What Does It Mean to Be Black?

06/17/2015 12:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016
Don Bayley via Getty Images

We live in a dynamic time. All of the distinctions and conventions that we once took for granted are now under frequent and aggressive questioning, one might say to the point of assault. Though I've considered the question before, the recent case of Rachel Dolezal has brought it front of mind. What does it mean to be black?

Though you surely know who she is at this point, Rachel Dolezal is the former president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. Immense controversy has arisen concerning her racial identity. In short, Dolezal has been living as a black woman though she is white by birth. Some accuse her of appropriating black culture and heritage for professional advancement. Some say that she is living a "straight up lie."

The irony of the proximity between Dolezal's story and the widely publicized transition of Caitlyn, formerly Bruce, Jenner has been noted. Jenner's transition has brought the transgender discussion, once marginalized, into mainstream American discourse. Caitlyn Jenner was met with overwhelming media support. Anyone who dared joke about her identity and transition was immediately shamed and condemned as insensitive. According to my understanding, one's identity as transgender is determined by how one feels individually about themselves. Any surgery or hormone treatment is not determinant of one's identity as transgender. In fact, many do not undergo such treatments for various reasons. This is what I have gleaned from what I've read, so correct me if I'm wrong. Should this be the truth, there is no objective biological standard by which one's status as transgender is determined. It is completely dependent on the incomprehensible condition of one's psyche.

I took a genomics class last semester and the professor confirmed what I already knew; race is not a biological reality. Race is by all means a social construct. This, of course, doesn't make it any less real. But if we are to agree that both race and gender are social constructs, then how can we logically condemn one for identifying with a different race in earnest while lauding one for identifying with a different gender? The differences between the genders are more definite than the differences between the races from a strictly biological standpoint; consider, the differences between chromosomes and organs both internal and external. One might say that these are differences of sex and not gender as gender is concerned with the societal implications carried with one's sex.

In any event, in regards transgender individuals, we have agreed that one's actual physiology is an obiter dictum, a nonissue. Since details are still emerging concerning Dolezal, I can't say whether or not she earnestly identifies with the black race, though she does have a history which, in part, would attest to this. Perhaps she's simply suffering from psychosis. Who knows? What I do know is that should we deem self-identification absolute, it would be intellectually dishonest to write off someone who genuinely identifies with another race and cases such as these will surely arise.

Honestly, I don't often consider my blackness unless the issue is raised by someone else. To me it is but one of many aspects that constitutes my individual identity as Chad Williams. It is more important than some aspects of my person and less important than others. My other demographic traits: where I grew up, the religion I was raised in and my socio-economic status all carry comparable weight to my blackness. Any individual's identity is comprised of countless traits, both physical and social.

I make a conscious effort to consider the people I encounter on an individual basis. That Americans could be judged "by the content of their character" was what Martin Luther King and countless other valiant individuals, of all colors mind you, struggled and died for. We are still striving toward that goal. I would say that the principal way in which black people, and all people of color really, differ from white people is that their race precedes them. When they encounter a person for the first time they are subconsciously, perhaps blatantly, compared to expectations grafted onto them by stereotypes.

This effect is perpetuated by both blacks and whites. I've heard "you're not really black" from both white people and black people alike. Black people employ the term Uncle Tom to describe black people that don't fit their expectations of blackness just as frequently as white people might say something to the effect of "you're not like most black people" or better yet "I'm blacker than you." Unfortunately these stereotypes are exceedingly negative. In my own experience I've found that slang and grammatical incoherence are so closely associated with black people that articulateness is considered distinctly not black. I believe sustained efforts to diversify work forces, college populations and the types of people represented in mass media will dissolve these stereotypes in time.

We have become very sensitive to race and culture, some might say too sensitive. There seems to be not only a willingness but an eagerness to identify something or someone as racist, overcompensating for the ills of the past. Moderation is hard to come by. We've gone from gross insensitivity to obnoxious oversensitivity. Hopefully we'll settle in the middle sometime soon, where we're sensitive to the cultures of others but learn how to not take offense so easily. I seek to inform others when I discern a lack of understanding but I also accept a degree insensitivity as inevitable. I believe that the term cultural appropriation is, at the very least, overused. To tell a white person that rapping is cultural appropriation, is to tell a black person that singing country music is the same. You don't need to grow up in an area to appreciate the art form from where it originated.

What I mean to say is, relax. We're trying to come to a better understanding of one another. This is a commendable but not a simple endeavor. People will make mistakes. We must forgive them.