I'm following Rachel Dolezal's story with some personal fascination: I live on the color line.
My parents were of different backgrounds: my 1961 birth certificate says my mother is "Negro" and my father "White."
My genetic background, according to DNA analysis is 33 percent West African and 66 percent European.
How do I look? I appear to most people to be generically European-American, or "White." So, what am I? How do I identify? Do I "get" to identify as "black?" Do I have to?
Does it matter? Ask yourself why it matters what race I am.
I write about race and "passing" in The Auldton Laughing Club. If you have read it already you know exactly how. Those who are exercised about Dolezal might want to check it out: you may be surprised about who is passing and why.
Dolezal herself isn't really the issue we're all talking about. Obviously that is a personal and family story. But there's another dysfunctional family story far more interesting going on: the American family.
The color line, in North America, is any known genetic ancestry from Africa. It's an absurd delineation. It's a meaningless concept. It's a "lie about a lie," as well described by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker. It is a racist concept based on racial ancestry being some sort of poison to "white" people you can dilute but not eliminate. "White" ancestry does not have the same effect on "black."
The strange and even wonderful thing this debate is doing is putting the lie to the color line. And a lot of people care a great deal about that line.
This should be obvious by now but I still talk to many people on both sides of the color line who persist in believing that all "black" people are related and there is something in common between us. That it is some sort of stain we share that carries through generations. That you can gather up all people descended from the pre-Colonial African continent into a group separate from others. The truth is that any two Americans of a few generations in the US are more likely to be related to one another than to someone of their "race" elsewhere. That's the legacy of slavery and and evident in all our shared DNA. We're all family whether we like it or not.
People of all stripes are offended that Dolezal stepped over the color line when she is "really" not black. There is no such thing. This whole discussion of transracial and "passing" and not being "really" something is putting the lie, appropriately, to the whole kabuki. Race doesn't exist, biologically, only as a social construct. Those fighting to keep the color line clear may just be buying into the very "one drop" rule that we all want to end. By fighting for Rachel Dolezal to be identified by her "real" race need to ask themselves what "really black" and "really white" are.
I took a genetic ancestry test and connected with thousands of genetic relatives. Most are looking for clues to their ancestry. What many are finding is the reality of the American family tree: we're all related. Racial lines don't exist and never have. That list of cousins tells stories that our great-greats never thought would be told, and implode the myth of racial segregation. We're all family and while we have been more than ready to keep people on the "black" side of the color line by any association, genetically, with African ancestry, it brings us all up short when someone "fakes" going to the other side.
It seems clear Dolezal was deliberately falsifying her background. But can you "fake" being something that doesn't exist?
Why are we all so keen to define and maintain that line?
How do I self-identify? If asked, as neither. I'm not "black" and I'm not "white." I reject the terms and the identities offered to me. Do people look at me and make assumptions? Yes. I can't help that. I could take the Dolezal route and play up certain hair and lifestyle choices that could push me over the color line, of course; many people of my skin tone do. I could also deliberately "pass" as many mixed people historically have, taking advantage of mainstream racial privilege by denying my family ties. You can say that I'm doing the latter by not deliberately choosing one, considering my appearance, but I actually reserve the right to be myself. I expect the next generation, even more mixed, will too. The color line is fading.
The Dolezal incident isn't about her, it's about a society that clings to that racial line. It is, as more and more people are realizing as they twist their apoplexy into different shapes, putting the lie to the idea of race. My parents, who crossed lines in a time it was dangerous and even illegal where I now live, made me part of a first wave generation of voluntary race blurring in a society that once depended on forced segregation as an economic tool. It was an evil lie then and is now.
While there is such a thing as racial identity, it is not genetic. It exists because society thinks there is such a thing as "black" and "white" and benefits from those concepts. Post-racism there would be no passing or choosing. We're not post-racism. Check the news reports "exposing" and "outing" this person for her "real" race. Dolezal upsets people because she deliberately adopted a choice we are meant to think is undesirable. A line that was by design one-way. But she also upsets those who think they should be able to tell the difference by looking. Society wants not only to maintain the color line but to keep one side of it easy to identify.
I know something about making people uncomfortable, too. Many of us do. What would we do without the color line? We are soon going to find out.