If you have seen James Cameron’s Avatar, you will be familiar with one of the most recent dramatic portrayals of the White savior. The main character, a member of an occupying military force, inhabits an artificial body that was built in order to infiltrate the Na’vi society. As the story progresses this character becomes increasingly attached to the Na’vi way of life, and falls in love with the Na’vi princess (or at least the daughter of the two most important leaders of the main Na’vi community). Eventually, he forsakes his own species and not only join’s the Na’vi, but becomes their messiah. The story of Rachel Dolezal seems to follow an analogous, if less grandiose trajectory. However before we get into it lets talk about race and ethnicity.
Race refers to a system of classification, a taxonomy, which is defined by the phenotypical (outward physical) traits of the people being described (Parham, Ajamu, & Obasi, 1999). This means that race is all about how a person looks. Moreover, racial classification is defined by the power structures in society, so it is not an identity that can be accepted, rejected, or transferred. In essence society designates one’s race based on one’s appearance, and there is not much that can be done to change this, short of a fundamental transformation of societal norms.
Based on this definition of race, Rachel Dolezal seems to be a White woman who has been masquerading as a Black woman. However as I watch this story unfold, the issue that folks seem to be missing in their analysis is that Rachel Dolezal is reported to have studied concepts of race, ethnicity and culture. This would imply that she understands the definitions and would seem to have been careful in her words. In an interview she explained that she does not like the term African American, which is an interesting distinction to make, as the designation of Black refers to race, while African American is an ethnic category.
To explain, the concept of ethnicity can be understood as a descriptive understanding of people’s backgrounds, based on geographical and genetic origins. Unlike race, the grouping of people into a particular ethnicity tends to be based on mutual agreement. This means that people have more freedom to accept or reject their own ethnic background (i.e., I can choose whether I identify with my African American heritage). However like race, ethnicity is not something that can be transferred to those who do not spring from a particular ethnic group (i.e., I can not choose to have a Czech heritage if my people are from Ghana). This would preclude Rachel Dolezal from being able to make any claim of being African American, as she is unable to simulate the historical connection that is implied in the ethnic classification of African American.
Here’s the thing. As it is clear that Rachel Dolezal seems to know the distinction between race and ethnicity, I find it funny that she said that she does not like the term African American, instead of saying that she considers herself Black, and not African American. Moreover, if Dolezal possesses such a high level of sophistication in terms of her understanding sociological terminology, I find it unsettling that so many are making excuses for her behavior. As a scholar in ethnic studies and social justice leader, it would seem that Dolezal should be held to a higher standard that the general public. Yet, the reality is that even staunch civil rights scholars and activists seem to have been bending over backwards in order to give her a pass. In fact, it is as if she is special for some reason, and that she gets to be taken care of in a way that most actual Black women would not.
Rachel’s expression of dislike for the term African American, in the context of asking about her identity, positions her in a space of attempting to be seen as authentically Black, as opposed to being seen as a person who is simulating (read appropriating) Blackness.
This positioning is important in understanding that Dolezal seems to be shielding herself behind the scholarly meaning of race while using the colloquial meaning of the term Black. This common meaning of Black tends to refer specifically to Black Americans, as opposed to other members of the African diaspora. This seems to imply that Dolezal actually does want to be considered African American, and to be seen as a holder of African American culture.
Culture refers to the system of traditions, customs, and beliefs that shape the way that people understand and interact with each other and the world (Sue & Sue, 2008). Though culture is definitely learned, and of course can be taught, it is developed early. Therefore it is likely that though culture can be transferred, a person’s original culture remains but is augmented by the new information. By definition, Culture is fluid and difficult to pin down.
Here is why all of this is a problem. Whether Rachel Dolezal wants to masquerade as a Black woman or not actually does not matter. What does matter is that some members of the media have decided to rebrand this White privilege laden, cultural appropriative action as some sort of legitimate expression of an acquired Black racial identity.
This stance flies in the face of a social scientific understanding of what it means to be a member of a specific race or ethnic group. Black identity is not just a social construct; it is also a political identity. One cannot gain membership to a politicize group based only on their personal identification with that group. One might be able to support Black communities, or ally with Black social movements, but mimicry does not denote group membership.
One needs to look no further than the long history of Black people attempting to pass for White. Regardless of whether that Black person was able to live their life as a White person, I challenge anyone to provide a case where that passing Black person was actually able to be understood as authentically White. In fact, as with racism, this type of racial relationship moves in only one direction. Those with White privilege can apparently claim whatever identity they like, and those without it are limited to appropriation of identities that are more distant to Whiteness than their own ethnic reality. In essence the story of Rachel Dolezal, in so far as it relates to race, is a story of White privilege. Like the main character in Avatar, she may have the ability to mimic Blackness, but she also has the option to discard her pseudo-Blackness like the artificial identity it is.
Similarly, based on this individual case of Black mimicry, many have begun to misuse the word “transracial,” in an attempt to equate cultural appropriation with the experiences of transgender and transsexual individuals. This use of the term “transracial” has been repudiated by Assistant Director & Advisory Council Member of the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network, Dr. Kimberly McKee and her colleuges as “erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.” They explained that the actual meaning associated with transracial is “the adoption of a child that is of a different race than the adoptive parents.”
In regard to the association of the term “transracial” with trans communities, recent comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner’s process of coming out as trans, and her subsequent transition from male to female are off base for two reasons. First, Caitlyn has publicly acknowledged her membership in a marginalized community as a trans woman. She has made no claim of being born biologically female. Second, the transitional process of moving from one sex to another is more invasive and irreversible than tanning and curling one’s hair. Caitlyn had to subject herself to hormone therapy, psychotherapy, and major surgery in order to make her transition.
Beyond the technical differences between changing one’s appearance in order to look racially Black, and being a member of trans communities, there is also the statistical reality that Rachel Dolezal represents a singular case. Though there is a social movement in Japan known as “Black Lifestyle” or “B-Style” that involves young Japanese women tanning and curling their hair in order to resemble their vision of Black Americans, as of yet there is no group of people who has been identified as White people who attempt to change their appearance in order to be perceived as actually being racially Black. Therefore if there were a simple term for what Dolezal has been doing, the closest might be “B-Styling.” As such, redefining “transracial” seems to be both incorrect and an affront to the struggles of both trans and Black communities.
This is where the outrage comes in. To compare a White woman’s experience mimicking Blackness, to the actual experience of being a Black person in the US is deeply insulting. Her participant observation of the oppression that I and other Black people have had to endure throughout our lives does not afford her an emic (insider) view, but instead allows her access to areas of Black experience that she has no right to. When your family burns down my family’s home, you don’t get to put on a t-shirt and come to my family reunion. You can ally with us, you can support us, but once you try to be us, then you are just another oppressor consuming our bodies. You essentialize and objectify our experience, and erode our collective identity. You are allowed this privilege… But I do not have to like it.
Parham, T., White, J. & Ajamu, A. (1999). The Psychology of Blacks: An African-centered Perspective (3rd ed.). New Jersey, Prentice Hall.
Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse (5th ed.). New York: John
Wiley & Sons.