July 08, 2015

Racial Construction and Appropriation

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you heard about the woman in Spokane, Washington, the former head of the local NAACP chapter who resigned when people discovered that her identified race did not match her ancestry?

I’m talking about the case of Rachel Dolezal. With white ancestry but a strong identification with African American realities, she maintains that her racial identity is black. She passed as black by changing her appearance until her parents spoke to the media about their confusion with her mismatched self-identity.

Subsequent interviews brought up questions about her mental health and other issues. However, let’s dig into this issue sociologically.

Race is a social construction. It is constructed by society, not by naturally or biologically inherent features. Definitions of racial groups vary across countries and history and the same apparent physical features are not fully owned by one group nor are they shared by all within one group.

Yes, people have passed as a member of another racial group.  This is not a new phenomenon. Typically, those in disadvantaged groups do this in order to pass as a member of the more advantaged group, to get access to some of those advantages and/or avoid the disastrous disadvantages.  

Due to the Jim Crow era one-drop rule, any African heritage meant that one was black and was thus forced to experience the disadvantages of being black in Jim Crow America. If one could pass as white, some chose to do so to gain some advantages in society – such as being able to live life with freedom and opportunity – and to avoid the disadvantages of restrictions in housing, employment, and education or even lynching and other forms of violence.

For example, Walter Francis White, as head of the NAACP from 1931-1955 would pass as white to gather information on lynching and other crimes against black people so that his work could be more effective. Anita Hemmings attended Vassar as a white woman and was their first black graduate in 1897.

The legacy of the one-drop rule is still with us even though it is no longer official policy. President Obama and many other public figures are multiracial, yet are considered black because they ”look” black.

These individual experiences underscore why those in disadvantaged groups would choose to pass as members of the advantaged group, if they could. Not all who try do pass, of course, and there are many issues that arise when choosing to do this--not the least of which is leaving your family of origin to live apart so that others are not suspicious.

So, why would those in the advantaged group pass as a member of a disadvantaged group? What about white people passing as black here in the U.S.? John Howard Griffin’s book, Black Like Me, is about a white man who passed as black for a short time. The book is a powerful example of how discrimination and privilege work for black and white people, specifically in the southern states in 1959.

Ms. Dolezal has a strong identity with black culture and social problems, hence her drive to work with the NAACP. However, doing advocacy work while misrepresenting one’s own cultural history – and appropriating the culture of those you want to help – may destroy the trust and efficacy of any work one might do, although the local NAACP chapter did stand by her.

Ironically, Ms. Dolezal was exercising a form of white privilege, posing as another race when it’s convenient or just because you want to. Our nation’s racial legacy, hierarchy, and privilege/disadvantage structures are still intact. Because Mr. Griffin and Ms. Dolezal and other white people passing as members of disadvantaged groups have the ability to walk away from those disadvantaged categories they do not really experience what it is like to be a true member of these groups.

Our culture defines race. Individuals identify with one or more categories based on their family of origin and the culture in which they are raised. However, that is not all race is.  Race is not defined as separate but equal groups, it is defined in a hierarchical manner in which each group has a place in the hierarchy, in the societal structure, valued or not, opportunities or barriers given.

Those in the more dominant group take even more advantage of the disadvantaged group when they appropriate their culture. How do we retain cultural pride and family identities – since we value equality as a nation – when those cultural identities exist and are in fact defined within a hierarchical system?

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