The Rachel Dolezal case is interesting for reasons other than for why most of the media is in obsessive mode. It seems that she likely has many personal issues. Going by some of the reporting, here entire family may have issues. But that wouldn’t make the story interesting or worth all the attention it is getting.
Some people would label her delusional, or worse. If she is delusional, it is merely an expression of our delusional society. Or rather such personal delusions take the form of the delusions of the society in which they take place.
Race is a social construct. There is no other example that demonstrates this so clearly. It’s not that she is lying, since race itself is a fiction. How does one lie about a fiction?
Five to ten percent of American blacks have more European genetics than African genetics. Another 5.5% of American blacks have no detectable African genetics. Also, consider that there are more white Americans than black Americans with recent African ancestry (i.e., genetics that came from within the past 6 generations, well within the historical period of modern slavery).
Most of these people have no idea about their genetics. Their social identity or labeling by others as either ‘black’ or ‘white’ has nothing to do with genetics. It’s not necessarily even cultural, as there is no single ‘black’ culture or ‘white’ culture. It’s a racial order, pure and simple.
The delusion of Rachel Dolezal is simply that, like most Americans, she has mistaken a fiction for reality. Does it matter that her interpretation of that fiction is different from the interpretation of others? It’s about as meaningful as so many theological debates.
Now, if we want to talk about the real world results and legacies of oppression, that is more than a worthy topic. In that light, we can discuss how racial categories have been used to enforce a racial order based on racial prejudices and privileges. Along with this, we should discuss why people racially passing have always been deemed as such a threat to our society, deemed as such often by people on both sides of the racial divide.
Here are some of my previous posts about this type of thing (particularly check out the first two):
Also, check out this good piece from the New York Times:
Rachel Dolezal’s Unintended Gift to America
by Allyson Hobbs, The New York Times
But Ms. Dolezal’s view of herself — however confused, or incongruent with society’s — reveals an essential truth about race: It is a fiction, a social construct based in culture and not biology. It must be “made” from what people believe and do. Race is performative. It is the memories that bind us, the stories passed down to us, the experiences that we share, the social forces that surround us. Identities are never entirely our own, but does that mean that we should lose all control in determining who we are?
In the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson relied on elaborate mathematical equations to determine when a “mulatto” legally became a white person. Charles W. Chesnutt, a racially ambiguous writer, asked “What Is a White Man?” in an 1889 essay and poked fun at the laws that allowed a person to change his or her racial designation by walking across a state line. How was it possible, Chesnutt wondered, that the same person could be classified as black in North Carolina but white in South Carolina? Even W. E. B. Du Bois had trouble formulating a theoretically accurate account of racial identity, so he put it simply: A black man is “a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” But his statement still leaves us with a puzzle: What would a black man be without Jim Crow to define him?
We know that race is not based on skin color, or blood, or any other factor inhering in biology. The ability of some light-skinned African-Americans to “pass” as white makes plain the unreliability of skin color in determining race. [. . . ]
The historical evidence is overwhelming, then, that the color line has always been far more porous and fragile than one might assume. In some places, it was so brittle that it could buckle and break. [ . . . ]
There is no essentialized, fixed, “true identity” waiting just below the surface. Identities are contingent, elusive and, as the cultural theorist Stuart Hall argued, “always in process.”
The racial conditions of our time — increasing numbers of interracial marriages and mixed-race children — allowed Ms. Dolezal to move across boundaries in ways that would have been far more socially unacceptable in the past.
While we cannot know how Rachel Dolezal understood her place in the world, neither her choice nor the unsavory entanglements it has wrought are unique.
As we contemplate the morality of her choice, however, we might do well to reflect on how such individual choices might relate to the larger collective goals of social justice. One can only imagine the impact they would have if a significant number of white Americans chose to identify themselves as kindred of Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Freddie Gray, Kayla Moore, Oscar Grant, Shelly Frey and Michael Brown.
Or, at the very least, perhaps we can use Ms. Dolezal’s story, puzzling as it is, as an opportunity to have a candid, lively, long-delayed, public conversation about the knotty meanings of race and racial identity, and how it has confounded our nation’s best aspirations. Perhaps we may yet move beyond the imprisoning boxes we have made.