Genetics do not always line up with personal identity. Fact. The most prominent example of this is transexuality. So does this apply to race too?
The recent news headline involving Rachel Dolezal, who pretended to be black, has bought this issue to light. The NAACP leader darkened her skin and fabricated her heritage in order to alter her perceived ethnicity. The reasons for doing so are blurred, some suggest that Dolezal merely pretended to be another race for her own gains, whilst Dolezal herself states that she identified with black culture from a young age. The issue here is whether it is possible to be transracial, or whether such acts are seen as cultural appropriation. There is a fine line between the two, and many debates are emotionally charged due to the history of black oppression.
The case of Rachel Dolezal is complicated, as she is a successful civil rights activist and appears to have consistently acted in the interests of the black community. If reports are true that Rachel only began to identify as black in her early 20s, then this is certainly a case of cultural appropriation. Adopting a certain ethnicity, or practices within an ethnicity, without fully understanding and experiencing the tribulations which come along with that race, is wrong. This further exploits and oppresses a particular race as a commodity which can be used by anyone. As Amandla Stenberg eloquently put it, what if we loved black people as much as black culture? ‘Blackness’ should not be worn as a style – this belittles the discrimination that black people face everyday. Being black is more than skin deep.
Whilst I believe that it is always wrong to appropriate another race, I do believe that people should be allowed to identify as transracial. After all, we have no right to tell someone how they feel or who they believe they truly are. This is an issue of identity and integrity. However, transraciality can only be acceptable in particular circumstances. An individual cannot truly identify as another ethnicity if they have lived within a family or community purely comprising of their own race. In this instance, how is a person supposed to properly understand the history and complexities of another race? This is the problem I have with Rachel Dolezal, she has consistently lived in majority white communities. Dolezal was born in Lincoln County, Montana which is 96.9% white, and now lives in Spokane, Washington which is 86.7% white.
However, transraciality may be acceptable in a case where a child is surrounded by a different race to their own. If a child grows up in a mixed race family, or is surrounded by neighbours of a different race, then it is entirely plausible for that child to identify as a different race to their own. In this case, the person has witnessed the culture, customs, and discrimination related to another race. Race is only a fluid concept when a person understands another race holistically.
Without a holistic understanding of races, this can lead to cultural appropriation, racism, and bigotry.