Rachel Dolezal’s Deception isn’t the Lie We Should Be Worried About

Facebook scares the shit out of me…often.

The fear is a result of seeing (and I acknowledge how hyperbolized the visions Facebook presents can be) the shear volume of people who hold views I find to be terrifying.  There are not a lot of these, relatively speaking.  I like to think of myself as the type of person who confronts even the most repugnant opinions with courage in the name of open dialogue.  But when I see/hear people enthusiastically posting, commenting, liking and sharing ideas that underlie some the most dangerous expressions of power and privilege…well, I get scared.

So it was with fear yesterday morning that I first encountered the Rachel Dolezal story and the disconcerting fact that most people, no matter what their politics, seem to be raging biological determinists when it comes to understanding race.

Before I go on, let me say that this post is not intended to be a defense of Rachel Dolezal.  I don’t know this woman, but from what has been reported about her, she appears to have some honesty, integrity, and emotional problems that extend FAR beyond “misrepresenting” her racial identity.  So, I don’t intend to comment here on the rightness or the wrongness of her actions or motivations.  What I will comment upon is what public reaction to this story reveals about our beliefs about race and why Dolezal’s lie isn’t the deception we should be worried about.

Race is a Social Construction

To be honest, I thought we were all on board with this one.  But as this story continues to break, over and over again I see the words “biological” and “genetic” popping up.  And I continue to see people (known and unknown to me) talking about the categories “black” and “white” as if they were absolute certainties that anyone with basic command of three of their five senses could discern with utmost accuracy. Perhaps this is the reality of lived experience for most people, but it is far from anything the scientific community has believed for a good while.

We presume “races” to be groups of people that are distinct from other groups because of physical or genetic traits that are shared by the group–in particular, we focus on skin color.  However most biologists and anthropologists have stopped recognizing “race” as a scientifically valid classification.  This classification only has use in sociocultural contexts (and many of the uses are of a particularly nefarious ilk).  With the scientific community having demonstrated that there is more genetic variation within the groups we call races than are differences between them, and with many of the physical traits we associate with race being traceable to environmental influence (skin color, stature, and musculature among some of the most significant), the term “race” has no testable biological basis.  That is to say, there are no “sub-species” among homo sapiens.  

That does not mean that race is not “real” or that physical traits are not passed from parents to offspring generation after generation.  It simply means that race is only real in that we continue to assign social significance to specific physical similarities and differences–again, most significantly skin color–because they happen to line up well with political and cultural differences (though these alignments are rapidly degrading).  To say that something is socially significant, means it serves as the basis of differential interpretation and action–roughly speaking, we find it a reasonable reason to treat and act toward people differently.  And so as a result, cultures and subcultures have and continue to develop around the constructs of race as people suffer or benefit from these differential social interactions, generation after generation .

So what? Everyone’s got it wrong on race. What’s the big deal? Why is that terrifying? The popular misunderstanding of race is prevalent and lots of people manage not to be racist bumholes without “getting” all that science and social theory.

The so what is this…we need to “get it,” because if we don’t we (and by we, I am especially talking to progressive-minded individuals who are invested in ridding the world of racial injustice) end up reinforcing the very ideas and justificatory logic that makes racism possible.

Biological Definitions of Race are the Basis for Structural and Institutional Racism

subhumanBy most historical accounts, efforts to find and make concrete a scientific basis for race–often referred to as “scientific racism“–began to crop up and flourish right around the time European colonialism and Western capitalism hit their stride.  It doesn’t take much consideration to see how scientific “proof” that Africans were biologically different (less human and therefore inferior) greased the wheels of the transatlantic slave trade.  And it takes just as little thought to see why such an idea would have tremendous sticking power in the start-up U.S.  Slave labor formed the basis of  American Agro-capitalism, it formed the basis of American wealth, and (ironically) the basis of American independence.

But even has we move forward in history and arrive at a time when most people agree that black people are actually people too, the biologism of race has remained the logical justification for some of our ugliest moments.  The eugenics moment, which was active and state sponsored in the U.S. until the 1970s (and continues to afflict our incarcerated  population), was and is an institutional reification of Social Darwinism.  And it was the  belief that black men were genetically programmed with insatiable and “animalistic” sexual appetites that underwrote the widespread fear that white woman were at risk of rape simply by being in proximity to black men–the fear that motivated any number of public lynchings and dehumanized lynching victims to the point that people regularly attend these events in Sunday dress, replete with picnic baskets and smiles.

Lynching, in Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930. Published in TIME MAGAZINE

Though we have cultivated a more civilized appearance for such beliefs, they continue to form the fabric of institutional racism.  The belief that black bodies are biologically more athletic (and subsequently less intelligent), fuels everything from differential education (unwittingly steering children toward certain activities and not others) to differential hiring practices–this study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research  demonstrates that employers respond less favorably to a resumé when the name attached to the top is “black sounding”.  The researchers, who circulated resumés in response to job advertisements that were identical except for the names at the top (Emily and Greg vs. Lakisha and Jamal), found that a white sounding name yielded as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience.

Biological conceptions of race have justified every white supremacist ideology in modern history and you only have to spend a few seconds reading the comments on any given story on race relations in America to see that those who practice racism go back to these “genetic differences” every time they need to justify their repugnant views.

So you are Saying I should be Cool with Rachel Dolezal?

Hell no, I am not saying that.

As I mentioned above, I think the story of Rachel Dolezal is more convoluted than the splashy headlines could possibly communicate–and, if I were a betting woman, I would put money on the chance that this story includes some sad and unfortunate trama, possibly emotional abuse, and mental illness.  As I said before, I don’t feel qualified to comment upon her situation, I just don’t know enough.

But I am commenting on what our collective responses to her situation reveal about our thinking about race and, from what I have seen so far, I think we should be far more worried about the fact that so many of us, so uncritically, buy into the lie that race has an essential biological foundation than about any of the lies that Rachel Dolezal told.

That does not mean I or anyone else has to like it.  I quite literally bristle when I see photos of Ms. Dolezal.  I am appalled and angered and offended when I think about someone who has not had to live life in a black body, someone who has not had to endure the daily micro- and macro-aggressions that are the social fabric of a nation that was (fairly recently) forged in the fires of racist domination, trying on “blackness” like a blouse–putting it on and taking it off when she feels like it, because her privilege enables such a performance.

This makes me sick.

However, the reason I am appalled is because she seems to take lightly the enormously fluid, complex, and weighty condition that is American blackness.  The condition of American blackness is something I recognize to be one of the most brilliant accomplishments of humanity, because American blackness is not some instinct-driven expression of dark-skinned genetics, nor it is it simply a heritage passed down from ancestors, American blackness is a beautifully creative contextual response to generations of violently differential treatment, founded on the myth that the accident of our skin color is socially significant.  Black culture is a culture of resilience, it is a culture of creativity, it is a culture of empowerment, and it is a culture that responds with complexity to the great lie that nurtured colonialism, capitalism, and Western modernity when they were embryonic forces in the world.  And I am proud as fuck of the black culture that, unlike Ms. Dolezal, I do not have a choice to take on and off, because my membership in it is written all over my body.

But at the same time that I love and celebrate American blackness in all the shapes and forms it takes, part of my black identity is formed by the fight to eradicate the lie that was so central in producing this cultural identity in the first place–the lie of biologically-determined race.  I define my blackness in tandem with my anti-racism and both are rooted in the truth of the constructedness of racial identity (and what beautiful constructions they are!).  But if biology does not produce black culture, then biology does not legitimize my membership in it.  It is a compulsory membership and if I am to believe in the constructed nature of race, because this belief in no small way defines anti-racism, then I must also accept that I cannot police the boundaries of this construct–I cannot deny access to others based solely on their physiological traits…no matter how hard that is.

I made essentially the same argument about Caitlyn Jenner earlier this week.  Jenner has deployed some of the most irksome and problematic interpretations of “womanhood” we have seen in media headlines in a while.  She seems to show an almost arrogant ignorance of the oppressive gender politics that have shaped the condition of contemporary American womanhood that she has chosen to make her own.  Dolezal’s claiming of blackness is similar in this, in its ignorance, in its presumption. But, I will not erect definitional walls or draw the boundaries up around womanhood or blackness in order to exclude those who express or appropriate these identities in ways  I don’t like (or even find dangerous) if it means using the building blocks of racism or sexism to do so.  We cannot hang our hats as activists and purveyors of social justice on ridding the world of reductive, essentialist, and biologically deterministic notions of race, gender, and/or sexuality and then turn around and pick up the VERY SAME ideas we have recognized oppress us when someone wields the social constructions of race and gender and sexuality in ways we do not like.

29 Replies to “Rachel Dolezal’s Deception isn’t the Lie We Should Be Worried About”

  1. Smart, compassionate, necessary! I teach these concepts at a deep level and STILL find that the elephant in the room is always in the application of these ideas to students’ every day takeaways. Thank you for a cogent, brilliant analysis in a voice that invites entry into the dialogues we all must have.

    Much admiration. I am a fan.

  2. Thank you so much for this… It’s the social significance of race as a category that matters, and as you described, the violent disparity in which American Blackness as an identity was forged.

    I was particularly unsettled by Dolezal’s justification that “we’re all from the African continent” — because while that may be historically true, not only have there been a few intervening millennia which have produced some physical and cultural differences among the Earth’s population, it should surely be possible for a caucasian North American to claim this noble heritage without a spray tan and a weave.

  3. Ms. Beckham, what about making sense of the biology of race as something spectral? That seems to be what follows from the theory of evolution. When scientists deny the biological utility of race, they would be assuming the political definition of “race,” where races are genetically discrete categories, which would not even be possible given the theory of evolution. But, biologists for a long time have assumed that “races” really are spectral, gradually flowing into and overlapping with one another, and being continuously divisible. Thinking of race this way, race really is biologically objective, and that seems to be how to best make sense of Dolezal’s actions. She went from perfect white to part black by changing her biological appearance: her skin color, her hair color and texture, and lying about her relatives. If “race” did not have at least some basis in biology, then these deceptions would not be relevant.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I hope this post doesn’t read as if I am denying the realities of biology and genetics–this is never what is meant in the assertion that “race is a social construct”. I wholeheartedly agree that humanity, along with all other kinds of life, pass down traits (like skin-color), establishing chains of lineage and ancestry.

      What I am critiquing in the concept of “race” is the assertion that the social meanings and interpretations of racial identity are somehow imbedded in DNA. So…having medium brown skin is, of course, a trait I gained through genetic selection (interestingly, so are the auburn hair, light brown skin, and freckles that my older brother possesses). And while this skin marks me as “black,” the meanings associated with “American blackness” whether negative (lazy, unintelligent, prone to violence) or positive (good dancer, soulful) are the product of historical contextualization and socialization, a history of domination and resistance. These meanings, and more importantly, the assumption that these social meanings are somehow genetically programmed into individuals with particular physical traits has been the basis of racist ideology for centuries.

      So, while I cannot condone what this woman is doing, I think it is dangerous to critique her on the basis that has the wrong physiology to perform “American blackness [a social construct], as this relies on the essentialist definition of race that has fueled racist acts and institutions for centuries.

  4. This might be the only good essay I have read thus far on this case. Thanks for writing it.

  5. Dear J,

    Hello from Spokane, Washington. Yeah, that Spokane. I loved this article, you echo many of my thoughts, and helped me put some of my swirling thoughts into questions.

    The scientific evidence that DNA does not make Race was first published in the NY Times in 2000, but it’s just barely trickling into the media’s attention. A positive outcome to this situation would be a redefinition of “race.”

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but your article seems to say that what society generally calls ‘race’ would more accurately be considered groupings of cultural differences and political differences. I hope that’s what you’re saying, because that’s been my theory for several years.

    Question: could we rewrite your statement “roughly speaking, we find it a reasonable reason to treat and act toward people differently” as, “despite some individuals’ best efforts, we as a society continue to use those cultural differences to treat and act toward people differently”? Because while, historically speaking, society has used the myth of biological superiority to oppress, I truly believe society can turn that around.

    I believe the goal of examining ‘race’ is to celebrate all of our cultural differences, allowing for education, mutual respect, and allowing each person to be treated fairly no matter their religion, gender, language, politics, etc.

    Yes, my stated goal is idealized, perhaps naive. It rejects the history of race as power. I can also see where some would say it ignore past injustices. As you said, part of your identity is “formed by the fight to eradicate the lie that was so central in producing this cultural identity in the first place.” There is no reset button on the past. Once the real science of DNA is accepted, and society finally understands the myth of race-as-biology (as I believe it will), how far can that take us to true social fairness and equality for the present and future?

    Is it only my White Privelege that allows me to imagine culture without bias? Although Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants experienced some discrimination in the past, we “European-Americans” have a different reality than American Blacks. But when Spokane has the annual “Unity in the Community” day, different cultural communities come together to share music, art, dance, food, traditional clothing, language, and other aspects of what makes that community ‘different’. Everyone from the German-American Society to the Vietnamese mingles. Is our goal to make “Unity in the Community” an everyday reality? If not, then what IS the goal we’re working towards?

    Truly appreciate your perspective and would love to listen to a response.

  6. I agree with a lot of what you have said, and I too have been surprised at the amount of biological determinism kicking around in determining who is Black.

    But on the other hand to ignore what is written on the body is to do injustice to collective suffering.

    A white woman who later presents and is accepted into the Black community, either by mistake or design has a different experience of being Black, because they do not have formative experiences of it.

    Neither do they share the collective history of the family – of the great grandfather who was a runaway slave, or having the spot of the “coloureds only” water fountain pointed out as where her mother used to drink.

    Its in these formative experiences and intimate microlevels that racial identity is passed down, where you bear not only your own scars but the scars of people who came before you, who you share genetic, but more importantly epigenetic traits with.

    1. Thanks for the comment. And I agree with you 100%. It is for that reason that I choose not to speak to the rightness or wrongness of Dolezal particular actions, only to the danger in using certain types of discourse to critique those actions. As I mentioned above, I do take a LOT of exception to what I understand her to have done, in no small part because she has not experienced the formative experience of American blackness as I (and a lot of other Americans who share some of my physiological traits) have, nor the “collective history of the family” as you put it so wonderfully. The vision of blackness she seems to want to perform is caricatured and reductive, and I happen to find it personally hurtful. However, I find it equally as dangerous to attempt to “define her out of blackness” by falling back on the old [and very dangerous] biological arguments.

  7. I appreciate this well-written article. I would go a step farther and say it puts the trope “race is social constuction” to bed forever. I have yet to see a single African-American, post-modernist, or Leftist blogger come out unreservedly in support of Ms. Dolezal. Maybe it’s time to couch the idea in more conservative terms. Physical anthropology as practiced in forensics and archaeology, recognizes 6 major races of humans (black, white, Native American, East Asian, Polynesian and Melanesian/Australian), all individuated by cues like skull shape, palate shape, nasal cavity, dental patterns, not to mention hair and of course DNA. I believe in the necessity of trying to work together for a more fair and just society, but I don’t like it when ideologues try to appropriate or delegitimize scientific inquiry. Like with Galileo, it always ends up embarassing the ideologues. If they had more honesty, they would admit the problematic nature of this trope and reform it into something that is truer and more universally applicable.

  8. Honestly, if you feel upset about Dolezal’s dishonesty, then you should feel upset about Jenner’s dishonesty too. Neither of them are what they say they are. One is a white woman & the other is a white man. Funny how everyone applauds Jenner’s “bravery” while condemning Dolezal’s “dishonesty”. I don’t see any difference in what they are doing at all. They both changed their appearance because of how they “felt”. Dolezal “felt” like a black person & Jenner felt like a woman. Never mind neither one of them were ACTUALLY what they “felt” like they said they were. It’s about time we ALL got honest about this issue of “feelings” & “transitioning” & who we REALLY are. Personally, I think it all comes down to DNA. You are who are you & that’s the end of it.

    1. Polly, I think you may have misunderstood what I was arguing here…gravely (almost as if you read the titles of these blog posts and simply responded to what someone might “assume” I am arguing). It is not Dolezal’s “dishonesty” that upsets me, but her minimization and caricaturing of the black experience she supposedly advocates for. But frankly, this article is not about Dolezal’s actions. I don’t really have enough information to feel confident making judgements about them either way…as I stated explicitly…twice. This blog post is about the nature of collective responses to her controversy. In this regard, my Jenner piece addresses the same types of responses. And, like Dolezal’s deployment of blackness, I am both troubled and bothered by Jenner’s problematic definitions of womanhood. But again, both pieces are not critiques or endorsements of these women’s actions or motivations, but critiques of our responses…particularly from those who are invested in advocating for social justice. My major premise in both articles is that those of us who are part of social justice movement cannot disavow certain definitions of gender and race as oppressive and essentialist, and then use the same definitions when we encounter deployment of race and gender that are troubling to use. I am not saying “don’t critique,” simply, take care how you use critique, lest you reinforce the logics of oppression.

  9. I agree with some of what you said. My issue with what she did is that she took away benefits like scholarships and things like that from black people while posing to be black

  10. I am so glad that you wrote this. I have been peacefully trying to get people to understand this very thing. I comment on some of the posts and get knocked down. It’s great to know someone understands.

  11. I’m cool with it. I can’t wait for the book and movie to come out. I wish a white male would do it but he probably doesn’t want to be shot, or robbed or imprisoned or have to swallow his pride on a daily to just survive in this country. What we lack is whites having the ability and the willingness to identify with minorities. This is kinda awesome but I can see how women might get upset seeing a white woman being a more accomplished black woman than another black woman,lmao now that is comical. We need as many of them as possible maybe they can help lead our women out of the strip clubs and out of the projects and into college and on to do positive things in they community. Plus she’s fine and her hair is laid in all her pics,lmfao!

  12. Thank you for your brilliant post on the matter! However, there is one aspect where I would disagree, and that is your mention of “mental illness”. Now, I don’t know in how far you are familiar with the research in the field, so I will assume that, probably, you haven’t been spending hours and hours for weeks, months, years looking at the studies themselves and checking whether what the media mostly tells us, which is that “mental illness” is a scientifically proven reality as the bio-genetic phenomenon it is sold to the public, actually is true. The thing is, it isn’t. There is probably nothing that is more of a social construction than the concept of “mental illness”. Indeed, “mental illness” is only and solely a social construction, with no bio-genetic underpinnings whatsoever. So, your mention of “mental illness” actually happens to be in conflict with your otherwise so sensitive analysis here, and mentioning it the way you do doesn’t do your cause any favour.

    1. Thanks for the comment Marian. I brought up trauma and mental illness as a matter of pure speculation and a desire to compassionate what seems to be a very emotional and traumatic family environment that includes allegations of abuse (I hope it was framed in that way), but you’ve inspired me to rethink my assumptions about what this phrase signifies. Grateful for the intelligent dialogue!

    2. I totally agree with this point. Deception IS deception, lying IS lying – regardless of WHO does it or in what form it may take – whether the issue has to do with “Race,” “Gender” or some other matter.

      I STRONGLY believe that, unlike the author’s view stated in this article, both “Race” AND “Gender” are REAL, that BIOLOGICALLY EXIST within the Human Species. Even though the “scientists” go on denying that. They are much MORE than just “cultural differences,” or “social constructs.” And, it’s more than just “skin color.” What this woman is doing is not only outright lying (when she PURPOSELY mis-represented herself as “Black,” when she, in fact, wasn’t), but, STEALING from those who actually were and ARE Black, whose history goes back FAR into Africa, and ITS culture, from A PEOPLE who have suffered a great deal throughout the Centuries, and CONTINUE to suffer in a number of ways.

    3. Actually there is a considerable body of evidence documenting neurological differences and brain pattern response components to some mental illness diagnosis. There is indeed actual bio-genetic underpinnings of some mental illness diagnosis. Pretending otherwise doesn’t do your argument any favors.

  13. cool article. saw it on facebook (yainorite?) i disagree though; the lie is so important. race IS a social construct ok sure yeah cool. but inasfar as how the all these social narratives and devices/ideas come together and interact and push us along in our social construction of race (and all things socially constructed) contextualizing/dealing with THE LIE(S) is one of the most critical moves we can make and we ought to be worried about THE LIE(S) because how we think about and deal with THE LIE(S) will certainly impact or at least help indicate: what our ethical capacity to deal with this looks like, (hidden) psychological issues, (hidden) narrative premises. especially when – in a way – the lie and how people are dealing with it seems to represent the confluence of how people are coming together and dealing with the issue and we may infer what implications this may have for the future of race construction etc.

    for example. look at the naacp. as far as i have seen they are quietly supporting this person. but why? do they wish to avoid a lawsuit (ie is it a money/publicity/legal issue)? do they not really care about her lie(s)? have they not even pressed what we might/not consider to be some really important aspects of this conversation? wouldnt those kinds of things be entirely germane to this discussion of race construction in our time?

  14. oh yeah sorry to edit that above post a little bit and to just finish up; so it seems like the lie and everything around it is really maybe some of the most important things to be worried about

  15. Good read. I’ve noticed one other thing in the responses. American Black culture is forgiving. for the most part, those most riled are American Caucasian culture.

    my family is tri racial in background and chosen cultural identification.

    I am a black man, but as a child, I never marked just one background box in school. To me, it was rejecting part of my family.

    the conversation went, “but Krishna, you are black. Just mark the box.”

    “Have you seen my mom? and I’m also part Seminole.”

    I got sent to the office so many times for my refusal. I’m happy with who I am, but if I had the skin color to pass, I wonder what I would have done. for my relatives who do have the skin colour to pass, and wonder what that must be like.

    The Rachel situation, my first reaction was laughter. I mean, who passes for black?

    My second reaction was wonder. you mean there is an advantage to being black in America now?

    My third reaction was, this woman has issues, but she did get the hair down right.but she didn’t get “it” right.

    Because anybody truly of the American Black culture would have known that they didn’t need to claim Black skin.

    Fascinating story to watch play out.

  16. Pretty good stuff, but I am getting concerned at how so many (including this blogger) seem to ignore what’s come out about Rachel Dolezal’s history. It’s not quite fair to say that she “tries on blackness like a blouse, putting it on and off when she feels like it.” While I won’t defend her actions, she did have a longstanding affinity and passion for African American art and culture, but was rejected by her black peers and faculty when she was at Howard University. Her brother cites that experience as a turning point, when she developed self-hate, hatred of white people, and then the determination to transform herself into a black woman, all to just be accepted by her black peers. Who knows for sure but I’ve read some psychological discussions online that suggest she may never have gone down this path if as a young caucasian woman, she had been accepted instead of resented for her lifelong affinity for African American culture.

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