THE BLOG

Being Blackish: Race and Self-Identification

06/23/2015 03:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Rachel Dolezal, former president of the NAACP of Spokane, Washington, was "outed" for being White and apparently lying. That aside, the question remains: can a person feel like or identify as another race in a way similar to taking on a new gender identity? Our Census Bureau seems to think that's sufficient. The U.S. Census Bureau website states:

"The Census Bureau collects racial data in accordance with guidelines provided by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and these data are based on self-identification.

"The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically."

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Black and White Thinking in a Multicolor World

The idea of race being ambiguous and fluid rather than assigned and immutable is not new. Rachel Dolezal did not invent the concept. In December 2008 USA Today reported on racial ambiguities on the heels of President Barack Obama - who has a Black father and a White mother - taking office.

The USA Today article reported the findings of a report, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and quoted researcher Aliya Saperstein, a sociologist at the University of Oregon-Eugene:

"Fluctuations in both self-identification and how one is perceived by others happen more often than they would or should if race is something obvious or unambiguous."

In 2004, Jorde and Wooding wrote in. "Genetic variation, classification and 'race'". Nature Genetics:

"Not surprisingly, biomedical scientists are divided in their opinions about race. Some characterize it as 'biologically meaningless' or 'not based on scientific evidence', whereas others advocate the use of race in making decisions about medical treatment or the design of research studies."

"Race is primarily a sociopolitical construct. The sorting of people into this race or that in the modern era has generally been done by powerful groups for the purposes of maintaining and extending their own power."

Former Census Bureau director Ken Prewitt authored What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans, which recommends taking the race question off the decennial census. Until that happens at some future date, he recommends adding Hispanic as a race, rather than an ethnicity, illustrating how flexible these categories are.

Prewitt agrees that ethnic and racial classifications are not fixed in time; rather, they exist in response to particular social conditions in the world, which continue to change, as do familial and other environmental factors.

The ability to check more than one race box on a form, or mixed race, was not always available, and multiracial people were subjected to pejorative labeling resulting from disdain of "race mixing." Paul R. Spickard argues in "The Illogic of American Racial Categories":

"Biologically speaking, we are all mixed. That is, we all have genetic material from a variety of populations, and we all exhibit physical characteristics that testify to mixed ancestry. Biologically speaking, there never have been any pure races - all populations are mixed."

Self-Identification

The concept of a person feeling and self-identifying as a gender other than the one they were born with was not always as accepted as it has been for Caitlin Jenner. In 1976 Renėe Richards shocked the world by seeking to compete as a female in the U.S. Open after it was revealed that she was formerly male tennis player Richard Raskind. Arguments of lying to gain an advantage were rampant. It took a New York Supreme Court to reverse the ban, in what has been called a landmark decision in favor of transgender rights.

Rachel became emotional describing her identification with Caitlin Jenner's journey. Yet Rachel's transformation was not nearly as accepted as the former Olympian's. Perhaps, like Renėe Richards, Rachel Dolezal is a pioneer - the first person to (inadvertently) bring this issue into the public domain and force us to rethink racial definitions and who gets to define.

Enhancing one's physical appearance to change how others perceive you racially is, however, nothing new. Asian women have had eye surgery to look less Asian and more Caucasian. Black women have long straightened their hair, and some dark skinned people may choose to use skin lighteners. Why then is it perceived as odd for a White woman to curl her hair or tan her skin to look more Black if those are attributes of beauty she values, admires, and aspires to attain?

The LGBT community is clear that gender is fluid and not necessarily defined at birth or by chromosomes. They demand the ability to have their self-described gender recognized. Caitlin is female because she chooses to be female regardless of her genitalia (though more may be required to legally change one's gender.) Racial self-identity is sufficient for the Census Bureau, though universities and other institutions may require further "proof."

Race and Adoption

All of us - Rachel Dolezal included - are unique combinations of genetics and environment. Nowhere is the intersection of nature and nurture more clearly defined and easily dissected than in adoptions in which children are raised in unrelated families.

Asian adoptees are the largest and oldest cohort of transracial adoptees. They are now adults and are speaking out and describing their experience of being raised in a White family. These adopted persons provide a window into a life of confused racial identity. Lucy Sheen, a Chinese-born British adoptee describes it as having her hard drive wiped clean and no new operating system installed. She felt like she was left to try and figure it out on her own as a child cast into a whole new culture and language.

The documentary, Somewhere Between, is about the experiences of four Chinese-American adopted teens struggling with adoption and racial identity issues. Haley, one of the subjects, jokes at one point in the movie saying: "I'm a banana. I'm yellow on the outside and white on the inside." Bradley Wayburne, who was not in the film, uses an egg metaphor to describe his dual racial identities. "A person of European descent with their hearts pumping to Asia's rhythm....Authentic Eggs, like myself, are a confused bunch - not complete egg white, nor totally yolk." Other Asian-American adoptees have used a Twinkie as a metaphor to describe the dichotomy in which they live, feeling American and Caucasian yet confronted with prejudicial comments and racial biases.

All felt White (on the inside) though they were not Caucasian, in much the same way Rachel Dolezal feels Black. Children raised in inter-racial families in which one parent is Caucasian and the other Black choose to identify with one parent or the other (or based on how others see and treat them.) Children raised in families that are racially diverse as a result of adoption might acquire racial confusion whether they are the adoptee or not.

In a longitudinal study of 88 African American transracial adoptees in 1996, DeBerry et al. "found that nearly half of all adoptive parents were likely to encourage biculturalism in the upbringing of their children during childhood, but more likely to deny and deemphasize race and have ambivalent feelings about cultural socialization when their children reached adolescence," according to Richard M. Lee, "The Transracial Adoption Paradox: History, Research, and Counseling Implications of Cultural Socialization."

"Current research suggests that a growing number of White adoptive parents acknowledge differences within the family and specifically promote the enculturation of their children. That is, they make a concerted effort to teach their children about their birth cultures and heritages ... Adoptive parents with a belief in enculturation typically provide their children with educational, social, and cultural opportunities to instill ethnic awareness, knowledge, pride, values, and behaviors, as well as to promote a positive ethnic identity."

What role did racial identity or African-American culture have in the Dolezal family dynamic? Did Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal incorporate Kwanza or traditional African-American foods, customs, and traditions into their family life? Was Rachel exposed to this as a child? It seems that however race was (or was not) addressed in the Dolezal home had an indelible impact on Rachel Dolezal.

It seems the Dolezals are not just your average run-of-the-mill adoptive parents, but are members of specific culture of adopters: evangelical Christians who likely adopted out of a "calling" and a commitment to their faith as was described in the book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce. As is traditional with the sect, the children were homeschooled and likely raised with very strict discipline, including corporal punishment for even minor offenses.

Two other Black children adopted by evangelical families - Hanna Williams and Lydia Schatz - died as a result of such abuse, as advocated in the book, How To Train Up A Child which teaches evangelical Christians how to abuse without leaving marks and was mentioned in these two trials as a contributing factor. Both trials led to convictions, in one instance of murder.

Rachel was granted guardianship of her brother Izaiah (one of the four adopted siblings) because of his abuse allegations. There are also pending sexual abuse charges against Rachel'sadopted brother Joshua to be heard this summer. Another of the four Black adopted siblings, Esther, supports Rachel in a blog post that says:

"As I have mentioned before, I grew up in a pretty messed up family. And by messed up, I don't necessarily mean dysfunctional (we were that too), but just plain strange."

Did Rachel witness her brothers being subjected to racial taunting and humiliation and perhaps internalize it? Did she witness verbal or physical abuse of her brothers, or worse, was she forced to participate in the abuse as has occurred in the above-mentioned cases? Did these things heighten her compassion as well as her passion for civil rights and forecast her career choices? Though not adopted into her family, Rachel was raised in an inter-racial household with three Black brothers and a Black sister. She claimed, in her interview with Matt Lauer, to have exhibited racial identity confusion at an early age, coloring pictures of herself, she said, with brown crayons instead of peach.

There is much that will continue to unfold about this family and about Rachel. But the question of whether it is possible for someone to feel and identify as a different race than they were born into has been answered by inter-racial adoptees, and the answer is yes.

The most poignant example of racial identity confusion was one I experienced at a panel discussion of international adoption at Rutgers University. One of the Chinese-born American adoptees on the panel described her dating difficulties. So enculturated into the White family and community she was raised in, when she dated Chinese men she said she had nothing in common with them and felt as though she were dating inter-racially. This is a prime example of racial identity confusion. She felt Caucasian, despite the face in the mirror. Was she lying? Was she pretending, a "poser", or just reflecting her lived experience and her inner identity: White on the inside?

Most of us have come accept that people have a right to self-identify their gender, once thought to be fixed at birth. Can we expand our thinking and extend the same to racial identity? Hasn't the time come to rethink our need to put people into hard fast categories and neatly labeled boxes and instead think of all of us as Rachel's son thinks of her: racially human?