I chose to look at Rachel Dolezal’s claim to being black and how in her instance, race has been socially constructed and imbued meaning. Rachel Dolezal is a woman who became famous in 2015 for claiming she was black and she identified with blackness and black identity while in actuality, being a biological white woman born to white parents. She was a civil rights activist and was the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. She did not fully admit to changing her appearance to make her look more stereotypically “black”, however she admitted to not “staying out of the sun” (Yuhas 2015). Also, in comparisons to pictures of her when she was a child, her skin is clearly darker and her hair is a different texture and color. After her white parents publicly revealed she was biologically white she resigned from her position as the president of the NAACP as well as several positions she held teaching classes on African American history and culture at Eastern Washington University.
Race itself is a socially constructed idea and “social scientists for decades have emphasized the socially constructed nature of race” (Freeman, et al.). However, race still stems from a biological visible difference in skin tone and the amount of pigment and melanin in the skin. However, although the idea of race is socially constructed, it has far reaching implications in terms of how black people are treated in comparison to other races, especially white people. There is an especially staggering difference in how black women are treated in comparison to other races and genders. In anthropology, the idea of intersectionality “arose out of a critique of gender-based and race-based research for failing to account for lived experience at neglected points of intersection… it was not possible to understand a black woman’s experience from previous studies of gender combined with previous studies of race” (McCall 2008). Intersectionality also arose because “multiple and conflicting experiences of subordination and power require a more wide-ranging and complex terrain of analysis” (McCall 2008).
This idea is important in understanding why Rachel Dolezal’s claim to being black is so problematic. In portraying herself as a “black woman” and saying that she “identifies with blackness”, she is negating the issues that real black women face at the hands of white people in America and she is also neglecting the fact that, unlike real black women in the US, she has the privilege of “changing” back into a white woman in order to escape multiple levels of discrimination. This is where biology becomes important and why her claim to “being black” does not encompass what blackness really is. There are two separate aspects to being black, as I mentioned, both a biological and social aspect. In claiming she is black, she is negating the biological and inherited aspect of blackness and instead focusing only on the “social” aspect, which is why her idea of race is only socially constructed.
Another reason why her idea of race is socially constructed is that she said that she identified with blackness because she had black siblings and then adopted them (Cohen 2015). Although she gave an unclear answer on why she believed she was black just because she was raising black children, she still socially constructed race in this instance, believing that she could not raise black children as a white woman, when that can most obviously be done. As Melissa Harris-Perry says in the interview, there are many white women who have adopted black children and do not identify as black themselves (Cohen 2015).
The main issue with Rachel Dolezal’s claim to being black is that she only has understood the social aspects of it, from when she first claimed she “felt very isolated with my identity” (Cohen 2015). Had she not grown up around other black children, or knew of any black people or black culture, it is very, very unlikely that she would have claimed to be a black person. The idea of being transracial was not something that she was likely born with, but instead that, once she learned about black culture and about being black, she “decided” that she identified better with that culture than being white. In her idea of being black, she believe that in order to identify with black culture she needed to actually become a black woman, which, because culture is in itself social, is not true. She did not need to start identifying as a “black woman” herself in order to appreciate and understand black culture and what make black women great.
In claiming to be a black woman herself, when she is biologically white and born and raised by white parents, she believes she is celebrating and appreciating black culture and “blackness”. In actuality she is mocking what blackness is in the United States, what it has been historically, and the kinds of discrimination that black people and especially black women have faced for being biologically, socially and culturally black. In claiming blackness, she ended up doing the exact opposite of what she believed she was doing.
Cohen, Isaac. “Watch Rachel Dolezal’s Long, Unbelievably Incoherent Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry.” National Review, National Review, 18 June 2015, www.nationalreview.com/2015/06/dolezal-interview-isaac-cohen/.
Freeman, Jonathan B., et al. “Looking the part: Social status cues shape race perception.” PloS one 6.9 (2011): e25107.
McCall, Leslie. “The complexity of intersectionality.” Intersectionality and Beyond. Routledge-Cavendish, 2008. 65-92.
Yuhas, Alan. “Rachel Dolezal Defiantly Maintains ‘I Identify as Black’ in TV Interview.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 June 2015, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/16/rachel-dolezal-today-show-interview.