The news of Rachel Dolezal as someone who has “pretended” to be black came to light at an interesting time. A few weeks ago, former decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner, came out as a trans-woman, henceforth identifying as Caitlyn Jenner. It is broadly accepted among academics that gender and sex are not the same thing; sex is a biological reality, and gender is a social role that someone fills in society. While biological sex tends to be binary (male/female, with the exception of things such as intersex), gender can be seen as more of a spectrum. So how does this relate to race, or does it?
As a preface, I am not suggesting that gender is culturally equivalent to race, though both are cultural constructs and neither are biological realities. Race is a manner in which people are classified by phenotypic characteristics (often skin color), while gender, though often defined by phenotypic characteristics, describes a role in society. Race does not define a societal role. That being said, there are similarities between race and gender insofar as both relate to social identity and both can be seen as a spectrum.
I’ve read a number of articles and comments, from liberal and conservative posts alike, suggesting that one cannot be “transracial.” But, if race is a cultural construct typically defined by skin color (though other features, such as facial structure and hair are often included), then why can’t someone “be black” if they fit these descriptions? It seems to me that any notion otherwise would suggest that race is tied to some other biological or sociohistorical reality. If you’re thinking, “but isn’t race tied to ethnicity?” then try again.
Race and ethnicity are not equivalent. Ethnicity is the classification of people through such things as shared cultural patterns, histories, and language. As with race, there is no biological reality to ethnicity. “Ethnic groups” tend to migrate and breed together over time, and thus can be genetically estimated using very small changes to non-functioning portions of the genome. However, this says nothing of the biological nature of ethnicity. I may measure a table by its color, but the color adds nothing to the nature of the table. It’s simply a variation. Neither race nor ethnicity is tied to biology, nor are they necessarily related to one another. A racially “black person” in the US may be from any country or ethnicity. All that matters is that they “look black.”
Race, although not a biological reality, has very real consequences in society. Social constructs can be equally as real and have just as much of an effect on life as any biological reality. I could list statistics showing how “being black” tends to put one at a social and economic disadvantage, but those stats are easy to find and have been iterated so many times that posting them here would not add any credibility to what I am saying. Rachel did not grow up “black,” and was not subject to the same realities as those born into African American families. However, she has been living her adult life, day and night, as a “black woman” who is subject to those realities based on appearance.
Some have called what Rachel Dolezal did “cultural appropriation,” referring the adoption of certain cultural practices or symbols (typically a majority culture adopting from a minority one) outside of their cultural context. Cultural appropriation is often performed in a manner that downplays the significance of the practice or symbol in its original sociocultural context, making it a sort of popular commodity among the (often more socially privileged) majority.
Nobody can be sure of Rachel’s motives except Rachel. I have no idea how she feels about her role in society nor do I understand her perceived identity. However, I do not think she has appropriated African American culture. Cultural appropriation typically involves the adoption practices/symbols with no intention of fully immersing oneself in the context or even attempting to understand the context. Regardless of Rachel’s intentions, it doesn’t seem she did this. In fact, she did the exact opposite to an extreme. The details of her life are just beginning to surface, and there will no doubt be several conflicting versions. But one thing seems very clear: Rachel did not want anyone to think she was white. She lived as a black individual for a long time, fully immersing herself into African American culture. From the information out as of now, she didn’t “switch” between races. She identified in society as black, day and night. If the rest of society saw her as black, then she would have been treated, physically, socially, and mentally, as a black individual, no different than any other black individual.
Nearly everyone who knows Caitlyn Jenner as a woman also knows she was, at one point, a man. In the case of Rachel, it seems that the people around her did not know she was born “white.” Deception, or immersion? Many media outlets have been treating her “deception” as foolish and an example of bad judgment on her part. However, I’m not sure this is the case. She didn’t change her race to gain any sort of fame, and I don’t see her doing it to gain any sort of social, economic, or political advantage. Yes, she was the president of the Spokane NAACP. However, the NAACP has stated that racial identity is not taken into account during the hiring process. It also doesn’t seem that Rachel has done any harm to the African American image or community. In fact, she has done just the opposite, given her career and activism. It appears that Rachel has truly tried to become “culturally black,” and physical appearance must be a part of that transition. If Rachel had taken the same route as Caitlyn Jenner, and tried to publicize her transition, I’m not sure the response would have been any better, and her credibility may have suffered just as much.
There is plenty about Rachel’s case that I do not know. I do know she lied about her father being black, and her adopted brother being her son. Was this right? Probably not, and I’m not sure how this plays into her credibility of considering herself “black.” Perhaps this was an honest attempt to seal her transition. However, I don’t see that she has done any harm, nor do I see why an individual cannot become a part of another culture so long as they are willing to commit to that culture rather than only be a part of that culture superficially or when it best suits them. Caitlyn Jenner didn’t transition to a woman to gain any advantage, and I don’t think Rachel transitioned to being racially black to gain any advantage.** Perhaps she simply did so because she liked African American culture more than white culture. But, does that make it wrong? I’m not sure it makes it any more wrong than someone wanting to live in a different country because they enjoy the sociocultural characteristics more than their home country. That being said, Rachel grew up white, and did not experience the same hardships as someone born with dark skin. But she made the decision to be seen in society as having black skin, and from that point forward was viewed under the same social lens as someone who was born with black skin. Unless race is explicitly tied to biology (it isn’t), ethnicity (it isn’t), or some other thing other than physical perception (enlighten me?), then for all intents and purposes, Rachel Dolezal was black.
**Note: Gender transition and racial transition are not equivalent. However, similarities may be noted in the manner that the transition occurs and the motivation behind it.