Monday, 13 July 2015

Rachel Dolezal: Is Identity Skin Deep?

Identity. It isn't what it used to be. Religion, gender, sexuality, all have seen the barriers that once existed come crashing down, leading to a more fluid notion of where one group ends and another begins. The most recent challenger is now race, brought to the fore by the revelations around rights activist Rachel Dolezal. This has prompted a furore in the media and online about whether or not she is black and whether you can change your racial identity through desire alone.

Others have written at length about the Rachel Dolezal case but few are diving into the issue of identity and what it means in the 21st century. Self-identity has and will always be important to human beings: it's who we are, what we like, even why we are. Globalisation has massively affected our identity concepts; it would be hard to identify with a demographic if you didn't know anything about them or even if they existed. In fact one of the greatest strengths of a connected world, with open communication available to all, is the opportunity to learn about other people and their identity. But it has it's pitfalls; it's a thin line between self-identity and appropriation.

Many are uncomfortable with a perceived obsession with "labels". It can lead to limitations and oppression, to stereotyping and unhappiness. I'm of the view that labels do matter, as long as they don't dictate your life choices. For a person confused about their feelings, it's a huge weight off the shoulders to discover that other people feel exactly the same way you do, and they even have a term for themselves. Finally, they can identify as something, rather than nothing. Gender and sexuality are good examples; both have traditionally been seen as binary, then there was a slow acceptance of a third option, and now we're moving to recognising that they are fluid. It's entirely possible for a person to not identify as either male or female. It's also possible for someone to identify as mostly female, most of the time, but occasionally they don't. It's also possible to identify as both, at the same time. The same is true of sexuality, which can ebb and flow in any number of directions.

The issue Rachel Dolezal has unintentionally brought forth is whether this fluidity is possible in ethnicity. It's an incredibly prickly question, mainly due to this not insignificant problem all countries have: racism. If a person can change their ethnic identity at the drop of a hat, does that mean that ethnicity doesn't exist? And if it doesn't then why do so many folks have a problem with people who look differently to themselves, or who originate from some other country, ancestrally speaking? In my view ethnicity is real, and is an incredibly important part of our identities even when we're not conscious of it. It's our history, where we came from. But I also recognise that our history is shaped not just by our genetics but by our culture. Both weave in and around each other, building who we are today in ways we can never entirely understand.

And that I think is what's at the heart of the Dolezal example and why it bothers me: by identifying as African-American when she is in fact totally Caucasian (as far as we know) it seems as though she's denying her own history in favour of one she prefers. History is not so easy to change, and trying to wipe it out or pretend it doesn't apply to you seems at best arrogant, at worst wilfully dangerous. Ethnicity and history are deeply connected; while you can relate to and adore a culture, even take part in it, you can't change your personal genetic history to make yourself part of the ethnicity of that culture. You will always be an outsider looking in, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact the thing that has been shown by the shifts in gender and sexuality identity is to recognise and accept yourself for who you really are, rather than who you wish you were. Maybe one day Rachel Dolezal will manage to do that, no matter who she turns out to be.


  1. Hi my name is Catherine Manning and I really enjoyed this piece. I agree with your point that,"ethnicity is real," and important to our identities. Being a Latina woman, I can see how my personal history has shaped my behaviors and identity. However, I also know how damaging it can be when others try to label me based on their own perceptions of Latino culture. I actually wrote a creative post on this:
    I was inspired by a piece by Sherman Alexie (he writes a lot about being a Native American and how that shapes his identity for himself and others)
    Ultimately, I agree with your final thoughts about Rachel Dolezal. One should always be comfortable with their true self.

    1. Hi Catherine - I love your creative piece, it's a really good insight into the assumptions and prejudice people can have (often without them realising). Glad you liked the post; I find identity fascinating (maybe to do with me identifying as Scottish, despite being born in England!). It's amazing how upset people can get when their assumptions about a person's identity are proved wrong too...

      I will check out Sherman Alexie's work, it sounds really interesting - thanks for the tip!