Beyond retweeting a few folks and reposting some interesting articles, I have tried to refrain from commenting on this Rachel Dolezal situation. I don’t want to engage in speculation about why she did it. As a psychologist, I know that the question of why is usually far more complicated than can be deduced from reading a few articles or listening to a few interviews.
I am more interested in the the rhetoric that I’ve heard invoked about the case. There’s a lot of wrongheaded thinking on this, even by people who are usually considered well-informed on racial issues. We’re clearly muddled by the idea that someone would pass for Black. Here are a few of the puzzling comments I’ve heard and read in the past week.
She’s done a lot for the Black community and hasn’t hurt anyone with this. The media is just using this to distract us from real racial issues.
This one really gets me. If you’re this easily distracted from “real racial issues,” then you don’t have much of an attention span and you’re not really a racial justice advocate. If you think Rachel Dolezal’s racial fraud is simply a misguided act that doesn’t hurt anyone, then you obviously have never been: (1) a person of African descent whose racial allegiance is questioned because of your light skin; (2) a person who has been accused of being a justice advocate solely for personal gain; or (3) a cultural studies scholar (or a non-white professor in almost any field) whose presence and/or scholarship is deemed unworthy of the academy.
Well, she’s just being transracial.
Please stop. No really, stop. If you think that transracial is a new word to describe this, then you are wrong. You are co-opting a word that has a long-standing use and a very specific meaning related to adoption. And if you’re trying to draw a parallel between Dolezal and Caitlin Jenner, you really should be quiet. Spend a few more years listening to and learning from transgender people and maybe you’ll eventually get why that’s a bad parallel. Tanning your skin and wearing braids can no more make your Black than wearing a bone straight weave and blue contact lenses can make you White.
Race is just a social construct, so she can choose to be whatever race she wants.
Scholars have to take some of the blame for this one. We’ve been pushing the race-as-social-construct argument too hard. Yes, race is largely a social construct. Most humans – regardless of race or ethnicity – share over 90 percent of our genetic material. That makes sense given that we are more like each other than we are like other mammals. The factors that distinguish us are very limited in quantity. They are important only because we as a society decide that they are important.
We typically assign a person’s racial identity based upon characteristics such as skin color, facial features, hair texture, primary language, geographical origin, and family history. And our understanding of racial identity is not fixed, but changes over time. This is especially the case with the category of White, which has been expanded over time to include groups who used to be considered non-White, such as Irish and Jewish peoples. There are several excellent books on this, including Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color.
Then you take the fact that there’s been so much mixing between ethnic groups in the Americas and the determination of race becomes more difficult. From a biological perspective, many people in the Americas are really mestizo, a combination of multiple racial and/or ethnic groups. In the United States, though, we don’t use that category. Because of that one-drop history, we just reduce people to one category, the one that they most look like. So racial identity becomes a social definition rather than a biological definition.
But that doesn’t mean that there’s no biological component. When we say that someone is Black, we are not just talking about what they look like. We are saying their family line originated on the continent of Africa. It’s true that all humans share much of the same genetic material. But people who originate from a common land will share even more.
Just look at research on disease processes. Sickle cell is almost exclusively diagnosed among people of African descent, while cystic fibrosis is almost exclusively diagnosed among people of European descent. It does not matter where in the world those people live or how many generations it has been since their families lived in Africa or Europe. There is something about racial origin that determines the diagnosis.
Sometimes race determines disease process. Black women in the U.S., for example, have slightly lower rates of breast cancer than White women. But breast cancer in Black women tends to occur at earlier ages and their tumors are more aggressive. And that happens regardless of their income, education, access to quality health care, and use of routine screening. Researchers keep trying to find some other explanation than race. But so far, it keeps coming back to race.
Even if race were a purely social or psychological construct, it has very real impact on people’s lives. And there is a growing field of research that shows that social experience transforms biology. This is especially the case with trauma. Using brain imaging and other techniques, researchers have shown that the experience of sexual abuse or other forms of trauma actually changes how the brain is wired. Social experience becomes biological reality.
And it doesn’t just do it for the trauma victim. There’s some emerging research that shows that the effects are intergenerational. The children of mothers who have experienced trauma have different brain chemistry than the children of mothers who have not.
Now imagine what that might look like for a group of people who share a common geographic origin and are subjected to shared experiences of enslavement and oppression for four centuries.