Rachel Dolezal is back in the news, which means I’m back into heated debates about this woman. However bizarre this story, I’m actually glad she’s back on our radar screens because we have some unfinished business.
Let me back up for a second and talk about two important concepts: race and ethnicity. Race is understood as physical differences that are assigned social significance. Ethnicity refers to shared culture or cultural heritage. It’s important to be clear about these concepts because they are not the same thing.
Now, when Dolezal identified herself as Black, everyone lost their shit. Why? Because Dolezal was born to racially White parents, and she is, therefore, racially White. And for her to claim that she is racially Black is dishonest, inaccurate, and problematic.
BUT…that’s not what she did.
I believe Dolezal has laid claim to Black ethnicity. Historically, I think Black race and ethnicity have been conflated. But if you think about it, we know that Black folks born and raised in Mississippi are culturally different from Black folks born and raised in Trinidad. They are racially Black but ethnically distinct.
Now the hard part…what exactly constitutes Black ethnicity, especially for U.S. Americans?
Another hard question: Can someone transfer from one ethnic group to another? (“transethnic”?)
And finally, who gets to decide the criteria for authenticity concerning ethnicity? And who decides whether or not someone has adequately satisfied those criteria?
I think these are complex questions that her particular story brings to the surface, and I do not think we have given these questions sufficient time and attention. Seems like folks would rather pop off, call her out, and be pissed. Quite honestly, I think the astringent reactions are due, in part, to a deep uncertainty about what it means to be Black and who does and doesn’t have access to Blackness as an identity. (I certainly share concerns with many people around privilege, power, and appropriation.)
Is Dolezal problematic? Yeah, I think so. But I’m less concerned about her than I am about people (especially Black people) working through the hard questions Dolezal’s life presents.
Personally, I think it’s possible to be Black without being black. Know what I mean?