The endless fascination with the Rachel Dolezal story reveals our hunger to talk about racial identity in all its complexity.
When Amanda Erekson was in her early 20s, a friend introduced her to a Japanese-American woman at a party. “Amanda is Japanese-American, too!” her friend enthused.
“The person was shocked,” Erekson recalls. “I know white people who look more Japanese than you,” the woman said.
The comment stung. Erekson, who is multiracial, identifies strongly with her Japanese-American heritage, although her appearance leads most people to assume she is simply white.
This kind of skeptical reaction is one reason the 33-year-old New Yorker, president of MAVIN, an organization devoted to the multiracial experience, bemoans the international media sensation that is Rachel Dolezal. Because of the former Spokane NAACP president, who resigned from her post Monday after her parents said she had been posing as black, Erekson says “it will be that much harder” for people like her.
Erekson, who considers Dolezal’s conduct “unethical and inappropriate,” can find little positive about the whole affair. But if there is something, she says it is this: “It makes people more comfortable talking about race.”
Race — or more specifically racial identity — has been Topic A in the national conversation over the past week. And it is one of the most nuanced and interesting conversations we’ve ever had.
People obviously have a deep need to talk about the subject, and to talk about it in complex ways, says New Jersey filmmaker Lacey Schwartz. She saw that same need in the outpouring of personal stories sparked by the making of her recent film “Little White Lie,” a documentary about growing up in a Jewish family and discovering in college that her biological father is African American.
To some extent, the current conversation involves picking apart details of the Dolezal saga, which seems to get stranger by the day.
Witness Dolezal’s assertion Tuesday, despite a birth certificate produced by Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal, that there’s no proof that the couple are her biological parents. She evinced a similar squishiness on NBC’s “Today” show earlier in the day when she said that she “identified” as black.
Whatever story she has that prompts such a statement, she’s not “owning it’ by honestly talking about it, Schwartz says. The filmmaker also objects to Dolezal’s declaration on “Today” that she needed to present herself as black because otherwise it wouldn’t be “plausible” to assume guardianship, as she did, of one of her adopted African-American brothers.
“That is a real diss,” Schwartz says. “My mother is white. I know lots of white people raising children of color.”
Yet, Camille Gear Rich, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Southern California, points out that parents who look different from their children often face incredulous questions. That intrusiveness might have pushed her into “going too far” by lying about her race, Rich says.
It is behavior the professor thinks also might have been influenced by the difficulties Dolezal said she faced as an openly white woman at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. While some have seized upon the discrimination lawsuit Dolezal filed against Howard as a gotcha moment, Rich sees it as further possible motivation for passing as black.
Regardless, the collective conversation has moved beyond Dolezal and delved into nothing less than the very meaning of race.
“In my classes, I always teach that it’s a social construction,” says Moon-Ho Jung, who teaches the history of race and politics at the University of Washington. He’s referring to scientific research showing that the categories used to define race have little or no biological basis.
“That doesn’t mean race doesn’t matter,” he continues. “Race,” he observes, “is one of the first things we are taught to notice.” If you can’t fit someone into a “neat category, it drives you crazy. You almost feel the need to ask, not who are you, but what are you?”
Such labeling can turn ominous. Jung, like many others, points to numerous instances of police brutality that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. He also notes the way a so-called “blood quantum” is used to determine who can — and can’t — belong to many Native American tribes.
Seattle attorney Gabe Galanda represents hundreds of people who have been the target of disenrollment efforts among Northwest tribes. Such efforts are also happening across the country — typically, Galanda says, by tribes seeking to maximize per capita casino revenue or to consolidate power among one faction or other.
Yet this insistence on racial labeling faces a backlash.
MAVIN arose in 1998 in response to a growing desire by multiracial people to identify themselves in ways that might differ from how they are perceived. The group looks to a landmark “bill of rights for people of mixed heritage” produced by Seattle psychologist Maria P.P. Root.
Some key passages: “I have the right … To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify. To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me. To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters. To identify myself differently in different situations.” Also: “I have the right … To change my identity over my lifetime — and more than once.”
If this bill of rights seems tailor-made for the Dolezal case, Erekson, the MAVIN president, begs to differ. Identity may be fluid, she says, but it “has to be based on something.” It can’t just be fabricated out of whole cloth.
That doesn’t take away from its paradigm-shifting power. Erekson identifies simultaneously as “mixed race, Japanese American and white American.” She may only refer to one of those categories, however, depending on what seems relevant at the time.
“I live in Harlem, where most of the community is black,” she relates. And there are occasions when she’ll differentiate herself by identifying herself as white, as in “I was the only white person in the room.”
A few years ago, Rich, the USC professor, coined the term “elective race” to talk about increasing demands to choose how one identifies. She doesn’t object to that. Perceived biological differences when it comes to race, or for that matter gender, have been used for centuries to restrict people (which is why the public perception of Bruce Jenner’s switch to Caitlyn Jenner as biological destiny troubles her). “Do we really want to go back to that?” she asks.
But “elective race” does present certain complications. She points, for instance, to college admissions and employment practices.
“What’s happening now is that someone may say, ‘Oh, I’m Latino’ and then change back to white” once they’re admitted or hired. Rich maintains that people can identify however they choose in private situations, but that when they’re using their declared identity to get something, such as a job, it’s fair to ask them more probing questions, such as whether they’ve ever faced discrimination.
That’s sure to be controversial, of course. And the courts are already wrestling with cases stemming from varying perceptions of identity, Rich notes. One concerns a man who sued his Florida employer, charging that he was fired in retaliation for challenging the way he was categorized in diversity reports. The employer had identified him as Latino while he considered himself white.
But the complications won’t stop the shifting tides. In 2000, the Census began allowing people to check more than one racial category in describing themselves; 6.8 million people did so. Ten years later, the number grew to 9 million.
“Multiracial Americans are the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S.,” a report by the Pew Research Center declared just last week.
The report both noted the growing numbers of people who proudly identify as multiracial and subtly reinforced the notion of choice as an operating principle. Roughly 60 percent of those who could call themselves multiracial, due to the racial makeup of their parents or grandparents, in fact identity with only one race.
You need look no further than Barack Obama for an example, Erekson says. And she notes one reason: “Identifying with a white heritage is very complicated for people of color.” She cites the history of mixed race in this country, which includes the rape of black women by slave owners.
She also mentions her sister, who has darker skin than Erekson yet identified for years as white. Like Erekson, her sister has a white dad and a multiracial mom. Three of her four grandparents are white. She grew up in Eugene, Ore., a primarily white town. She felt white. Yet for other people, “that doesn’t make sense.” Now, Erekson says, her sister doesn’t identify racially at all.
So while some people are choosing their race, others are having their race chosen for them. You can see that even in the Dolezal case. As the world has widely reported it, Rachel Dolezal chose to be black, in part, because of experiences she had in a family that included four adopted black siblings.
Yet that characterization doesn’t square with how one of those adopted siblings, Ezra Dolezal, sees himself. Speaking this week from New York City, where he had gone for a series of TV interviews, he said, “I’m part black and I’m part white.”