Race is a social construct that has become ingrained into our perception of people, both culturally and socially. It has become part of how we define others, as well as how we define ourselves, albeit to different degrees. In the US, ethnicity does not always indicate culture, or cultural leanings; appearance is not indicative of what community a person belongs to, nor their mannerisms or behaviors. While there are racial stereotypes, it is not irregular for someone to be completely unlike those stereotypes no matter that they might fit the stereotypical appearance of that race. However, it is fairly unusual for someone who does not meet any of the basic associated hereditary indicators of a race to try to become one of that racial association. It is rarer still for someone to associate with a culture that is attached to a racial construct.
However, this is what happened with Rachel Dolezal. She is a controversial figure. Even though she was born to Caucasian parents, she has formed a black identity that has formed the basis for how she has presented herself. The depth of how she formed this identity can be traced back to when her parents adopted four black children (as well as when she got full custody of her son, Isaiah); while there is some conflicting information about other markers she has identified, this seems to be a fairly steady constant. Throughout her life, she pursued more information about black culture and black rights and conflicts, first through art and then through activism. It was in this way that she formed a deep connection to her perception of herself and her perception of what it means to be black.
Her perception seems to be based around her study of social and cultural cues and belief systems that permeate African groups – and not around physical appearance. In that respect, I don’t believe she started feeling black because she wanted to mimic the physical appearance of black people, I believe that she started feeling black because of an interest peaked by black siblings, and then expanded upon as she learned about how society (both outside of black groups and inside) defines black people. Therefore, the fact that she changed her appearance was resultant of that interest, that it was a means of furthering her interest in black culture and society, and her feeling of being part of that culture and society.
However, her appearance was, I believe, a small part of people believing her statement that she was black (where they understood it as being of African American descent and integrated into black culture/society), which in part lead to people feeling lied to. In this sense, she was tanned so her skin was of a medium shade, and her hair was dark and kinky. In at least one interview her father stated that she “sounded black on the phone,” which is an interesting indication of the approximation of social cues she might have adopted as part of her blackness.
But besides any potential mannerisms she might have adopted, one of the major means by which people accepted the fact that she was black was the fact that she was very learned on the subject of black culture and physical traits (such as hair), and that she said that she was black (biracial). As people do not typically lie about their ethnic heritage, no matter what she looked like there would be little reason to question her claims. Mixed heritage is fairly common in the US, to the point that sometimes people are surprised to find out where their ancestors are from after doing DNA testing on themselves. Additionally, she was accepted on a scholarship into a primarily black university, did extensive art with a focus on African American culture and perspectives. This, combined with her studies, lent her an authenticity of bearing and knowledge that allowed her to blend in with rights groups (as she does, I believe, genuinely believe in the cause of black rights and equality). She also married a black man, and adopted her younger brother (who was an adopted black child) as her son. This was further credence to her black identity.
Therefore, given Dolezal’s certainty of her heritage alongside the efforts she made to appear black, there was no reason for people to question her. It is because of this lack of reason that people felt as though they were being lied to or mislead (besides any claims she made that she did have African ancestors, and discounting other issues not specifically relating to her apparent or constructed racial identity); additionally, there was some feeling that she betrayed the black community due to the fact that she was not born of black parents and thus did not have any “real” experiences or understanding of what it meant to deal with black American social issues. Some outrage was purely based around the fact that she was not genuine, and was therefore playacting or engaging in “blackface” – no matter what her claims of identity were. This lead to an intense debate about what race really means, and lead to the use of “transracial” in her case.
Transracial people are usually those who are born of one ethnicity (such as Chinese), but adopted into another (such as white); they grow up within a social and cultural context that is different from that of their birth parents. Dolezal’s upbringing matched her ethnicity; it wasn’t until she became a young adult and then an adult that her identity solidified into something opposite what she was raised with. This is, I think, a valuable predicament in the ongoing and evolving discussion (social and academic) of what race is, and where we are between how it started and where it’s going. It caused people to think about race in terms of a social construction versus a biological fact, and in several of the comments to the assigned articles (and some of the ones I looked up), there were thoughtful arguments going on about what quantified race in one camp or another.
People do have assumptions about race that they form as they grow up, and from what they learn as adults. Especially given that – in the US, and from what I know, nowhere else in the world – it is not a subject of required study for basic education. Therefore, what the average person knows about race is gleaned from indirect references within their education, and from what they learn from their parents, family, peers, and wider social circles. And in that sense, I believe that many people feel that race is a discrete category that is unchanging and immutable – I know that I had that assumption before this course. I mean, it is part of numerous official pieces of paperwork (US census, applications, surveys), and as the places that generate these pieces of paperwork are reputable, why would anyone question race?
And so, Dolezal’s case forced people to think about it, just as it forced her to talk about it.
In accordance with the assignment, the following paragraphs would be my response to the media as if I was her.
As people age out of childhood in the US and are exposed to society and culture outside of their own, they start to pick up bits and pieces of culture outside of their own. In a multi-racial and multi-cultural society, such as what has happened in the US, it’s rare to find someone who remains strictly tied to the tenets of their parents and ancestors. This is what happened to me. My initial idea of an identity that had nothing to do with what I looked like started when my brothers were adopted and I started to think that they needed someone who was like them, someone who formed a bridge. And the more I thought about that, and about what it was like to be black and what that meant, the more I realized that it spoke to me – who I am.
It felt right, but more than that, it felt natural. I didn’t think I needed to talk to anyone about it, especially because people started to feel that part of me, and would think that I was black without me needing to express what I was. Eventually, it simply became who I was, and what I identified as. It was a gradual thing for me, so while I was conscious of the fact that people wouldn’t understand it the way I understood it, I also felt that I wasn’t harming anyone, because I truly believe that I am black. While I may not be of the same ancestry, or have some of the same experiences, this is part of how I have lived, and this is me. While I am deeply sorry that people have been hurt by my representation of who I am, I cannot apologize for the fact that this is the way I am. I understand if some people can’t or don’t know how to process that, but this is something about myself that I don’t turn on or off. I can’t help that I don’t match peoples’ expectations or the way that I feel, no more than anyone else can.