It's Impossible to Lie About Your Race

There's an important question being left out of the furor over charges that Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the NAACP's Spokane chapter, has been "lying" about her race: How can you lie about something that doesn't have any objective truth to it in the first place?

The frenzy over Dolezal has erupted because her claim to black identity defies a longstanding American belief that human beings come in three or four or five flavors called "races," which are linked to the geographical areas from which our ancestors came, and which are characterized by physical characteristics that are passed down from one generation to the next. According to this dominant view, Dolezal is objectively white because her parents are white Americans whose recent ancestors were from Europe.

But instead of being a matter of natural, objective facts, race is more like astrology. It's a way of dividing human beings up into different categories, and we are the ones who invent those categories, not Mother Nature. The idea that there are "black" people and "white" people is no different than the belief that there are Geminis and Scorpios. Indeed, astrology and racial classification both claim to be grounded in nature. Race ostensibly reflects our biological constitution, while sun signs are meant to capture planetary forces that imprinted us at birth. But it's not too hard to see that a whole lot of human cultural thinking has gone into both. The reality is that scientists are far from any agreement on what race has to do with genes. And the racial classifications so familiar to Americans today are actually products of the 1700s, when they were forged by Europeans who were trying to explain the physical, social and moral qualities of peoples they had come to colonize across the world.

So when Rachel Dolezal says she is black when we consider her white, it's akin to her claiming to be a Virgo when by our lights she's a Leo. Would it really be a lie to say you're a Virgo instead of a Leo when both of those categories are made up in the first place?

To be sure, Dolezal doubtless knew that her family's German and Czech roots made her white by longstanding American racial logic. So if her family has no recent African ancestry, she did mislead people under the usual definitions of race. But at the same time, her claim to black identity also reflects two other standards of racial classification -- one old, one new -- in American culture and underscores the myth of racial identity.

The first is the enduring tradition of determining a person's race from their behavior and the company they keep. When early census takers were stumped about how to classify people of mixed white and American Indian heritage, they were told to decide by examining what kinds of people the individuals associated with and how they dressed, spoke, and worshipped. Flash forward a hundred years and the same standards are still in place. In 1989, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had to determine the race of Paul and Philip Malone, two brothers who had identified themselves as "black" on their applications to the Boston Fire Department and benefitted from affirmative action provisions, but who otherwise appeared to be white. There was no genetic test then or now that could tell judges who is white or black, so they scrutinized the Malones' social networks and ways of presenting themselves -- the very areas in which Rachel Dolezal has sought to affiliate herself with the African American community.

The second strain of thought about race that her actions embody is a much newer one. It reflects the growing recognition of multiracial people, who were once socially and legally required to identify with one race only. Ever since the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage in 1967, and the Census Bureau began in 2000 to permit Americans to check off more than one race, we have become more aware of the complexities of racial identity. Ample research has shown that many people do change their racial self-identification over the course of their lives, sometimes even from one social setting to the next. Carolyn Liebler and other demographers have shown that, in the aggregate, so many people change their racial identity from one census to the next that a category like "white" just doesn't have the same people in it that it had during the previous count. It's in this context of growing talk about the fluidity of racial identities that we once thought of as set in stone that Rachel Dolezal's story has struck a nerve.

Ultimately, the common framing of the Dolezal case -- as a matter of lying versus the truth -- is the wrong one. Dolezal doesn't have a "true" race any more than she has a "true" astrological identity. It's hard to grasp when we live in a country where the consequences of a person's ascribed race are so terrifyingly real. But the frequent comparison of Rachel Dolezal's transformation to the "passing" of the past should tip us off right away to the silliness of claims about true races. Passers were considered to be people who were "really" black, but had fair skin and choose to present themselves as white in order to escape the indignities of racism and discrimination. Of course, most of their ancestry was European, so the only thing that made them "truly" black in society's eyes was having the proverbial "one drop" of black blood, and the United States of America was, and is the only place in the world where they would be considered black. So what was their true race, and what was the lie?