Thoughts on Rachel Dolezal and what it means to be “black”

My one comment in the Rachel Dolezal debacle. This hitherto unknown woman is revealed as passing for African American and it creates a media scandal.

But thousands of people identify themselves as Native Americans, because they’ve heard that they have a drop of Native American blood, and it’s not a big deal, we just accept it.

I think both that racial identity is significant and that it’s complicated.  Being “black” cannot be about physical traits, otherwise blond, blue eyed, fair civil rights leader Walter Francis White, head of the NAACP for a quarter of a century, would not black. Nor would have been his blond, blue-eyed mother, despite having been born a slave.

And surely, African Americans who are not identified as black by others, don’t experience the same degree of institutionalized racism than those that look black do.  So being black also cannot be about feeling racism.

And being black cannot be about the cultural African American experience.  President Obama, after all, grew up within a white family in Hawaii and Indonesia.  While perhaps he did experience some racism as a child, the same cannot be said of the thousands of African and Caribbean immigrants to the United States. Having gone to Africa a couple of times and knowing Africans who live in the US, it’s easy to see the differences between people who grew up experiencing racism and those who did not. It is not unlike the difference between being a Latino immigrant and one born in this country.

Perhaps being black is about genetics. The old “one drop of blood” theory might apply.  Genetically, Walter White was 15% black, after all.  That, of course, is significantly greater than the 1-2% of African blood carried by about 10% of white southerners.  It may yet turn out that Ms Dolezal has that drop of African blood after all.

I don’t mean to speak for a community of which I’m not part. As an fair-skin Argentinian, albeit one with a thick accent that identifies me as non-American, I both embrace my Latino heritage but I’m conscious to understand that my experience does not equate with that of millions of other Latinos who live in the US.  And truth be told, whatever I have to say about the African American or Chicano experience in the US will lack authority – even if I had majored in ethnic studies.  Living is different than studying.

And here, perhaps, lies the answer to the question of why an African-American studies professor and a civil rights activist in lily-white Spokane, would want to live as an African-American woman, with the loss of privilege that that entails.