On race and identity: Sometimes it’s not just black and white

Michaela Bush, Columnist

If you think back a couple of years, you might recall the name ‘Rachel Dolezal.’  She was a white woman (with white parents that confirmed she has white ancestry) who decided to “identify” as black.  She worked for years for the Spokane branch of the NAACP until they found out that she wasn’t really black, even though she said she was.  Well…if you’re wondering what ever happened to her, she’s back.

She identifies as “trans-Black,” according to an interview she did with NBCBLK. (NBCBLK is a website run by NBC that covers stories by, for and about the black community). Her new memoir “In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black And White World” was recently released, thus causing her to step back into the spotlight.  She at one point explained that “we know that race is not biological,” explaining that race is entirely a social construct and that identifying as black “represents the essential essence of who I am (People.com).” Her name has been legally changed to Nkechi Amare Diallo; an individual from a Nigerian tribe gave her the name to match her new “identity.” 

To say the least, it’s obvious that there are some flaws with Dolezal’s ideas.  A lot of popular media sites like “Huffington Post” or “New York Times” have articles out about how “race isn’t really genetic” or “scientists say race isn’t real,” but they couldn’t be more wrong.

According to a scientific journal from nature.com, “Genetic variation, classification and ‘race’” by Lynn B. Jorde and Stephen P. Wooding, “Allele frequencies in populations can be compared to assess the extent to which populations differ from one another…populations tend to cluster according to their geographical distance from one another…African populations are more diverse…[and] the largest genetic distance is seen between African and non-African populations.”  Finally, “Individuals tend to cluster according to their ancestry or geographic origin.”  (Geographic origin, in this case, means “where your ancestors are from”, not “where you were born”).  The article also mentions that ancestry is a better description of someone’s genetics than describing it as ‘race.’  To this extent, Charles Chestnutt and J.R.R. Tolkien come to mind: one was born to two biracial slaves and the other was born in Africa.  One is defined as an African American and the other is defined as English…it isn’t what you might think, either, if you aren’t familiar with either of the authors. Read up on Chesnutt’s story on the official website (chesnuttarchives.org then “Biography”) if you’re curious.

The article finishes out by stating that “…it is inaccurate to state that race is ‘biologically meaningless.’” This means that race truly is a genetic matter, it’s simply that society takes it and uses it as yet another way to label someone. It’s also important to note, however, that ethnicity and race is important in the field of biomedicine.  For example, being African American puts you at a higher risk for glaucoma and hypertension, while cystic fibrosis is far more common in those of European descent.  Individuals of Eastern European-Jew descent are at risk for Tay-Sachs disease.  So the differentiation amongst races/ethnicities is important for medical reasons, but shouldn’t be for social purposes.  For the purposes of this article, please keep in mind that we’re looking at race in two different ways: biologically and socially. 

This brings me to my next point: I also can’t quite understand why Dolezal would claim that identifying as black allowed her to find herself, basically, in relation to an attempt at blurring social-racial lines (by social-racial I mean “the stereotypes, labels, and other assumptions made by society,” rather than the idea that race is nothing more than a social construct.  I’ve already mentioned that this is scientifically impossible). If one race doesn’t “fit right” in your mind and another one does, and you choose to identify as that race over another one, this suggests that there really are differences (outside of alleles and whether you choose to follow the corresponding culture) in people of varying races.  I’m talking psychological differences here, obviously, where all ideas about “identity” and who you are stem from.  However, this is a mindset we’ve fought against for decades.  Saying this implies the opposite and erases all that work, states that there truly are differences that need tending to and strengthens the ideology that everything needs a label—something activists have supposedly been fighting against for decades, too. 

If people want to “transcend” race as far as society goes, why are we putting so much focus on it socially?  If you want to pass up the boundary lines and show that we are all human, why choose to “identify” as one racial option over another?  It doesn’t change the matter.  Race is race.  Rather, we should be working toward the goal of calling one another plain old “American.”  Naturalized citizen?  American.  Great-grandparents once worked on the plantations?  American.  Grandparents came here from Europe?  American.  In order to dissolve the social implications of race, stop obsessing over it.  At the basest level, we are all, simply, human.  Just because our genetics are different doesn’t change that (but it’s important to remember our genetics in the case of our own health).  Trying to “identify” as something else will not lessen the focus on race, it will actually worsen it with time.  Let’s take some notes from two little boys from Kentucky, Jax Rosebush and Reddy Weldon, who were in the news a few weeks back because they got identical hair cuts to confuse their teacher at school.  The fact that one of them was black and the other white didn’t matter and they didn’t see each other as any different.  Let’s try to be more like them instead of focusing so much on who’s different and why—for good intentions or for malice alike. 

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