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“I identify as a black woman”

In the United States race transcends physicality. A black person can look physically white but identify as black if he or she is supported by the right credentials, and a white person who looks racially “other” can pass as black or white if he or she “acts the part.” Racial passing requires a great deal of work. In order to pass successfully the subject has to not only diligently maintain their physical appearance and actively form relationships with people from outside of their race but also, often, deny their families and other close acquaintances because their presence threatens his or her fabricated racial identity. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries numerous blacks who were light-skinned enough to pass as white did so in order to evade the social and legal barriers that blacks of all shades faced.

One of the primary incentives to pass was the prospect of living a life that was not conditioned by their inferior racial status. By passing they were given greater access to social, educational, and economic opportunities. Conversely, today there are many benefits of passing as black in the United States. A person who does so is given access to affirmative action programs, social networking groups such as Jack and Jill of America, Inc.,[1] and job opportunities that are race specific.[2] In their 2010 study “Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans” Nikki Khanna and Cathryn Johnson note that the majority of their biracial respondents “have, at one time or another, passed as black and they do this for several reasons – to fit in with black peers, to avoid a [white] stigmatized identity, and/ or for some perceived advantage or benefit.”[3] Too dark to pass as white in a white setting, respondents often claimed to “pass as black [in order] to find a place with their black peers” and, thus, avoid complete social isolation. Passing has been, and continues to be, orchestrated by many biracial Americans in order to navigate the strict and seemingly impermeable borders governing “blackness” and “whiteness.”

Rachel Dolezal poses with her interracial family in 1996 Source: Facebook.
Rachel Dolezal poses with her interracial family in 2013
Source: Facebook.

 

A person’s “blackness” is often determined not only by his or her skin colour, but also by their vocation, political interests, speech, music preferences, and upbringing. In this way “blackness” can be perceived as a concept that is, to some extent, fluid. Whilst racial passing may seem like an antiquated, insignificant and, even, nonexistent practice in contemporary “post-racial” U.S society, racial stratification remains a highly contentious social and political issue and, therefore, racial passing remains culturally relevant. An increase in anti-immigrant sentiment over the past decade is currently at the forefront of numerous political debates as the Democratic and Republican nominations are underway.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has succeeded in gaining a sizable support network of voters from both the far right and the seemingly “neutral” American white middle class by unashamedly voicing his racist domestic and foreign policy propositions to the American public. Far-right terrorist groups such as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are, currently, united with “ordinary white citizens” under Trump’s political agenda. Given Trump’s recent policy announcements concerning immigrant deportation and Muslim exclusion, the desire to look “white” or “non-ethnic” has generated new conversations about racial physicality and construction.

In light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris similar waves of anti-immigrant sentiment have also spurred social and political conversations about race and racial construction in Western Europe. Looking “other” in certain contemporary European social spaces is often problematic for those who are stigmatized for openly expressing their religion and/ or culture by wearing garments such as the hijab or the niqab. The “othered” subject’s proclivity to “blend in” and avoid stigmatization often conflicts with his or her religious and/ or cultural ideals, beliefs, and commitments. He or she is often implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) urged to assimilate by adopting Western standards of dress and disowning cultural markers that immediately identify them as “other”.

Despite the privileges and benefits that derive from being white in the United States there are whites who attempt to distance themselves from this group because they believe it to be oppressive and devoid of culture. In February 2015 Rachel Dolezal, a white woman and then president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, claimed that she received hate mail in the form of 20 pages of notes, which included pictures of lynchings, to her postal address at work. Although this wasn’t the first time that she claimed to have been the target of a racially motivated assault (in 2009 she maintained that burglars left a noose on her front step after stealing $13,000 in cash) a local news station took an interest in this incident and, whilst doing their research, unearthed the fact that Dolezal had been passing as a black woman for years.

Source: Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review via AP.
Source: Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review via AP.

 

She was confronted about this during a televised interview and, the following June, this interview went viral. In the immediate aftermath of its release people from across the world joined in a social media debate about the ways in which race is understood to be both constructed and intrinsic in the United States. Critics of Dolezal claimed that her performance of blackness featured overt practices of cultural appropriation and was equivalent to blackface minstrelsy. They said that she devalued the experiences of “real” black women by claiming them as her own. They said that she took the job of NAACP president and the scholarship that she received to attend Howard University (a historically black institution) away from “deserving” black candidates. They said that passing as black was the ultimate exercise of white privilege, and they said that she only self-identified as a black woman when it was in her social and economic interests. This last point is undeniably supported by the fact that, whilst at Howard, she sued the university for discriminating against her as a white woman despite openly self-identifying as black.

There were also some who publicly supported Dolezal. These people repeatedly emphasized the fact that she did selfless things with her “black woman status” – she affected positive changes within her NAACP chapter, taught little black girls who had been adopted into white families how to correctly style their hair, and maintained a loving black family. They argued that she didn’t intend to hurt anyone and that in the United States (“the land of the free”) people should be able to self-identify in any way that they choose.

For example, a commonly heard argument was that if Caitlyn Jenner can alter her physique and self-identify as a transgender woman, why can’t Dolezal do the same and self-identify as a “transracial” woman?[4] The answer is simple – Dolezal’s decision to adopt a black identity was forged through her exposure to black culture, whereas a transgender man or woman’s transition is the product of an innate sense of his or her gendered identity. The former is, to an extent, self-inflicted whilst the latter is not. Dolezal made an active decision to pass as black and, in doing so, spurred several cultural critics and race scholars to pathologise her self-constructed racial identity. When remarking on Dolezal’s “transition” during a televised interview, Michaela Angela Davis expressed her belief that Dolezal suffers from a “racial identity disorder” and exhibits, primarily through her physical appearance, “[cultural] appropriation to a pathological level.”[5]By pathologising Dolezal’s self-constructed racial identity, critics like Davis implicitly convey the fact that race continues to be perceived as a biological reality, rather than a social construction, in certain U.S socio-political spaces.

Dolezal publicly demonstrated her “black consciousness” by running for the presidency of her local NAACP chapter, campaigning alongside members of the #blacklivesmatter movement, and physically altering her appearance in order to “look black.” She refused to elaborate on this last point during the numerous televised interviews that she participated in immediately following her exposure but, when looking at recent photographs of her alongside ones that were taken before she “became black,” it is obvious that she engaged in various cosmetic tanning practices and learned how to convincingly style wigs and hair extensions in order to effectively pass.

One of the crucial ways in which she fits into the broader context of racial passing is through the fabrication that she made concerning her family. For years she carried around a photograph of a black man and claimed that he was her father. Whilst she later argued that she did not overtly claim that he was her biological father and instead meant that, because of the close relationship that he and she shared, he was who she considered to be her “dad,” in showing the photograph to numerous people and labeling him as such she was, many argued, complicit in her deceit. Her adopted brother, Ezra, claimed in an interview shortly after she was exposed that when visiting Dolezal he was instructed not to talk about their parents because their whiteness threatened her status as a black woman.

Source: NBCNews.
Rachel Dolezal’s parents
Source: NBCNews.

 

This fear was key to traditional passing narratives. Numerous people who chose to pass moved away from their families and severed all ties with them because of this fear. The media placed a heavy visual emphasis on Dolezal’s parents throughout the summer following her exposure. The interviews that they gave and the comments that they made were almost exclusively televised, and their images were widely disseminated through various online platforms when Dolezal was discussed. Dolezal’s whiteness was repeatedly affirmed through the undeniable fact of theirs; her self-perceived “blackness” was de-legitimized by the “biological reality” of her whiteness as made evident by her parents.

Until the mid-twentieth century blackness was widely believed to be something that is genealogically determinable. Originating in the late nineteenth century, the “one drop rule” deemed a person legally black if he or she had any known trace of “black blood” in their family. The statutes defining who was black and who was white varied according to each state. In Virginia, by 1910, a person was classified as black if he or she had “one-sixteenth or more Negro blood” in their familial group.[6] This meant that, even if this person’s other relatives were visibly (and legally) white, if he or she had one great-great grandparent who was black they were, also, legally black. Whilst it is no longer used for the purposes of legal classification, the lingering social acceptance of the “one drop rule” is a key way in which blackness continues to be determined in the United States. Even if a person does not physically look black, if he or she can prove that they have one black parent they can claim a black identity. Despite looking white, Mariah Carey publicly embraced a black identity (gained through her father) at the beginning of her career and, in doing so, both widened her listening audience and enabled film agents to cast her in roles such as that of the stereotypical black sharecropper.[7]

Moreover, by racially identifying as Dominican, Puerto Rican, Lebanese, and Haitian (and, therefore, “black”) actress Zoe Saldana enabled agents of the upcoming biopic Nina to cast her as Nina Simone. Saldana’s skin was darkened and her phenotype was cosmetically altered in order for her to resemble the dark-skinned, and stereotypically “African looking,” musician. In both cases, any ambiguity surrounding their racial identity that arose because of their physical appearance was addressed by the public visual presence of their families. Yet, both celebrities have, at different times in their career, faced intra-racial discrimination and marginalisation because of their deviation from stereotypical physiological “norms” of blackness – both have light skin, “straight” hair, and stereotypically “white” facial features.

There is, it seems, a dichotomy between blackness as an inclusive concept because of the residual presence of the “one drop rule,” and the belief that a person isn’t “black enough” if he or she does not meet certain criteria. If a person has any known black ancestry, but publicly denies a black mono-racial identity, he or she is often mocked or belittled by blacks for seemingly trying to evade the stigma attached to being black in the United States. Conversely, if he or she is “partially black” and adopts a black mono-racial identity they are often welcomed into the black community. This is, however, often predicated on their performance of blackness. In order to gain full inclusion and acceptance one must often publicly, and privately, demonstrate an exclusively black consciousness. Rachel Dolezal’s extended stay in the black community was made possible because of the extensive measures that she undertook to deceive and manipulate her work colleagues, students, and family members.

Although she has continued to embrace her self-constructed racial identity in a public and unapologetic way, because she has no biological claim to a black identity she cannot be considered black in the United States by either blacks or whites. As noted by Rogers Brubaker, “In North America, where the classification of racial boundaries depends not only on phenotype but also, crucially, on ancestry, racial identity is prevailingly understood as a supra-individual, social-relational phenomenon, not as subjective individual property.”[8] The legal framework outlining racial categorization remains potent. The U.S. Census Bureau clearly defines a white person as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa” and a black person as “a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.”[9] Because the parameters governing blackness and whiteness continue to be policed in the United States there is often little room to harbor an identity that falls somewhere between the two categories. Dolezal’s attempt to manipulate this divide through her racial self-construction spurred millions of Americans to cast her as a fraud, a liar and, ultimately, an outcast.

The impending election of Donald Trump as the 2016 Republican nominee makes evident the fact that segments of the U.S. continue to be divided along racial lines. There is a sizable population of voters that agree with Trump’s proposition that a looming and divisive wall should be constructed along the U.S-Mexico border in order to keep out “undesirables,” and that Muslim’s should be temporarily denied entry into the U.S (although Trump recently amended this statement to allow the newly-elected London mayor and Muslim Sadiq Khan free movement to and from the U.S).[10] If Trump succeeds in his bid for the presidency and implements the racially discriminative foreign and domestic policies that he has thus far proposed, how will targeted U.S citizens socially accommodate themselves? Will there be a surge in attempts to publically downplay their “foreignness” or “otherness” in order to avoid stigmatization and possible victimization? Will more minority citizens attempt to racially pass as either white or non-Hispanic/ non-Muslim in order to emphasize their disassociation from stereotypes associated with their “undesirable” racial and/ or ethnic groups? An analysis of these questions in relation to contemporary national practices of social and racial passing may warrant future research.

 

 


[1] Jack and Jill of America, Inc. is an elitist African-American organisation that was founded in 1938 to foster a community of socio-economically privileged African-American children living in predominantly white communities.

[2] An example of this would be a diversity officer at a university.

[3] Nikki Khanna, Cathryn Johnson, “Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans,” Social Psychology Quarterly, 73:4 (2010) pp. 380-397.

[4] The term “transracial” has traditionally been used when referring to a child from a racial and/ or ethnic minority group who has been adopted into a white family.

[5] Coreshift, “Rachel Dolezal segment on AC360 June 12 2015 (Marc Lamont Hill, Michaela Angela Davis)” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXkPhz4Xr4E> [accessed 30/12/2015].

[6] Judy Scales-Trent, “Racial Purity Laws in the United States and Nazi Germany: The Targeting Process” Human Rights Quarterly, 23:2 (2001) pp. 259-307.

[7] See The Butler, dir. Lee Daniels (The Weinstein Company: 2013).

[8] Rogers Brubaker, “The Dolezal Affair: Race, Gender, and the Micropolitics of Identity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39:3 (2015) pp. 414-448.

[9] United States Census Bureau, “Race” <http://www.census.gov/topics/population/race/about.html> [accessed 08/01/2016].

[10] Reuters, “Trump says London mayor Sadiq Khan could be “exemption” to Muslim ban” <http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/10/donald-trump-london-mayor-sadiq-khan-exception-muslim-ban> [accessed 11/05/2016].

 


Tanisha Spratt is a first year PhD student in the Department of Sociology, studying at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. In using two chronic diseases as case studies (vitiligo and alkaptonuria), Tanisha is exploring the relationship between patient experiences of chronic illness and race in the United States, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which race and illness are performed and constructed as separate but related identities.