In an interview on “The Today Show” on Tuesday morning, the infamous Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader and African American studies professor who was outed as racially white last year, announced a new book focusing on the issue of racial identity. She aims to delve into a few important questions, foremost among them the issue of what race is and where the idea comes from.
On the show, Dolezal made the point that different races are a quasi-scientific concept, and that our society should move beyond the concept of separate races. Ironically, one of America’s most controversial women has the science on her side, but that doesn’t make her previous actions lying about her ancestry any more acceptable.
When anchor Savannah Guthrie asked Dolezal “what are you hoping to say” in this upcoming book, the woman gave an astonishing answer.
A lot of people have reached out to me over the past year, which has been another bright spot in this. I’ve heard a lot of stories from people around the world about their lives being somehow caught between boundary lines of race or culture or ethnicity. So this larger issue of, if you don’t fit into one box, and if you don’t stay there your whole life, being identified from birth as who you war, what does that look like?
Dolezal made the astonishing point that “race didn’t create racism, but racism created race.” The best science on genetics agrees with her on this one. According to our DNA, humans aren’t either white or black, Hispanic or Asian, we are human. The common traits inherited from our ancestors need not segment people into different racial blocs. The success of interracial marriage and childbearing should make us rethink race as an issue.
Dolezal asked, “Is there one human race? Why do we still want to go back to that worldview of separate races?” That is a very good question.
As a study in the journal Science entitled “Taking Race Out of Human Genetics” argued in February of this year, race is not a scientific classification supported by DNA evidence. “We believe the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research–so disputed and so mired in confusion–is problematic at best and harmful at worst.”
If science supports Dolezal on this, why does she get so much backlash? Well, the woman does have a checkered history, to say the least. The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart summed up the argument against her:
Dolezal most definitely understood the question [Are you an African American?], which is why she took flight 16 seconds after[ward]. She posted a picture of herself last January with a black man on her Facebook page who she claimed was her father. And she checked “African American” and all the other race choices on an application for a public position in Spokane. Those turned out to be two loose threads that quickly unraveled once pulled by Humphrey and Dolezal’s own white parents.
“There seems to be some question of how Rachel is representing her identity and ethnicity,” Lawrence Dolezal, Rachel’s father told The Post. “We are definitely her birth parents. We are both of Caucasian and European descent — Czech, German and a few other things.”
In order for Dolezal to keep up the “charade” that she is an African American, she needs to redefine the concept of race. Irony of ironies — Dolezal is scientifically right, and her detractors are actually wrong.
The woman’s father told The Washington Post that she had “been involved in social justice advocacy for African Americans” for a long time. “She assimilated into that culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.” If race is fluid, as her new book is likely to argue, why is this such a bad thing?
Next Page: Why we should not be cheering Dolezal, even if she’s right.
But here’s the rub, Capehart argued. A white person pretending to be black is a big problem.
And this gets to the larger issue here. A white person identifying strongly with African Americans and African American culture is not a problem at all. The more the merrier in understanding who we are and our place in this nation’s history. A white person running a chapter of the NAACP is not a problem, either. That’s someone so down with the cause that they are putting their time, energy and clout into public activism on behalf of fellow Americans. But a white person pretending to be black and running a chapter of the NAACP is a big problem.
According to Capehart, “Dolezal is a laughingstock and has made a mockery of the work she said she cared about.” It’s hard to disagree with his statement. Liberals and conservatives have united to mock this woman, and not without cause. She got into a historically black college, claiming she was black — before she could write a book about why a girl with Czech heritage can really claim to be African American.
Even if her forthcoming book is entirely right and brings about a sea-change in our understanding of race, Dolezal engaged in outright deception on her admission papers. She put up a facade, not explaining that she identified with the African American struggles, but arguing that she comes from black ancestry. She may be right about racism begetting race, but until our culture recognizes race as a meaningless scientific concept, people are still going to be angry that a white girl claimed to be black.
And there’s the ultimate irony — the Dolezal case demonstrates that racism is still among us. Granted, it’s not the hateful racism, but we still struggle with the idea that your ancestry and the color of your skin determines who you are — especially for college admissions and government records. Dolezal is right that we need to move beyond this, but lying about your own ancestry is not the solution.