mayo, St. Patrick's Day, baby hairs, etc.
Who owns a culture and dictates who or what can be represented? We all appropriate each other's culture to an extent — media ensures that. Although minority groups are still demonized for their cultures, 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." It doesn't mean it's right, but the constant backlash of "we did that first" does nothing to change the conversation or the behavior. Are only certain groups allowed to wear certain clothing, have certain hairstyles, get certain tattoos, eat certain foods? When I go to the pizza restaurant and a Mexican is making my pie, should I walk out? Should black Americans, who are fully removed from their ancestry, be allowed to wear African garments? Should Japanese people not be allowed to freestyle dance?
She's Still Wrong
One thing the article did provide was a better understanding on Rachel. Although questions I would have liked answered weren't there, the authors 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 for that matter, to transition, define, and identify with whatever group they want: white male to black female, black male to white female, black to Asian, male to female, and cis to trans should all be morally and legally acceptable in our society. Rachel's fault lies in her inability to be responsible for her misguiding, in owning her trans racial 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?
Why does it matter who or what I identify as and who I used to be? What is gained by placing someone in a box versus understanding them as an individual. For me, this falls into the same logic ethnic groups complain about when being asked, "where are you from?" Everyone doesn't need to disclose their past and people have a right to be identified with 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.
That's where society continuously falters; the false sense of duty and tribalism to our groups. Granted, there are oppressors who do things for the sake of their group (e.g. Neo- Nazis, the wealthy), for the most part humans do things 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 their own life or because of hatred. When a white HR director 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 own comfort in not having to deal with or work with someone who doesn't look like her.
We don't make the effort to individualize. Your race, gender, skin tone, and nationality tell me a story that I believe in based on things I've read, experienced, and things taught to me. I don't deny that defining has benefits, but as humans, we have the ability to do more than just accept what's assigned.
We're always worried about what other people are doing. In truth, most of us don't even decide what we care about. With our short attention spans and corporate controlled social media platforms, search engines, and agenda-ridden news outlets, we don't decide what our reality is. If you don't truly understand a topic and aren't willing to educate yourself or if something doesn't impact your life and never will, the best option is to stay away from the conversation.