Should Rachel Dolezal's Story Change How We Think About Race?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Rachel Dolezal has quit her leadership post in the NAACP, but she has not ended discussions about her race. Dolezal was the leader of the civil rights group in Spokane, Wash., until her parents said they are both white. In a talk with NBC today, she gave a variety of reasons for saying she was black over the years. At one point, she said she drew herself with a brown crayon as a child. At another point, she said she was originally misidentified by reporters and did not correct them. She said she called a black man her dad because he is, though she acknowledges he is not her father. At still another point, she said she wanted to be a, quote, "plausible mother to black boys." Then she said this...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RACHEL DOLEZAL: You know, my life has been one of survival, and the decisions that I have made along the way including my identification have been to survive.
INSKEEP: Though Dolezal did not settle on a single reason why she identified as black, the case does create an opportunity to examine how many of us think about race. We're going to talk about this with Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team. He's in our studios. Hi, Gene.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Some people are going to wonder if there is a bigger question to look at here. They will see this simply as a person who made up a story.
DEMBY: Yeah. And, you know, the details of the story are sort of weird, and there's a man-bites-dog thing happening here, and, you know, her biological parents say that she's been deceiving the public and the NAACP by posing as a black woman. Her adopted brothers say that she asked them some years ago not to blow her cover. Even when she was at Howard University, a historically black college, she unsuccessfully sued the university for discriminating against her because she's white. So, you know, there's questions about, you know, her background, but, you know, this story sort of raises larger questions about the way we think about race and the way we think of identity.
INSKEEP: Well, let's try to get to the bottom of that if we can. We can think about President Obama...
INSKEEP: ...Whose mother was white, and so he could identify as mixed race if he wanted to. He chooses to identify as black. I suppose we could think of race not just as a matter of who your parents were, but what you call yourself or what you can get away with calling yourself.
DEMBY: Right. I mean, we tend to think of race broadly as this fixed, static thing, but in a lot of people's lives, it is a matter of choice, you know, whenever we talk about this at Code Switch, we find that many people's identities shift over the course of their lives. I mean, people might identify as biracial in high school and they identify as black as they get older or vice versa as their experiences and their social spaces change. And just how people identify as this big messy jumble of things, so stuff like who you were raised by, which parents raised you, where you live and, of course, how the world treats you. So, you know, just last week, the Pew Research Center released a study on multiracial Americans, and it found that a lot of those mixed-race people were checking only one box as it were. One big reason for that choice, the respondents said, was because of their experiences with discrimination. So, for example, folks with a black and white parent could conceivably identify as both black and white, but they were identifying as black because the world treated them as black people.
INSKEEP: Which gets to that question of what you can get away with. It's not just your choice but what society lets you be.
DEMBY: That's right.
INSKEEP: However, in this case, we have a person who has two parents who both say they are white, and, nevertheless, it's prompting some people to think about whether she might in some sense be black. I want to play a bit of tape here. This is from the MSNBC talk show host Melissa Harris-Perry who is trying to tease-out what was on her mind here.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY")
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Is it possible that she might actually be black? And the best way that I know how to describe this - and I want to be very careful here because I don't want to say that is equivalent to the transgender experience - but there is a useful language in trans and cis, which is just to say some of us are born cisgendered, some of us are born transgendered, but I wondered can it be that one would be cis-black and trans-black?
INSKEEP: So definition of terms here. Cisgender, that just means that you identify with the same gender you were assigned at birth. Transgender would be the opposite of that. And then the question here on the table is whether the same thing could apply to someone's race, whether someone could feel that they're a different race than they were assigned at birth?
DEMBY: Yeah, so at the root of this conversation is an attempt to grapple with something that's really tricky and really difficult which is the idea that race like gender is socially constructed even though we think of those things as rooted in some innate observable biological truth, right. But it's not that simple because both those things are more dynamic than we allow. So most of - for most of our history, terms like white and black have been really fluid, and they've changed, you know, depending on the political backup of the time.
INSKEEP: Sure. There have been legal definitions of race...
INSKEEP: ...Which have changed over time. There are social definitions of race. Go on.
DEMBY: Exactly. And so those categories and definitions have been violently policed, right. But what people like Melissa Harris-Perry are sort of asking is is it possible - or there might be another way that race and gender behave like each other, right? Is it possible that your racial identity, the way people see you, is different than your cultural identity? And so, as you might've guessed, that's been a very, very controversial suggestion, and, you know, on Twitter and social media, and a lot of that is because of Dolezal herself, right. I mean, she's kind of a less-than-ideal person to hang this conversation on because, you know, she's accused of doing something deceitful.
INSKEEP: Sure. I've seen people on Twitter. You can almost imagine them pounding the table in response to discussions like this saying why are you making excuses for this person? She was just making up a story.
DEMBY: Right. I mean, part of the reaction to the story is the fact that people think of her as a liar, and a lot of people feel that she was pretending to be black to get ahead in her civil rights work, so she was being black for cynical reasons. So Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker wrote Monday that she was guilty of another kind of violation that because of our country's long history of slavery, black folks have this really complicated - all carry with us this complicated heritages and there's all kinds of shades of skin and hair textures and experiences, and Dolezal would have known that. She went to a black college, so she would've understood that people take claims of blackness on faith.
JELANI COBB: Being someone who spent that much time around black people, she would be familiar with why it's kind of off-limits to set a firm marker and say that you're included and you're excluded. It goes back to what we're talking about in terms of slavery and race and the fact that all of us have a certain portion of European ancestry that can pop up at any point in time. And to know that and still further the fiction that she created does take advantage of a particular kind of trust.
DEMBY: So that's why people are upset, but one of the things this story has surfaced again is the idea that race is a fiction, that it is not a thing that is fixed, that it is a thing that we are always negotiating, and so we're having conversations. Even though she may be a sort of imperfect fulcrum for those conversations, we are having conversations very candidly about the messiness of these identities that we all are choosing to some extent. It's not just Rachel Dolezal who's making this decision, though she's making the decision in a very specific way, that we're all sort of choosing to be part of these categories.
INSKEEP: NPR's Gene Demby of our Code Switch team. Thanks very much.
DEMBY: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.