Rachel Dolezal's Definition of 'Transracial' Isn't Just Wrong, It's Destructive
After days of speculation, Rachel Dolezal appeared on the Today show and declared herself transracial – and blamed other people’s misunderstanding of the term on why she came to be identified as black. “I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as first transracial”, she said – in a construction that conveniently negated her agency in that decision – and explained that she never corrected subsequent media reports that she was biracial or black.
“I identify as black”, she said during the interview, though she admits to having identified as white at other points – including when she sued Howard University for racial discrimination because she was white. (She lost.)
But transracial does not mean what some white Americans like Dolezal apparently wish it to mean. The term originates from adoptive and academic circles to describe the lived experience of children raised in homes that are phenotypically and culturally different from their birth – people like my colleague Rebecca Carroll, who is black. She was raised in a white household and her white adoptive mother attempted to define her as “culturally white, and cosmetically black”.
Writer Ellie Freeman clarified the distinction between actual transracial people and those like Dolezal:
Being transracial is hardly similar to ‘feeling black’ … It’s not like gender dysphoria either – the politics of race and gender are not interchangeable in this context. Unlike many black Americans, Rachel’s family background does not carry the trauma of slavery and institutionalised racism. Unlike people who really are transracial, Rachel has not been physically torn between two cultures and denied intimate knowledge of her birth culture. Unlike people who are black and transracial adoptees, Rachel has not had to deal with both of these life-affecting experiences at the same time.
In other words, Dolezal’s black adopted brothers could be considered transracial, if they chose to define themselves that way – which does not negate their blackness – but Dolezal herself is not. And Dolezal’s insistence that, for it to be “plausible” to be seen as the mother of her adopted brother, Izaiah, of whom she gained custody in 2010, “I certainly can’t be seen as white”, doesn’t make her transracial as that term has always been understood.
Perhaps it feels convenient to white people who desire to unravel systemic effects of a hyperracialized society (especially those effects that they feel affect white people negatively) to embrace the notion of a transracial identity, as if such a thing exists. But to argue that real parity between race and ethnic groups in the United States exists – and can be exchanged one-on-one – is to deny protections for those groups marginalized by institutional power.
Black America is quite familiar with the complex fluidity of racial and ethnic identity within our families, because we live most directly with the legacy of four centuries of intergenerational chattel slavery in the United States. But while that history of slavery is often positioned by white people and American society as my history, not our history, that is a stupid delineation: the evidence of black or white blood, relationships and rape, flow fairly seamlessly in my bloodline and in white Americans’.
My maternal great-grandfather had green eyes, was very fair skinned and had the very prominent nose and lips – the phenotypical features – that one associates with people of African descent. The 1940 census, which I was able to unearth some time ago via a leaf on the ancestry.com database, showed me that, fair skin and green eyes aside, he was designated “Negro”. My maternal great-grandmother, his wife, was dark skinned, but her sister could (and often did) pass for white. I’m told that her ability to pass afforded my great aunt some measure of mobility and safety on the white side of the city of Jackson, Tennessee in the 1950s – safety and mobility that her sister and nieces would never experience.
In her 2010 book, The History of White People, historian Nell Irwin Painter chronicled the merging of European ethnic groups from ancient Western civilization through immigration to America and into the binary of black and white existence here – and how 19th century racial science fomented these beliefs. Painter notes that criteria for “race” constantly “shift according to individual taste and political need” and “the fundamental black/white binary endures even though the category of whiteness – or we might say more precisely, a category of nonblackness – effectively expands.” The opposite of whiteness is presumed “alien” or “degenerate”; the opposite of blackness is the presumed moral majority. It is a thinking that denies the value of black people, and limits our acceptance. Crossing over, as Dolezal apparently wanted to do, doesn’t subvert the structure; it reinforces it.
Dolezal’s messy theft and fiction of a black American identity uses the currency of a subculture of privilege that is rooted in white supremacy too. If anything, to believe that one can transfer one’s identity in this way is a privilege – maybe even the highest manifestation of white privilege. The ability to accept marginalization, to take on the identity of blackness without living the burdens of it and always knowing you could, on a whim, escape it, is not a transition to blackness; to use it to further your career or social aspirations is not to become black. To have whiteness in American society is to have more freedom; blackness operates as tension between restriction and transcendence. Black people are required by whiteness to transcend our race to succeed; performing blackness in order to succeed as a black person is to use existing hierarchies to your advantage.
To deny ethnic and cultural differences – to say not only “I don’t see race” but that race is a choose-your-own adventure – is to erase the identities of those who cannot choose. Dolezal’s actions are the acceptance of a hierarchy of identities that are more deserving of merit, love, the visible acknowledgment of pain, validity, the pursuit of happiness and access to wealth and opportunity. The story of America that we like to repeat is that everyone is equal, that every individual has the opportunity to manifest the good life – although our history and cultural idiosyncrasies do not align consistently with that notion. To say: “I am colorblind”, is an attempt to inoculate oneself from accountability for individual behavior that reinforces systemic inequalities and divides.
To deny the complexities of racial identity is to plead ignorance. To demand that your racial identity be seen as fluid because you are inconvenienced by whiteness and your ambitions are thwarted by other people’s blackness is just a new reason for a very old kind of erasure.