Aug 1st

Rachel Dolezal and racial identification

By Yasmin S

Original Source: Lyle Foster @ News Leader.com

This past Christmas as we gathered around the dinner table, the question was raised that if you could choose the race or ethnic group for your birth what would your choice be? All of the participants were African-American, and we were most interested in the five adults in their 20s and 30s. Three of them stated they would choose to again live as African-Americans, and two chose to be biracial mixed with either white or Latino heritage.

I remember as a child my mother telling me about several families in her home county in Virginia who were very light in complexion and who chose to “pass” as white. This meant that they disassociated from their respective community, moved away and could no longer speak to anyone who was in the black community because that would arouse suspicion that they were Negro. It is not a secret that as recently as a few decades ago many blacks would go through considerable lengths to lighten their skin and do as much as possible to get as close to white in color and lifestyle.

I thought it very interesting to listen to the informal holiday poll to learn that the goal was not to be white necessarily anymore but a greater contentment with who they are and an admiration for a mixed-race identity. In many ways this reflects a national trend. USA Today (June 12) cited a Pew Research Center study indicating that one in every 14 Americans considers themselves multiracial. We also know that in Springfield this is a fast-growing segment of our school population.

The coverage earlier this summer of Rachel Dolezal represents a new and interesting twist in our centuries-old dilemma around race and ethnicity in the United States. Our census allows us to select so many categories of identity that many Americans can check several. Our president, even though his mother is white, identifies as black when it would seem more accurate that he is biracial. Tiger Woods described himself as Casablanasian (a term he made up), refusing to be placed in a single category and by some accounts attempting to not be labeled black.

Ms. Dolezal has introduced the narrative of identifying a race of choice for oneself, even describing herself as transracial. In many respects it has created a firestorm and certainly raises the question: What is race and why is this society so obsessed with it? Of course in the case of Dolezal, it is much deeper because she apparently has changed her appearance to fit the identification to the extent she can. This is an interesting development as many Americans can still remember the days of the minstrel shows and the use of “blackface.” I experienced it myself in a high school variety show when the other performer in my skit showed up in “blackface” minutes before we went on stage. I refused to go out.

Many people I know would prefer the designation of human as a category and less fascination with which race or how many we identify with. What does it mean to identify? I relate and deeply feel the plight of many groups of people. When I visited Cuba I met people that I felt were a part of me. In Malawi I declared I had met my long-lost relatives and this must have been my ancestral home. The stories of Jewish suffering have torn me beyond words, and I will stand with this community and shout “never again.” But I cannot say that I am any of these.

It might be a new realm to declare who we are and want to be. The popularity of hip hop culture has captured many white youths who exhibit many characteristics of traditionally “black” culture. And to be clear, I have seen my share of black folks who have difficulty reconciling their ethnic heritage with their social aspirations.

Which leads me back to that Christmas table conversation of what race we would choose to be. It hasn’t been smooth sailing being black, but I wouldn’t change it on the next ride. But the fact that some want to become black may be a sign of how far we have come, or indicate how much lies ahead of us.

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