Answering “Who is Black?” and Trying to Make Sense of Dolezal’s Racial Identification

“Racially you are human…” — Rachel Dolezal’s son (as said to his mother)

ve always thought that the safest, most respectful policy upon meeting someone is to let them self-identify and accept that identification despite my perceptions. So if a person tells me that she is a woman, I am not going to tell her she’s wrong, even if, to me, the person seems more masculine than feminine. I will address her as a woman. If you tell me that you are a quarter Scottish, a quarter Irish, quarter Puerto Rican, one eighth Native American and one eighth African American but you identify with your European heritage because you were raised by your Scottish grandparents, then I’m not going to question that. If a child comes to me and says that they are Superman, then they are Superman, and it is not for me to burst their bubble. If you tell me you are Black, then I believe that you are Black.

Even if I thought the person was in denial, I accepted their denial. I reasoned that the only person who can truly determine who they are or how they want to identify is the person themselves. After all, I realize that not everyone subscribes to the same belief systems that I do. Not everyone thinks the way I think. I do not live their life. I do not know their heritage. I do not know their lived experiences. Thus, who am I to deny or correct the identity of someone else? On what basis would I be rejecting their identification of themselves? On the basis of my perception? I knew that race was about more than just mere perception and that rejecting people’s identification didn’t fall within my jurisdiction of things I need to do in life. I believed to suggest otherwise (“no, you’re really a man,” “ummm… no you’re White,” “Sorry, honey, you’re not Superman. Go play with some toys.”) would deny them the agency to self-identify. It would be offensive and it would put the other person on the defensive — definitely not the way to begin to build a friendship and establish a connection. If I want the freedom to self-identify and self-determine, I have to allow others the freedom to do the same.

So far, that approach worked for me.

I remember meeting one of my aunt’s friends. She had long, jet-black silky hair and a very fair complexion. I met her mother who was just as fair as she was. I was younger and didn’t understand much about race but I thought I understood enough to know that I was Black and she wasn’t — which would have been fine either way. I was sure that she had some kind of mixed heritage. But, lo and behold, she identified as Black, and that was fine by me.

I have a friend who, the first time I met her, I was sure she was multiracial. However, in our conversations, I noticed that she continually referred to Black people as if she didn’t belong to that group. I was puzzled. It turns out she’s White and she identifies as White. She’s of German ancestry. She showed me pictures of her siblings and parents on Facebook.

I remember going to a conference for Black law students and I saw a guy there who I thought for sure was not Black. I came to find out the guy identified as Black. Who was I to contest that identification? I took two seats and enjoyed the rest of the conference.

Like I said, my approach seemed to work for me — that is until last week with revelations of Rachel Dolezal’s race. Suddenly my modus operandi was upended.

You see, if I had met Rachel Dolezal before last week, and she were to identify as a Black woman, I would think to myself, “Really? Wow. She considers herself Black. But she looks White. Ok. I guess she’s Black.” I would have asked her for a referral to her hairstylist (because, admittedly, her hair is on point; update: apparently she does her own hair) and I would have carried on with the rest of my life.

So what changed? Is it the fact that her parents are white and her white parents outed her as such? Is parentage the sole thing upon which we base race?

In his brilliant essay entitled “Rachel Dolezal: The First Documented Case of ‘Reverse Passing’?“ African Cultural Studies Professor Damon Sajnani says that “The real question is not what ‘is’ Rachel now that we know she is not Black, but what was Rachel when we did not know?” He goes on to explain that the fact that Rachel was pretending to be Black when she was really White all along “is neither simple nor self-evident.”

Part of the reason for my confusion (a confusion which I think other people may share) is the fact that Blackness is so expansive, inclusive and vast compared to other races. This is partly attributable to the notorious “one drop rule”: as soon as you have a drop of Black blood in you, you are assumed to be Black to the exclusion of the preponderance of the other races that you may embody, and your life is subsumed into the Black experience.

Jelani Cobb, who wrote an eloquent piece for The New Yorker entitled “Black Like Her” says it this way:

“The spectrum of shades and colorings that constitute “black” identity in the United States, and the equal claim to black identity that someone who looks [Black]… can have, is a direct product of bloodlines that attest to institutionalized rape during and after slavery. Nearly all of us who identify as African-American in this country, apart from some more recent immigrants, have at least some white ancestry…Dolezal’s primary offense lies not in the silly proffering of a false biography but in knowing this ugly history and taking advantage of the reasons that she would, at least among black people, be taken at her word regarding her identity.”

Many people of mixed race — for example, mixed with Black and some other “colour”– identify as Black, and not because they want to. The world sees them as Black. Because of this, many (and dare I say most) people of mixed race were/are forced to identify as Black. They have had their race socially determined and foisted upon them, which has caused Blackness to be the “default category” for many of those who are mixed. Thus, Rachel Dolezal’s race cannot solely be based on who (or what) her parents are. How she is perceived by others is also important. Professor Sajnani explains that, “[u]nderstanding the social construction of race forces us to recognize that one’s race is an imposition of perception by others, and this perception can be different from one social context to another.”

That said, I think there is also something to be said for self-determination and self-definition in terms of deciphering the race to which one belongs. Mariah Carey, Halle Berry, Soledad O’Brien, Bob Marley and Barack Obama all identify as Black, even though they all are of mixed race. For some of them, the identification was socially imposed, but I believe for all of them, it was ultimately accepted.

Another part of the confusion is the fact that the definition of Blackness is not static or immutable. In his book Who is Black: One Nation’s Definition, sociology professor F. James Davis says:

“Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other group than American blacks, but apparently the rule is unique in that it is found only in the United States and not in any other nation in the world. In fact, definitions of who is black vary quite sharply from country to country, and for this reason people in other countries often express consternation about our definition. James Baldwin relates a revealing incident that occurred in 1956 at the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists held in Paris. The head of the delegation of writers and artists from the United States was John Davis. The French chairperson introduced Davis and then asked him why he considered himself Negro, since he certainly did not look like one. Baldwin wrote, “He is a Negro, of course, from the remarkable legal point of view which obtains in the United States, but more importantly, as he tried to make clear to his interlocutor, he was a Negro by choice and by depth of involvement–by experience, in fact.

“The phenomenon known as “passing as white” is difficult to explain in other countries or to foreign students. Typical questions are: “Shouldn’t Americans say that a person who is passing as white is white, or nearly all white, and has previously been passing as black?” or “To be consistent, shouldn’t you say that someone who is one-eighth white is passing as black?” or “Why is there so much concern, since the so-called blacks who pass take so little negroid ancestry with them?” Those who ask such questions need to realize that “passing” is much more a social phenomenon than a biological one, reflecting the nation’s unique definition of what makes a person black. The concept of “passing” rests on the one-drop rule and on folk beliefs about race and miscegenation, not on biological or historical fact.”

Likewise, with the “reverse passing” of Dolezal, couldn’t it be said that a person who is passing as Black is Black? Why is there so much concern if so-called Whites who pass take so little white ancestry with them? As alluded to earlier, it is easy for people to say that Rachel Dolezal is not Black from a biological perspective. But if we acknowledge the truth that race is also socially and historically constructed, then it is harder to dismiss her claims outright. In fact, that’s why I am hung up on the Rachel Dolezal race scandal. It is because of our understanding that race is — at once — biological, historical, contextual and social that we find ourselves in this quandary of who is Black and who is not.

To quote Sajnani:

“If we think of race as biological, as we have been taught, then [Black people passing White]… were living a deception their whole lives and their children were not really white. But when we understand race as a social construct, we understand that they actually became white. There is nothing more to being, or not being, a given race than the social acceptance and societal ascription of a race to a person… Did [Rachel Dolezal] actually become Black? If not, why not? If so, what does that mean?”

Why can Mariah Carey identify as Black and not Rachel Dolezal? They have, more or less, the same skin complexion… Is it purely because Mariah Carey is ¼ Black the reason why she can identify as such? And if Rachel Dolezal was ¼ or 1/8 Black, would it be okay? Would she then be Black enough to identify as Black?

Who is Black and who gets to determine who is Black? Is it determined strictly by lineage? If so, given that my parents are Jamaican and I probably have some slave ancestry maybe I could say that I’m 1/8 or 1/16 White. Something tells me, however, that people wouldn’t take me seriously if I walk around saying I’m White… Perhaps then it’s determined by society’s impression of you and how you present yourself. But as we see in my opening examples, we may see a Black person when the person identifies as White, and we may see a White person when the person identifies as Black. That leaves us with the proposition that maybe it is the person him/herself who determines their race. But if that’s the case, what do we do with Rachel? She says she’s Black. How can I say she’s not? (And can I say she isn’t solely because of white privilege? That’s a topic for another day…)

Hopefully you see my point. If race is purely biological and genealogically determined, it is problematic. If race is purely socially determined it’s problematic. But if race is personally determined, that has its problems too. The Rachel Dolezal scandal is case in point of the flimsy construction and transitory nature of race (and perhaps why we would do well to abolish it altogether, if that isn’t already happening).

Cobbs hits the nail on the head:

“…[I]n truth, Dolezal has been dressed precisely as we all are, in a fictive garb of race whose determinations are as arbitrary as they are damaging. This doesn’t mean that Dolezal wasn’t lying about who she is. It means that she was lying about a lie.

“…Race, in this country and under certain circumstances, functions like a faith, in that the simple profession of membership is sufficient. The most — possibly the sole — democratic element of race in this country lies in this ecumenical approach to blackness. We are not in the business of checking membership cards.”

Despite it all, perhaps my original hypothesis still stands — the only person who can determine who they are or how they want to identify is the person themselves. This is the most respectful approach I can think of, even if it is not perfect and makes me uncomfortable. Although not the best or most objective, it is the most accurate given that conceptions of race are often so inaccurate.

I can hear the objections: Why respect someone who has so obviously disrespected not only Black people but the mechanisms put in place to advocate for them? To be fair, I speak not of Dolezal particularly but of racialized people generally. For the record, I do not defend what Dolezal did. I don’t defend the lies. I don’t defend the dishonesty. I don’t defend the cultural appropriation and exploitation. But I must say that this kerfuffle has finally caused us to have that much needed conversation about race — what it is, what it means to be racialized, and what it means to exploit race for one’s personal gain.

Rachel Dolezal has said that although this discussion has come at her own expense in a “viciously inhumane way,” she says the discussion is really about what it is to be human, and “I hope that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency, and ultimately empowerment.” I have to agree.

While it is so easy — too easy — to say that Rachel Dolezal is not Black (and I so want to say she isn’t because of this and this and this and this), an argument can be made for why she is or why she could be. That’s what’s scary. Or thought-provoking. Or at the very least should give us pause. That’s why we need to rethink race — and especially what it means to be Black. Otherwise, as Cobbs implies, we risk reducing race or Blackness to just a list of criteria:

“Rachel Dolezal is not black — by lineage or lifelong experience — yet I find her deceptions less troubling than the vexed criteria being used to exclude her. If blackness is simply a matter of a preponderance of African ancestry, then we should set about the task of excising a great deal of the canon of black history, up to and including the current President. If it is simply a matter of shared experience, we might excommunicate people like Walter White, whose blue eyes were camouflage that could serve both to spare him the direct indignity of racism and enable him to personally investigate and expose lynchings. Dolezal was dishonest about an undertaking rooted in dishonesty, and no matter how absurd her fictional blackness may appear, it is worth recalling that the former lie is far more dangerous than the latter.”

Originally published at on June 17, 2015.

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I like big stories and I cannot lie. Authentic, transparent musings & connecting with others so we can all feel less alone.

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