By Joseph Orosco
Is Rachel Dolezal Black or is she a white person “passing” as Black?
For the past few days, this question has consumed the Internet. This is not surprising, considering that police violence and racial justice stories have been in the news for a year now, each month featuring a new Black man, woman, or child being shot and killed by law enforcement officials. Dolezal’s case follows shortly after the news of Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation, raising in the minds of many whether or not race is a form of identity that can be altered in a way analogous to gender. Is there such a thing as “transracial” identity? What is race anyways?
Some of the main philosophical theories on race give us different answers.
Dolezal herself seems to apply a subjective identification conception of race. She claims to feel Black, therefore she is Black; she is not a ‘white person passing as Black’.
Under an intersubjective identification conception of race—in which a person’s racial identity is formed and maintained by how an individual and others understand the individual’s identity—Dolezal could be Black and might have been Black. It would depend on the context and the community. It appears that until last week, Dolezal thought she was Black, and the community of Spokane thought she was Black, so she was Black. But now, she is no longer Black because that identity is not intersubjectively maintained.
Under a socio-historical conception of race—in which a person’s racial identity depends on the ancestral/familial ties and the sharing of certain properties that groups have historically shared, Dolezal is probably not Black because it does not appear that she has Black ancestry. In this case, she was passing as Black, meaning that she had a “real” racial identity, but was assuming another false racial identity to which she did not share historical ties.
Here is where the question of “transracial” identity comes in: Is it possible to have a “real” racial identity and then change it?
In US American history, we do have examples of this kind of change, but not necessarily as much at an individual level. Whole communities of people—Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Jews—which were once thought to constitute different races, changed and became white. In some cases, these changes happened quite rapidly. During the 1920s, the US federal government recognized Mexicans and people of Mexican ancestry as “white”. In the 1930s, the government changed the classification to “mixed” or “colored”. Then, because of intense lobbying by groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, the classification reverted back to “white.” So in the US, people can transform their race, and not just pass, as as long as that means entering into the circle of whiteness.
In Latin America, the schemes of racial formation, the casta systems, allowed some individuals to alter their race. Of course, the casta system recognized dozens, if not hundreds, of different racial categories. This had to do with an acknowledgment of the mixing between the different communities of Iberian born Spaniards, white colonial born citizens (criollo), enslaved Africans, indentured indigenous peoples, and all the intersections between them.
It was recognized, for instance, that an individual indigenous person could alter their racial identity, not just pass, through their own effort. By altering their place of residence, dress, habits, culture, food, and language, indigenous people could become mestizo or “mixed”—a totally different category. And it was possible for someone to be of a different racial category than one’s parents. For instance, if your father was a Spaniard and your mother an indigenous person, you would be mestizo. Such combinations were often depicted in Latin American paintings of the casta system:
However, it is acknowledged by Latin American scholars, that racial transformation was not easily accomplished by a Spaniard or a criollo—that is, it was not easy for someone with white skin privilege to transform into another racial identity since most of categories recognized some form of mixture with ‘non-white’ ancestry. In others words, it was more easy to transform yourself, if that meant that your transformation brought you closer to the top of the racial hierarchy—white, Spanish identity—form a lower casta, such as indigenous. That such a hierarchy was existed is clear from that fact that there existed a racial identities such as a “saltapatras” (jump backward) or a “tornatras” (turn back). These were typically dark skinned individuals born to lighter skinned parents—indicated that a family was taking a step back from its ascent to the top of the racial hierarchy. Here is a depiction of such a case:
So in both the US American and Latin American racial formation systems there is the possibility of altering one’s “real” racial identity. But what is clear from both of them is that such transformations usually have whiteness as their prized identity. It is far less likely that a person would transform themselves to have an identity lower down on the racial hierarchy.
But isn’t that what Dolezal did? Isn’t she a kind of saltapatras?
In a way, yes, and that perhaps explains the fascination with her decision. Why would a woman with privilege choose to “jump back”? Why give up the social position?
Dolezal’s family life sounds complicated and I’m less interested in her motivations than in what this case reminds us of about our systems of racial formation: At the center of these systems in the Americas is white supremacy. Transformation of identity toward whiteness is possible and desirable, transformation of identity away from whiteness is confusing and needs explanation (notice how much emphasis has been given to whether or not Dolezal is mentally unhealthy).
By focusing less on why Dolezal did what she did, and more on these systems of racial formation, I think we can connect it with the stories of police violence in the past year. The Dolezal case does not take away from what happened to the black teenagers in McKinney, Texas or #blacklivesmatter in general. Instead, it reveals the same underlying problems within US American life — the extent to which white supremacy, not necessarily racial identity, continues to shape and limit our understanding of what is real, who we are and who we can be.