If race is a social construct, then is Rachel Dolezal legitimately black?

Answer by Thaddeus Howze:

The real answer should be: Who cares?

But on the strength of the news which has blown this particular event out of proportion I say to you the question is a logical fallacy: no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.

  • Which like Rachel Dolezal's assertion that she is Black is circular and meaningless
  • Unable to be proven since race is a social construct, why would it matter what she calls herself except to people who care?
  • And this circular logic used to discuss her does not make what she did any more relevant in any way, shape, or form.

I assert her "deception" is a problem only because racial politics in America is designed to divide and oppress racial "minorities" in order to prevent them from having significant opportunities in this country.

The color of one's skin and the nature of one's culture has been a tool of repression, oppression and division since the days of Colonial slavery, where African's dark skin branded them as 3/5ths of a human being and subjected to branding, brutality, family separation and enslavement for the rest of one's life, which could be cut short at the whim of a White slave owner.

Today, while legislation has allowed People of Color greater opportunities, on paper, in fact, such opportunities are far less available than they are for culturally identified Whites in America. America may have stopped participating in chattel slavery directly but upon closer inspection the only thing that has changed is what we called slavery depending on the era after it was supposedly dissolved.

During Jim Crow, we called it peonage, where a Black person could be accused of a crime (with no evidence provided) and placed into a prison gang where they would be worked to death and released only if someone else was willing to make an effort on their behalf. And even after peonage was supposedly illegal, it didn't stop people of color from being brutalized, hanged, or even burned alive if it suited Whites of the era.

Today, we call it the Prison Industrial Complex where People of Color make up 30% of the US population but 60% of those imprisoned. We have changed the rules of the game, forced People of Color to live mean lives of poverty, systematically applied racism, disproportionately policed, and wrongfully imprisoned under policies designed to affect the poorest and least capable of legally defending themselves.

This is further augmented by disproportionate quality of education, income, lifestyle, opportunity, financial assets and employment across the color spectrum. It is safe to say in America, the darker you are, the less opportunity to move up socially, you are capable of managing.

And before I am deluged with claims of successful People of Color, and I know they exist, I point you at the statements of Chris Rock who sums this up succinctly:

"I live in a neighborhood where I am surrounded by some of the world's greatest Black entertainers. We are generally at the top of our game and our neighborhood reflects this. Except that I live next door to a dentist. He's not world famous, or well known. He's just a dentist. For me to live here, I have to be the best. He just has to show up."

These are the facts:

  • Rachel Dolezal is and will always be a White woman, photographs notwithstanding. Hairstyles won't change that. Who she is married to won't change that. No decision she makes will ever change that. Even if she chooses to "self-identify" with Black culture, that identification will not change this underlying fact. She is not Black.
  • She was raised in a white household with both Black and White children

According to court documents obtained by CNN, Rachel Dolezal's adopted brother, who is black, sought emancipation from Ruthanne and Lawrence Dolezal in 2010. The adopted brother, now 21, said the Dolezals used "physical forms of punishment" and had sent his brother and sister away to group homes because they didn't cooperate with the couple's religion and rules.

  • I can understand the possible abuse may have made her want to put distance between her family and her self and likely lead to her adoption of her younger brother. Still not Black. Still doesn't matter.
  • Ms. Dolezal did rise to one of the chief positions at the NAACP which does not discriminate against having members of other races as acting members of the organization. Her being "Black" was not a necessary component of leading the organization.

"One's racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership," the group said. "The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal's advocacy record."

  • Since Blackness is not a requirement to lead the NAACP nor is it a requirement to be an advocate for People of Color, her Blackness, or lack thereof is not in issue. It is, in fact, a non-issue.
  • Ms. Dolezal she may have chose to "identify" with cultural parameters of "Blackness" such as speech, language, musical tastes and culture affectations such as hair braiding. None of these things made her "Black" in the classic sense of "the social construct as well as the actual condition of being Black".

Ergo, the "legitimacy" of her Blackness is irrelevant since she did not need to be Black in any of these instances, nor did her affecting a role as a "Black" person change any aspect of her actual person because her dismissal of her White privilege did not make it go away. She retains the ability to call herself White under any circumstance that proves meaningful.

What is the problem then?

The problem is a simple one. With all of the difficulty People of Color are forced to deal with, all of the challenges we are forced to endure in order to have opportunity in this country, with all of the socialized, systematic oppression we are subjected to in America, whether White Americans can admit to it or not, the last thing we need is a White woman, who while she may appear to have meant little harm, her actions, in the minds of people of Color appear to mock their struggle and the challenge of being Black in a country whose sole purpose has always been to maximize its profits off the backs of People of Color whenever possible.

Consider it a form of "cultural blackface," where a White woman gets to mouth the words, "I'm Black and I'm making it. Why can't you?" With the ironic pose that anytime she has a real problem she is free to whip out her White American Express card and assume whatever opportunity she is able to claim due to her being White.

It's a form of cognitive dissonance to not recognize that. Whether she meant harm or not, she cannot be "LEGITIMATELY BLACK" whatever that means because as a Person of Color, I cannot wake up tomorrow and claim to be "legitimately" white and have that protect me from an officer who might decide my Blackness is the reason he puts a bullet in me.

The threat of "superhuman Blackness" is how unarmed Eric Garner and Micheal Brown met their untimely ends. This also explains how Tamir Rice found himself shot two seconds after police officers arrived on the scene of him playing in the park with a toy gun.

Her delusion and perhaps unintended deception rubbed people the wrong way because she didn't appear to understand you can't mock People of Color, (intended or not) and pretend to lead us at the same time.

If you want to claim Blackness, this, once upon a time, was what it meant to be Black in America. Rachel, there is no walking away from this. You may have meant well, but honey, being Black is a life-time commitment.

If race is a social construct, then is Rachel Dolezal legitimately black?

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