Culture

Rachel Dolezal Case Provokes Questions: What Is Race? Does It Matter?

Among reaction to the Rachel Dolezal story, many have attempted to draw a distinction between her attempt to pass herself off as black and Caitlyn Jenner’s attempt to pass himself off as female. I argued Tuesday that no such distinction exists, that both Dolezal and Jenner have denied objective reality. If what Dolezal has done is fraud, as some have claimed, then what Jenner has done is also fraud.

Indeed, Jenner actually holds a weaker objective claim to womanhood than Dolezal does to blackness. As I wrote Tuesday, race is merely a social contrivance. That prompted this from a reader:

To claim “Race is merely a social contrivance” means you’re 1) being facetious 2) drunk the kool aid 3) fear your PC masters or 4) are ignorant. Please clarify.

What’s to clarify? Race is subjective.

I’m both the product of and a partner in interracial marriage. What race am I? What race are my children?

My wife claims status as a Native American and has even received tribal assistance for her education. Her skin is lily white. But she’s something like 1/16 Native. What race is she? Where’s the line? Who draws it? On what basis?

We can examine a man and tell you definitively that he is such. No such clear standard delineates race. Therefore Dolezal’s claim has greater objective standing than Jenner’s.

You might counter by observing that racial differences have genetic markers. This is true. However, these genetic differences do not distinguish one race from another in the same fashion that we distinguish gender. I could describe myself as black, bi-racial, mulatto, etc. Each term is subjective. I’m not completely black. I’m not a mix of two “pure” races. But I’m most definitely and wholly a man.

These observations support the conclusion that race is a social contrivance, our way of categorizing each other for various purposes. The legitimate uses of race include things like medical heredity and physical descriptions. But such distinctions occur within races as much as between them. Not all white people look alike or have the same medical issues. Heredity is heredity. In this way, race only matters to the extent it serves as a shorthand for communicating a broad set of descriptive facts. In an age where racial groups intermingle, which they always have to one degree or another, old descriptors apply less and less.

The problem with many in our society is that they’ve placed the racial cart before the utilitarian horse, pretending as though race matters beyond communication of objective fact. That’s the mindset that informs Rachel Dolezal’s transracialism. She thinks being black matters. Those most offended by her actions are offended because they agree with her. Being “truly black” matters to them. Of course, that notion should be as offensive as any notion of being “truly white.”

Also read: 

Rachel Dolezal: No Surprise Here | Rule of Law