In a society with expanding acceptance toward gender-fluidity and seeing gender as more of a social construct, I believe it is more than okay for a person to defy someone else’s idea of male or female and identify with whatever gender they want. However, when it comes to race, I have a harder time understanding that someone could claim to actually be a different race than what their birth certificate says, which is why, for this post, I will be analyzing option two and the controversy behind Rachel Dolezal identifying as a black women, even though she was born from white parents.
In my perspective, the term “race” insinuates someone’s actual genetic makeup, biology, and non-changeable skin color. On the other hand, when I hear “ethnicity” or “culture”, that is where I see some flexibility in terms of identification. I have mixed feelings on the Rachel Dolezal race controversy because I would be more accepting and understanding of her situation and experience if she said she had grown up with black siblings and in a primarily black environment with cultures and traditions coined by African American heritage. However, she explicitly states in her interview on the Today Show and on MSNBC with Melissa Harris-Perry that she is a black woman. Another thing I’d like to point out is that I am very accepting of people identifying with a different ethnicity or culture than theirs, but personally I just got a little confused by this particular case because of Rachel’s choice of words. On the Today Show, when she was asked if she wash African American, she paused and corrected Matt Lauer by saying “I identify as black.” In this particular instance, it seems as though she was referring to the world black as a social construct or culture because she didn’t want to imply her roots were from Africa; I think this is completely fine and she should be able to identify with a different ethnicity (Yuhas, 2015).
As stated in the article, “Looking the Part: Social Status Cues Shape Race Perception”, social scientists for decades have acknowledged the socially constructed nature of race (Freeman et al., 2011). I completely agree that certain aspects around the idea of being a certain race involve social constructs, like environment and culture, but it also involves you genetics and those can’t be changed. I am on Rachel’s side in a way that I don’t completely agree with the ideas around cultural appropriation unless, obviously, someone is portraying someone else’s culture in a negative or offensive way. I think it is more like a compliment if someone wants to wear their hair like someone else’s and they like it, so for that reason, I think it is okay for someone (Rachel Dolezal) to dress and wear their hair to look like another race if they identify with that ethnicity or culture; I don’t necessarily like that society says that only people with a certain skin color can wear their hair in a particular way.
In the video on MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry tells Rachel that so many people sitting at home watching her say that she is a black woman are absolutely enraged. In my eyes, this is probably because she hasn’t actually faced the hardships that come along with intersectionality of being an actual African American female (Cohen, 2015). She hasn’t experienced the hurt that comes along with having a black heritage and background, which is so important to those who identify as and are black; to me, that is almost the biggest factor in being black–living through the stories or experiences of your family’s struggle in America to be where they are today, especially being an outsider in the past in more than one way: as a black person and as a women with limited rights. However, I think if she were to indulge in another culture and appreciate and identify with a different ethnic group, I don’t think society would view it as as big of a problem as saying she is actually black.
On a separate note, I think the conversation is a little different in terms of gender identity. I think gender is growing to be more and more of a social composition, and that is why society is starting to accept that people are identifying with whatever gender they feel they truly are, despite their genitals. Some people feel completely trapped inside a male or female body while their brain is telling them they are not that gender. They could actually have chemical imbalances relative to those who are the same technical gender as them. Though earlier I mentioned that you can’t change genetics when it comes to race, it is becoming more possible for people to have surgical procedures to feel more comfortable identifying as a different gender. Overall, since gender is more of a social construct than race in today’s society, I personally think it is more understandable for someone to want to be who they truly feel they are on the inside without judgement, even if it’s not 100% female behavior or male behavior, someone should be able to express whatever gender combination that they see fit for themselves.
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.
Freeman, Jonathan B., et al. “Looking the Part: Social Status Cues Shape Race Perception.” PLOS Medicine, Public Library of Science, 2011, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0025107.
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/.