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Race and Identity

What to make of Rachel Dolezal

Is race a fixed identity, or is it something a person can take on, like converting to another religion? This week the Center’s Emerging Issues group discussed that question, starting with the recent resignation of Rachel Dolezal, head of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter. Over the past few days Dolezal has come under fire for lying about being African-American. Not long after her estranged parents, both of whom are white, told Good Morning America that their daughter has no African ancestry, Dolezal opted to step down from her position with the NAACP.

The group considered the implications of a person’s identifying with an ethnic background that’s different from the one he or she inherited at birth. Dolezal was born a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl, but from a young age she identified as African-American, becoming involved with a racial reconciliation community development project in Mississippi before attending Howard University, a historically black school. She also has four African-American adopted siblings and teaches African-American Studies at Eastern Washington University.

While discussing the story, the question of “Why do we care?” came up. Do we care simply because she lied, or do we care because she lied about her race? Group members had no objection to Dolezal’s identifying with African-American culture; in fact, several participants lamented her failure to speak openly and genuinely about her sense of connection to people of another race. For most, the key ethical failure was the lack of honesty.

Also troubling was the way a person might manipulate the way he or she is perceived, and parlay that deception into some form of professional advantage. Still, without knowing all the details as to why Dolezal may have misled those around her, it’s easy to imagine she might have doubted her ability to become a successful change agent at the NAACP or elsewhere in the black community, without being accepted as an African-American with a shared history of racial oppression.

Dolezal certainly isn’t alone in her identifying (for whatever reason) with an ethnic group to which she doesn’t biologically belong. 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush claimed to be Hispanic on a 2009 voter registration form, and he’s even gone so far as to declare himself the first Latino Governor of Florida. Of course, most Americans are well aware that Jeb Bush is part of the obviously Caucasian Bush family. Some possible explanations were offered for how Bush might justify such a statement: he’s married to a Latina woman, his children are part Latino, and he speaks Spanish and has spent considerable time in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Even so, many found the Bush example more bothersome because of the major political motivations he might have for representing himself as belonging to another ethnic group.

Elliot Zanger is the Web writer at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

 

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