The issue of racial identity is tightly bound to painful political and economic realities and to the history of slavery and colonialism. It lies within the context of the debates around “culture” in the United States and its role in explaining privilege between different racial and ethnic groups in the US. But this issue of Rachel Dolezal is somewhat more narrow than that - concerning the contemporary meaning of her "blackness".
My intention here is not to deal with whether Rachel was mentally ill or the ethics of her having adopted a “Black” identity. There are likely so many details of which we have no current knowledge to make those kinds of decisions. But it is a good test case for understanding the boundaries of contemporary identity even while there are overwhelmingly sad circumstances that make Rachel now well known to many, while the efforts of many black women remain invisible or unvalued.
So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Rachel’s identity is not a matter of mental illness. In any case, it seems unlikely. This was either an explicit choice she made, or a series of them over time (even if she perhaps did not articulate these decisions to herself as decisions). Perhaps during her time in college at Howard University, a traditionally Black college, and with an African American husband, siblings and children as well as colleagues, she began to adopt certain symbolic identifiers that she felt reduced the contrast between her self and her reference group. She appropriated cultural codes that imply legitimate ownership of blackness, even as her skin was white (albeit schmeared with some self-tanner it would seem). And her status likely remained unquestioned to some degree due to the uneasiness of discussing the issue of race outside of a formalized setting such as a classroom.
A key question some people are asking is “Why would a person co-opt a position of marginalization and victimization…?” In other words, why would she ever trade in the social privilege of whiteness, for blackness in a world where white is so privileged? There is overwhelming evidence that the relative condition of Whites in the US is better than for Blacks. This is an understatement.
That is to say, in the immortal words of Louis CK “I’m white, thank god for that shit…That is a huge leg up for me. I love being white”.
So allow me to quickly bring you to the money shot and then I’ll elaborate:
While the outcome of Rachel being white and appearing to be black was relatively original as an outcome, what Rachel did was more a difference of degree rather than kind in terms of how we each construct our own identity.
You might argue over when such gradations on a clear continuum of behavior become qualitatively different as they reach a certain high end of the scale… adding a level of clear intention or officialdom, when her behavior became officially fraudulent. Was Rachel’s lie complete when she got a tightly wound perm, or was it when she posted a selfie on Instagram saying she was going for the “natural” look, or when she checked the box next to “Black” or even explicitly wrote it in as her racial/ethnic status on some application or another? Or was it the whole shebang à la the king of identity transformation, Don Draper?
Was it qualitatively different than what many of us do to construct our own identities, starting with the widespread and basic infractions on your match.com or your get-it-on.com profile or, further down the line, exaggerating or hiding a part of your past or present circumstances (your salary, how much you adore his/her best friend) to that new person in your life? In the simplest instantiation, we have minor cases of misrepresentation and misunderstanding that can’t be sustained over some longer term. These sorts of best-face-forward performances that we put on for partners can ultimately fall away in the routine of a daily life lived together and that over-playing of certain desirable qualities probably plays a large role in the 50% divorce rate in the US. The guy wasn’t who you thought he was. What goes into our identity performances and how very different are they from Rachel’s?
Then we have the experimentation phase of our teenage years…sk8tr, emo, gangsta, it girl – maybe you try these all on for size because you like the image, something it offers, the people who wear it well, but you run through a variety of identities to see which one makes sense, feels right, feels authentic, which one you could pull-off.
Ultimately, we settle into an identity that feels right over-time, until it no longer feels exactly as though it is an identity. It just feels like you’re you because you stopped working at it – it becomes natural and mainly invisible until you are forced to articulate its contours.
Actually, in the United States, many white people of European descent have ample material for such flexible identity changes during our early years. Americans, especially in big cities that have had a long history of immigration from various parts of the world can choose to identify with different aspects of their ancestry because they are often a rich mix of heritage, especially in places where enclaves that maintain language and culture allow original traditions to perpetuate. The Greek-American community in Astoria, Queens or Colombian community in Jackson Heights (to name two places in NY). And in cities, the broth is already thick enough that few are worried about how gay you are or what aspects of your past you might be trying to hide. When your skin is dark brown, you have a more limited range available. Dark skin becomes a symbolic boundary in the range of options open to people who have it.
And so as adults, are our identities mostly already established? There is certainly still room for growth and play in the various identities we choose along our life’s path – the kinds of parents we’ll be – free-range parent, attachment parent. And crucial junctures in people’s lives can bring up one’s identity – create it, break it or reinforce it- perhaps in the way that Rachel’s divorce might have.
We experiment with certain identities as young people, as we select different personas and even sometimes create something original, but there is the tendency to feel that certain aspects of our primary identity are “deeper” or that there is less room to play, where certain pieces are non-negotiable aspects for most people. Skin-color would seem to be a limiting factor in adopting certain identities.
Does that mean that race is mainly biological? Is racial identity deeper or less flexible than other kinds of identities? For me, that is the key question, and if so, why? Historical circumstance? Biology? Difference in social perceptions and expectations?
Let’s put the biological piece to rest quickly. Research on the human genome shows that the genetic difference between individuals far outweighs difference between what are considered standard racial groups. The biology of racial origin is such that it is technically not bound or coupled to our identity in the same way genitalia is no longer the limiting factor in gender identity when you can have your nether bits reconstructed. Women have fought now for a long enough time not to be bound by their biology. Yet with both racial and gender identity, we maintain the utility of such distinctions even as they are unraveling… Caitlyn Jenner appeared all 1940s Hollywood glamour on the cover of Vanity Fair making some women question what are the underlying notions of womanhood that transgendered people are highlighting.
This decoupling is happening in many areas of our social life – motherhood can be split old-school through adoption (= biological mother + adoptive mother) as IVF procedures re-classify the integrated parents of yore into various divisions of labor – who donated an egg, who gestated a fetus and who rears a child. Rachel's identifying as "black" took advantage of the decoupling of "black" and "African-American". Rachel passed as black because she employed an entire toolbox of signifiers that together outweighed her actual skin color - it became a softer factor in signifying her identity. The rub here is that such test cases give us the opportunity to rethink and perhaps to redefine certain concepts or understandings of what once seemed so intuitive, but they in no way erase the social, economic and even health realities for those people living with an identity with no other way to redefine themselves, because skin color is almost always a baseline factor in how people define us. Most people do not have the option to adopt any identity: to pay for sexual reassignment or to change a skin color.
In any event, there is almost always a significant investment in any convincing identity performance - an explicit or an implicit amount of time, money and creativity in identity construction.
So what is it that we’re left with?
We can have it both ways. We can recognize that the social, political and economic effects of race are “real” even if not biological and that they are also inherited within family and community settings where culture is transmitted and adopted without a series of set choices having been made.
I’m not trying to excuse or say that Rachel Dolezal has any right to claim any benefits based on a conjured origin of a black identity. On the contrary, she may have even accused and sued institutions of hate crimes and/or discrimination. However, it seems that her behavior fits on an extreme end of the scale of something we all do today in the context creating our own public personas.