I have been following l’affaire Dolezal with fascination over the past week. I get why she can no longer be the head of the NAACP in Spokane, WA. Her identity deception chips away at the kind of integrity one expects in a leader of any organization, especially one like the NAACP. But part of my fascination with all of this is whether the uproar over Dolezal would have been muted had she been forthright from the very beginning with her desire to identify as Black. But from the reactions I’ve read in the media, it sounds like this goes beyond the fact that she was being deceitful. But that leads us down the road to some thorny conceptual questions. What exactly does it mean to say one identifies as Black (or with any other race or ethnicity for that matter)? To identify as Black couldn’t mean that one is Black in some essentialist way. I think there has been enough convincing research that points to the fact that there really isn’t anything biological about race; there’s no gene marker, for instance, for Black, Asian, White, or Latino/a. And being Black can’t simply be about skin color. If that were the case, then how dark does one have to be to count as Black, or how light can one be to still be considered Black? The history of African Americans passing as White Americans is indicative enough of the arbitrariness of racial identity in relation to skin color. Dolezal apparently frequented tanning salons in Spokane to achieve a darker-skinned hue, but if that is all it takes to be Black, then half of the folks on the Jersey shore this summer should count as African Americans.
If it’s not about biology or skin color, there are those who say they are Black as a way of indicating a particular shared socio-political history and/or cultural practices. But that way of defining Black identity has its problems too, since not all Black persons understand themselves as Black in a historically and culturally uniform or singular way. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of what the Vanderbilt University religious ethicist Victor Anderson calls “ontological blackness.” Blackness can’t simply be a function of the same historical and cultural experiences. Being black for some will mean one thing, while being Black for others will mean another. For some African Americans, their identities are forged in the memory of the civil rights movement. For others, a new found affluence may be more definatory of what it means to be Black. To some extent, I think President Obama has been caught in the middle of these often times competing understandings of Black identity.
What about ancestry? That’s a little more challenging, but even that can’t be the defining feature of Black identity. Let me illustrate with the situation of multiracial persons. If you are of multiple races and ethnicities, how should one identify, racially speaking? Let’s say you are a quarter Swedish (your great grandfather was from Sweden), does that mean you can go around saying you are Swedish? I’m not so sure. Yes, it is (sadly) true that the one drop rule has been in force in American society for a long time so that if you had a sliver of Black ancestry you were simply Black. But that underscores the problem of defining race based on ancestry. How much ancestry is required? My parents are both Korean, but what if I discovered some Chinese ancestry in my family tree, then what? (Given the history of Korea, I wouldn’t be surprised.) We like to think that there is such a thing as racial and ethnic authenticity, but that perpetuates the fiction that racial, ethnic, and cultural purity is true when in reality the human experience is a story of inter-mixing.
If there is no one, essentialist or defining conception of Black identity, then does that mean that anyone can be Black? What I’ve found intriguing about this week’s discussions on Dolezal is that even though many see race and ethnicity as social constructs, many are somewhat reluctant to embrace racial identity swapping–it just doesn’t seem coherent. For instance, I think if I were to one day go around like Rachel Dolezel and start identifying as Black, a lot if not most folks who know me (strangers even) would think it really weird, even if I did so for a sustained period of time, adopting particular Black cultural forms and adjusting my appearance. So what does our discomfort with racial identity swapping suggest?
I don’t have a comprehensive answer to that question, at least not one that I am willing to defend to the end. But I have an initial thought that I think is worth considering, and it may be helpful to turn briefly to a dimension of Asian American experiences with racial identity, particularly, in relation to whiteness.
A common experience for many (not all) Asian Americans is the question that is often asked of us by non-Asian Americans: where are you from? That question irks many Asian Americans (it irks me for sure) because it perpetuates a feeling of foreignness even if you have lived in the States for most if not all your life. For that reason, I know many Asian Americans who work hard to be “American,” doing what it takes (whether consciously or unconsciously) to be less foreign–to assimilate, in other words. So, in a manner of speaking, there are plenty of Asian Americans who have passed for Americans, which is, in a way, code for White, since that is the majority culture many Asian Americans seek to assimilate into. Surprising? No, since that, to a degree, is the American immigrant story. However, what I am trying to get at here is the idea that Asian American passing as “American” is not simply a free choice of identity construction. Rather, it is a socio-politically layered choice, and more so given that White America has welcomed this kind of racial passing for Asians (though it has often been framed within the model minority conception, which, at the end of the day, indicates that Asian assimilation into the White mainstream, has been far from fully salutary).
That identity construction, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity, is wrought with socio-political baggage, whether we are aware of it or not, provides an important evaluative lens for the Dolezal affair. I’ve heard commentators note that African Americans would not be able to identify as White as easily as Dolezal has been able to identify as Black. Again, this recalls the tragic history of African Americans passing as White–the very idea of passing implies that one is trying to get away with something that otherwise would be rejected.
The fact of the matter is that being a particular racial and ethnic identity in America is never simply an expression of a particular cultural way of life. Being a particular racial and ethnic identity is a reflection and expression of particular socio-political as well economic realities. More specifically, the kind of racial and ethnic identities we embody (or desire to embody) tells a story of the kind of advantages, opportunities, and privileges we are afforded (or not afforded) in American society.
In that way, while I think the social construction of racial identity may mean that there is no objective definition to Black identity or any racial and ethnic identity for that matter, that doesn’t mean that one can be whatever racial and ethnic identity one wants to be. There is, therefore, an important difference between, on the one hand, being really into the cultural forms of particular African American communities and being in solidarity with the racial struggles of African Americans and, on the other hand, wanting to be (and being) African American.
While there is no one way of being African American, we continue to live in a society in which blackness has particular social, political, and economic meanings and ramifications. If a White person desires to be Black and has the capacity to opt out of that identity at a later time, then that person cannot be Black in the way that most Black persons are Black. A White person’s identification as Black, then, is just another way for such a person to exercise her social privilege in a world where whiteness has its advantages.
No matter how sincere Dolezal’s identification with blackness–however she understands blackness–ultimately, it comes off like a fetish. Isn’t this why some Asians are somewhat put off by non-Asians who are seemingly obsessed with all things Asian?
Originally posted on Tumblr.com, June 2015