A large part of my study in college was centered on the experience of immigrant communities in the first half of the 20th century. This was sparked by my own background as a descendant of European immigrants and also my work at several archaeological sites that had been home to immigrants. One of my favorite academic pieces on the subject, and one I would encourage people to read, is called Becoming American: The Archaeology of an Italian Immigrant by Robert K. Fitts. It’s an interesting look at the process of shedding ones previous identity to become something else.
Likewise, there are many documented cases of a light-skinned African American being encouraged by family members to move away and pose as white so that they could have a better life. In an age before the internet one could often do this without the risk of being exposed in the national media. The idea that African Americans would want to hide their race is almost unanimously viewed today as a symptom of how bad race relations were during the Jim Crow era.
So it is with great fascination that I have been watching the situation around Rachel Dolezal, head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, unfold. For those unaware, Dolezal’s parents claim she is white by birth and they recently outed her for passing herself off as part-African American for several years. Reactions across the internet have varied from support to outrage, among both blacks and whites. Dolezal’s record of advocacy within the NAACP seems to be beyond refute, but she has also made public statements where she claimed she had been treated unfairly due to her ‘race’ and this seems pretty dishonest when viewed by those who have truly been treated unfairly.
It is a very unusual circumstance in American culture when someone born white claims a racial status that is considered by many to be less-than-advantageous. At this time we can only speculate about Dolezal’s motivations but if we choose to believe the best of her, that she was doing this because she felt it was the best way to help, it begs the question of why? Did she perceive that a white person could not be accepted in the advocacy community, or did simply just feel that it would make people take her more seriously? Or perhaps she just felt drawn to the African American identity and so she changed herself to look like those she felt closest to? This last possibility has been pointed at by conservatives as being similar to the feelings that led Bruce Jenner to embrace life as a transgender woman. The term ‘transracial’ is already being used. Others have been quick to point out these are not the same things.
For me this all points to the slippery nature of personal identity in 2015. I have stated repeatedly, here and elsewhere, that I believe race is more of a cultural construct than a biological one these days. There is so much mixing of races, so much change in the anthropological view of race, that choosing the race one identifies with is starting to feel like an exercise designed just to keep the Census Bureau happy. In this way I think the clumsy analogies made towards transgender individuals is somewhat fitting. Defining someone’s sexuality and/or gender is also becoming very slippery, as new terms seem to be invented weekly to describe people’s preferences. It all begins to feel rather pointless. More and more it would just be nice to put away the labels.
We all accept that people can embrace a culture and leave their own behind. It happens all of the time. If Dolezal had never claimed to be black, never altered her appearance and had simply become part of the black community, I don’t think we would be having this conversation. The problem may be that she couldn’t separate race from culture among African Americans and this is a topic that I feel is at the heart of race relations in the United States. At some point the two should be able to exist independently of each other, or else we will continue to talk about race well beyond the point where it is much more an issue of culture.
When Dolezal eventually speaks out about the truth and her motivations, people will continue to struggle with whether or not it was okay. The fact that some considered her to be ‘downgrading’ her racial status leaves others scratching their heads because it contradicts what many assume about race relations. I remain far more interested in people’s reactions than I do about Dolezal’s actions themselves. Ultimately though, it is one more curious story in the long history of race in America.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.