Fifty shades of red

The more I read about the Rachel Dolezal story, the angrier I get. But not at her. Because, as I mentioned before, none of us know enough to say with any certainty who or what she “really” is. Race isn’t that simple. Identity isn’t that simple. Yet all sorts of people — too many to link to, including many folks who really should know better — keep writing columns and blog posts and tweets (and so on) that flatly assert that Dolezal is a white woman who deliberately and falsely claims to be black.

Let’s come at this a few different ways.

1. Dolezal is right that we’re all descended from Africans. To be sure, that doesn’t make her personal claim to blackness easy, neat, or correct. But if your main argument against such a claim is about the apparent whiteness of her family tree (and, once again, those appearances may be deceiving, even to people making claims for themselves), then you don’t get to stop mapping her heritage backwards in time at some conveniently all-white moment. If race really is about genetic inheritances — and, to be clear, it’s not, but that’s the primary fiction behind how race works in the US — they all count. None of them somehow become irrelevant simply because they happened a dozen (or a hundred, or a thousand) generations further back in time than is convenient for the story you’re trying to tell. All your American-born ancestors came to this continent on the Mayflower? Congrats. But the pilgrims didn’t spring forth out of the soil of England without any ancestors of their own. Keep going back. Before the Magna Carta. Before the Norman Conquest. Before the Roman Empire. At some point, you wind up — as we all do — in Africa. If you’re gonna accept the race-is-genetics line, then you need to take it all the way.

2. The visual cues for racial identity aren’t simple. Black folks in the US come in a lot of different skin tones, with a lot of different hair colors and textures. Pointing to “then” and “now” pictures of Dolezal doesn’t actually prove anything about her “real” racial identity. It simply demonstrates that her hair used to be straighter than it is now. Try these two pictures on for size:

me-1970 me-1980

The cherubic 5-year-old on the left has perfectly straight, blond-brown hair (which apparently used to be even blonder, but I don’t have any color photos of that). By most, maybe even all, of the common visual codes used in the US to identify people’s race, you’d be hard-pressed to see him as anything but white. The gangly 15-year-old on the right has curly-almost-kinky, dark brown hair. You would probably think he’s white. But not necessarily. If you’ve got enough light-skinned black folks in your life to (think you can) spot one when you see one, you might just as easily believe that he’s black or mixed or, at the very least, some darker shade of white than the near-Aryan youth on the left.

And, of course, these are both pictures of (much younger versions of) me. And I’m just as black in picture #1 as I am in picture #2. So how black am I? That depends a lot on whether you ask me or my parents. Which leads to . . .

3. Families don’t always agree about how to define/describe themselves. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that race really is all about your family tree, and let’s also assume there’s some magic line we can draw in time — somewhere around 1491, perhaps — where we can safely say that race began. So all those 15th century Europeans get to be white, without having to worry about the pesky little fact that human beings didn’t evolve on the north side of the Mediterranean.

By these rules (problematic though they are), my heritage is black and white and Native American on both my mother’s and father’s sides. Thanks in large part to the One Drop “rule” — the problematic cornerstone of the US racial formation that says that you can be black if you’re part white, but that you can’t be white if you’re part black — both my parents grew up understanding themselves to be “just” black. Even though, by most (though not all) of those dodgy visual codes, they did/do probably get read by strangers as white more often than not. For as long as I’ve understood anything about my family tree, however, I’ve thought of myself as “mixed.”

I could fill another long blog post (or three) laying out all the reasons why I rejected my parents’ understanding of my identity, but the most relevant one here is that I refuse to accept the One Drop rule as a valid way to define who/what I am. If my ancestry is supposed to define me (and, yet again, things ain’t that simple), then it all counts. I’m a person of color, but I’m not simply black.

4. There’s no “cultural literacy” test for determining someone’s race definitively. For a while over the weekend, the #AskRachel hashtag was trending high on Twitter: a flood of hypothetical questions that people wanted to ask Dolezal to test whether her cultural knowledge and/or life experience made her qualified to be black. As if no white people would know, say, Kendrick Lamar lyrics well enough to complete them — or as if plenty of black people wouldn’t fail such tests badly. To be sure, your racial identity isn’t entirely irrelevant to, say, your taste in music — or, more pointedly, your chances of being killed by the police — but these are still highly flawed clues to use for figuring out someone else’s race. There are, after all, probably millions of twenty- and thirty-something white hip-hop fans who would pass the musical bits of the #AskRachel test with flying colors, while comparable numbers of fifty- and sixty-something black folks who never got into rap (or, perhaps, who last paid attention to it in the ’90s) would fail.

5. This won’t end well. In between starting this post and now, Rachel Dolezal has resigned her position with the NAACP. Some people are already seeing this as a victory. It’s not. Even if Dolezal’s parents are right, and she really is as white as the driven snow. At best, black America has found a very tiny scapegoat to dump on for a hot minute. Chasing someone from a leadership position at the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and an adjunct position in Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, after all, is not exactly a major blow against institutional racism. At worst, however, this teacup tempest will open the door for more rigid institutional efforts to police people’s racial and ethnic identities. And there’s not likely to be a lot of racial justice in a world where the state or your employer — or, perhaps, whatever group of people shouts the loudest on Twitter — gets to decide what race you really are. Their definitions, after all, will not necessarily agree with yours, and they almost certainly won’t be made with your best interests at heart.


  1. I do not think this could be argued better. Regards, your stalker.

  2. Michael Arrington

    Thank you for this post. It’s further proof that you’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.

  3. Lynne Hutton-Williams

    You have written such a cogent and important contribution to the notion of racial identity and the politics of identity, particularly in the US where media desire for simplification reigns supreme. I hope many read it! Thank you for seeing fifty shades of red……….I can only support with resounding Yes….well said!

  4. Peter Siegenthaler

    beautifully and cogently argued. thanks for bringing a little sanity into the latest American cultural tempest. we do have a hard time figuring out who we are, don’t we?

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