I know it’s been a little while since the thing with Rachel Dolezal was really a “hot topic”, but I’ve been talking about what she did and how America’s history has influenced these situations, with a few friends of mine. It really is an interesting situation, and is in no way a simple one. One of the main people I’ve been discussing things with is studying Race and Ethnic Relations, and she has provided a great deal of input on the topic (the majority of the references were provided by her as well [thank you, Stella]). I originally wrote out an entirely different Blog post about this, but when I reached out for input, it was very clear that – while my general logic was sound – I was missing large portions of information. This Blog post is filled with many of her thoughts, as well as my own.
With all of the shared information in mind, I’ve written up this new post, and I would like to pose a few questions to consider while reading on. First, what exactly is wrong about what Dolezal did? Also, why exactly is this upsetting so many people? What is it about the idea of “Race”, and Dolezal’s actions regarding it, that has caused so many issues?
What is “Race”?
I think, to properly convey my point of view, I have to start by explaining exactly what “Race” is. Scientifically, “Race” among humans doesn’t exist. We are all Homo sapiens; as far as we know, we are the only extant members of the hominin clade. The current idea of “Race” is a socially constructed idea as a means of categorizing people so that specific categories could be viewed as better or worse than others, and, really, the idea of “Race” has only been around for a relatively short time.
People have always found one reason or another to justify attacking others and taking whatever it is that those people owned (land, gold, resources, etc.), for themselves. In the past, factors such as nationality, clan/tribe/family/heritage, religion, allegiance, status of conqueror versus conquered, language/culture/accent, caste/feudal hierarchy, etc., were the means by which people were categorized. For example: wars have been fought in the past because of differing religion, or what emperor you served, using those ideas as the justification for fighting others and taking their resources.
At what point did this change, then? When Europeans discovered “The New World”, many (not all) decided that the current residents were somehow “less than human”, and therefore not eligible for many of the human rights that were well understood by the philosophical and political “era of enlightenment” they were dawning into. Christopher Columbus, along with many of the others with a similar mindset, set a remarkable precedent of dehumanizing the Natives of this new land by enslaving many of them. It wasn’t until the Crown pretty much said “Hey, you can’t do that, they look like people so you need to stop” that they slowly worked away from that. Still, the social and psychological seed was sown and new arrivals to the Americas were often indiscriminate to the ways they would fuck up the Natives, their families, their children, their culture, and their land. They deemed these people the “red savages”, animal-like, and not nearly the same in intelligence as the standard European, and used appearance as a way to differentiate that.
Upon the discovery of West Africa, the Triangular-Slave Trade was also formed, which would bring slaves from Africa to Europe, then to the Americas. It was because the Africans were so drastically different in skin color compared to the Europeans, because the precedent was set with Native Americans, and because Africans were not as technologically advanced (due to geography and regional resources rather than the claim to intelligence Europeans were attempting to make), it was easy to apply this theory of “lesser human” to the people of Africa as well.
Concurrent to these events, people were now trying to justify the explicit dehumanization, colonization, and eradication of these two newly formed “Racial” groups. Pseudoscience emerged which attempted to link these groups of people to animals, inaccurately reporting on differentiation in skull size, facial shape, etc., as evidence that these beings are not actually people, but sub-human and therefore not privileged to human rights and dignities.
This is when the current idea of “Race” was born. The idea that – due to evolution causing the human body to change in different ways, such as producing more melanin as a means to protect against higher solar radiation due to residing closer to the equator, causing the person to have a darker skin color – there are somehow different variations of humans that are in some way less evolved; more “animal-like”, and thus, deserve to be treated less like a human.
For the past 500 years, this idea that there are different breeds, or “Races” of Human has persisted. We are born into a world where we experience “Race” from the earliest points in our manifestation of identity. People are constantly reminded, either explicitly or through subtle/invisible means of their superiority or inferiority based on appearance. Appearance wasn’t acknowledged prior to these situations. Even when people dealt with Indian and Chinese traders, none of that mattered – it wasn’t until people needed to justify human exploitation through this fabrication of “Race” that appearance suddenly mattered.
How has “Race” changed things?
Throughout history, people in power have used scapegoats to remain in power. Although we become more “enlightened”, people still have a tendency to put others in power who want to stay in power, even though, after a point, it has been psychologically proven that wealth and power do not bring happiness or wellbeing.
Let’s take race out of the equation for a second to just focus on this fact: Why are multi-multi-billionaires still trying to accumulate wealth and not help cycle it back into the economy? They know that the wellbeing of any capitalistic structure rests on the consumer power of the middle class, and yet they’re drying up the middle class; they’re hoarding everything and slowing economic, social, and technological progress by making it more difficult for the middle class to contribute to society. It’s the same for those who hold the means to political access, job opportunities, access to quality primary-through-postsecondary education and healthcare.
The people who have the most access to the cultural, social, and economic benefits in the United States (and around the world) are White. And because these people have always been White, since slavery, they had the power to perpetuate that cycle of inequality for their own benefit. Granted: sometimes this does happen intentionally, and other times it simply happens because of the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement that people of color find themselves in.
To give a few quick examples of what I mean, I’ll point out a few specifics:
- Vagrancy Laws: Intentional.
- Jim Crow: Intentional.
- Initial drafting of the G.I. Bill: Intentional.
- Initial drafting of Social Security and the New Deal: Intentional.
- Redlining and Federal Mortgage Standards: Intentional.
- Steering Black Americans to rent homes in Black communities rather than buy homes in any communities: Intentional – (proven intentional, and limiting the chance that Black Americans can accrue generational wealth).
- Blockbusting: Unintentional – byproduct of Redlining and Federal Mortgage Standards.
- Black Slums and Slumlords: Unintentional – byproduct of Redlining, Federal Mortgage Standards, and G.I. Bill.
- Schools with predominantly Black student population being under-funded and therefore not producing students who have the same educational resources as students in primarily white schools (this still happens today): (arguably intentional, though through benefit of the doubt, let’s say) “Unintentional” – byproduct of Jim Crow, Red Lining, Federal Mortgage Standards, Real Estate Steering, and the United States basing school funding primarily on community property value.
Those are just to name a few, but the issue is so complex and multidirectional that so many other factors simultaneously contribute to just making the Black experience so much more difficult for Black Americans. Other issues include, but are not limited to: life expectancy of an African American person compared to a White American, infant mortality rate, the likelihood that the community in which one lives as being grounds for environmental waste (which adds to difficulty in health, work performance, education), community resources for the mentally and physically disabled, high suicide rates among black men, fresh food as opposed to “gas station food” to provide nutrients for health and educational achievement, employment discrimination (which can still be severe), not gaining the learned cultural knowledge to know how to act in certain professional settings, not having generational wealth to help at times of more extreme financial strife (the top earning Black Americans have less wealth than the bottom earning White Americans), not having political legitimacy in one’s voice or having one’s experience “matter” to the rest of the country/world, experiencing disproportionate profiling and harassment from law enforcement and others, along with many, many other factors. And yet, these circumstances define so many Black lives (27% of African Americans are in poverty, and this is not including those who are incarcerated in jail or prison, which happens to 1/3 of black men during their lives).
So, why is “Racial” or Cultural Appropriation Unethical?
Because “Race” is consistently reinforced through various means, in almost all aspects of social interaction, it is consistently shaping the experiences of all people, but in different ways for different groups of people (and different intersections of groups of people).
The identities that disenfranchised people build, are built as a means to survive in a world that ignores and abuses them. For African Americans, this is built on a historical heritage of “Race” and Racism that still has meaning today by the fact that “Race” is constantly reproduced and consistently effecting people of this group from all angles. This identity is built from the experiences that one has by growing up Black, experiences that vary starkly from those who don’t. When everything else is eroded by a Racist system, one’s identity is all that one has.
For some African Americans in history, they had to pretend to be White just to survive. Even today, many lighten their skin in order to have better chances in life – not because they want to, but because their arbitrary genetic physical appearance makes it so they can’t have the same opportunities as others.
There’s also the dialogue that’s going on currently that it’s somehow ok to be “transracial” and fit into the “Race” that you “feel describes you” completely misses the point of what “Race” has developed into over the past 500 years. “Race” is something that society constructs, assigns to you, something that you can’t help (within a given society and time period, “Race” is viewed differently in different places and throughout time), and that shapes your experiences as a person. You can’t just decide “now I’m black” and pretend like your experiences have been the same as others.
A current argument in support of this “transracial” idea, which I personally find to be completely invalid: is one that makes a comparison to the Gender Identity issue that has been brought up recently. With this argument, I think people misunderstand what “Gender” is. To make a decent comparison, I would have to say “Sex is to Race, as Gender is to Culture”. The thing to remember here is that “Gender” is simply a mental and emotional thing. “Gender” is defined as “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” – “Gender” isn’t physical; “Gender” is just what works best for you. “Gender” simply identifies what type of personality you have, and nothing else. “Sex” however, is genetic; is biological. “Sex” is defined as “either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures”.
In that regard, since “Race” tends to speak more of a geographical ancestry, which is commenting on your genetic makeup, our current usage of “Race” would be comparable to “Sex”, in that it comments on your biology, whereas “Culture” is more of a personality thing. “Culture” is defined as “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization”. So, with this in mind, I cannot agree that “transracial” is a thing, in the sense that I also disagree that “Race” within Humanity is really a thing. If someone wanted to use something like “transcultural”, that would make more sense, but in the context of the Dolezal situation, that would still disregard all of the hardships that African Americans have had to endure for the past hundreds of years.
With all of this in mind, for Rachel Dolezal to pretend to be Black; to invade the solidarity and trust of the Black community, and pretend like she shares the same personal and ancestral history of oppression and unequal social treatment, is an major insult.
Don’t get me wrong, I really do think she has some sort of mental health problem where she needs to be a victim or she needs to be personally involved in something that she’s passionate about. She sued her former college for discriminating against her because she was White, and then later accused people of hate crimes against her because she’s “Black”. She also has this distorted view that she needs to be Black in order to raise her Black children, which is an insult to all White parents of Black children and all Black children of White parents. I’m unsure if there has ever been a formal diagnosis, but there is clearly a mental illness of some kind that influences her social interactions.
It is for this reason that – while her actions are an insult to the Black community – I cannot be angry with her, for the simple fact that she does have issues, and very much needs help.
- Dickerson, N. T. (2007). Black Employment, Segregation, and the Social Organization of Metropolitan Labor Markets. Economic Geography, 83(3), 283-307.
- LITTRELL, J., BROOKS, F., IVERY, J., & OHMER, M. L. (2010). Why You Should Care About the Threatened Middle Class. Journal Of Sociology & Social Welfare, 37(2), 87-113.
- Kaplan, D., & Fisher, J. (2009). A Rose by Any Other Name: Identity and Impression Management in Résumés. Employee Responsibilities & Rights Journal, 21(4), 319-332. doi:10.1007/s10672-009-9127-1
- Wilson, M. G., Gahlout, P., Liu, L., & Mouly, S. (2005). A rose by any other name: The effect of ethnicity and name on access to employment. University Of Auckland Business Review, 7(2), 65-72.
- Spector, R. A. (2015). ‘Dignified Jobs at Decent Wages’: Reviving An Economic Equity Model of Employment Discrimination Law. Berkeley Journal Of Employment And Labor Law, 36123.
- Onwuachi-Willig, A., & Barnes, M. L. (2005). By Any Other Name?: On Being “Regarded as” Black, and Why Title VII Should Apply Even If Lakisha and Jamal are White. Wisconsin Law Review, 2005(5), 1283-1343.