By in Politics

The Controversy Over Rachel Dolezal's Racial Identity

I had written a post a few weeks back, about the interesting question that gets raised when dealing with a person changing their gender identity (such as Caitlyn Jenner,) as opposed to someone who identifies as a race other than what they were born as. The question I was addressing is where we draw the line (if anywhere) when it comes to treating trans-identities as legitimate.

Interestingly, this very issue has come to life with the news that the head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington has come under fire for allegedly deceiving others about being black. Her name is Rachel Dolezal. Although the NAACP is currently standing by her, there are a lot of people who are coming down on her for being a fraud and liar.

Although Dolezal's situation involves possible lies that she told, I am a little dismayed by the apparent double-standard that many people have when it comes to her identifying as a black person. Because I think their harsh treatment goes beyond the fact that she may have lied - I think they simply don't accept a person who identifies as another race. But, the way I see it, if we are to accept (and celebrate, in many instances) people like Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, then we also have to be open-minded enough to accept someone like Dolezal. It is a very interesting and complicated issue, but ultimately for me it comes down to how sincerely a person believes that they are whatever they identify as, and if it is harming anyone or not. If she lied, that's not cool, and those criticisms are valid. But if she identifies as black from here forward, then so be it. We shouldn't look at someone like Caitlyn Jenner as a person to celebrate while at the same time condemning a person like Dolezal.

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RonElFran wrote on June 12, 2015, 11:45 PM

I'm glad the NAACP is standing by her, saying that a person's racial identity is not relevant to them being a leader in the organization. Probably a lot of the reaction is just to the "man bites dog" aspect of the story.

sherioz wrote on June 13, 2015, 3:06 AM

The facts appear to be that she really did lie - about a lot of things. About where she was born, the identities of her parents, that her brothers are her sons, etc etc. She would have been laughed at had she claimed to be a black soul born into a white body, but, . . . these days, maybe she wouldn't have been laughed at. Sad story.

PineMartens wrote on June 13, 2015, 6:58 AM

All her lies seem to be coming out now though. She could still have done really great work even if she identified herself as white rather than lie. Many won't have faith in her now.

DWDavisRSL wrote on June 13, 2015, 9:28 AM

I have only caught bits and pieces of this story but from what I have read and heard I have very little sympathy for her. I have not had a chance to speak to our local NAACP President, whose children I have taught, and with whom I am friendly, to learn what he thinks of the issue. I imagine he has more important things on his mind. I do wonder if Ms. Dolezal received any financial benefit by identifying as black other than the salary, if any, she receives in her position as president of the Washington chapter.

morilla wrote on June 13, 2015, 12:37 PM

It goes to the core of some 'controversy' throughout the 'socially aware' set; i.e., the difference between race and ethnicity. "Race" is a biological issue; even though misapplied as a term. "Ethnicity" is a social alignment. Is "Black" a race or an ethnicity or both? How one chooses to answer that question has profound impacts when it comes to legal and social standings. Of course, the media hasn't caught up with that aspect of the story yet.

CoralLevang wrote on June 13, 2015, 12:55 PM

As we are a society that allows for privilege based on how one identifies, we are going to find more and more things such as this happening, I believe. We value free expression, and being "oneself." So, what is now happening, is that we are saying it's okay in one situation, but not another. This is evidence of the fallacies that we deal with regularly where labels are concerned. Some day, perhaps we will realize we are humans, and that is the only label with which we should be concerned.

OnlyErin6 wrote on June 13, 2015, 2:52 PM

This type of thing strikes me as a mental illness or opportunism. Pretending to be something else for fame, power or attention is a pretty likely reason to do something like that. Being gay is a sexual preference... pretending you are a different race or gender is fantasy or delusion. This happens all of the time with lily white people pretending to be Native American... or with people who pretend to be a certain nationality because some really distant relative was. If you're a rational person you accept yourself as you are without creating some parallel reality which you imagine would be better.

Soonerdad3 wrote on June 13, 2015, 5:13 PM

I don't see the two anywhere near the same, this women has been deceitful to say the least and if the NAACP wants to stand behind her that is fine with me. Beside have little respect for the NAACP to begin with, so this just goes along with what I think about them anyways. As far as what Bruce Jenner did, I have no problem with it, but I don't see any reason to glorify what he did. It was a very personal thing between him and his God, so no big deal.

Ruby3881 wrote on June 13, 2015, 11:20 PM

You raise a really interesting question. What it amounts to is whether there exists a racial equivalent of being transgendered. I'm not sure that has been explored enough for there to be any answers. But I can say that I feel there's a difference between identifying with another gender or race, and lying about one's gender or race. I lack the details to say whether there was any intentional lying going on, so I'll just leave it at that. i believe identifying with another race or culture is valid, but I'd personally be put off by lying.

Ruby3881 wrote on June 13, 2015, 11:21 PM

I agree that a person's race isn't what matters here. it ought to be how well she does her work.

Ruby3881 wrote on June 13, 2015, 11:28 PM

I think you are very right to draw a distinction between race and ethnicity, just as we draw a distinction between sex at birth and gender identity. I also believe that if an individual of any race or ethnicity practises deceit, it brings into question both her integrity and her ability to perform a job that requires professional ethics.

morilla wrote on June 14, 2015, 1:15 AM

I didn't draw the distinction. It's simply the official definitions of the terms and many don't seem to be aware that they are not synonymous; including many in the media. (Sex and gender are a slightly different discussion in a couple of important aspects.) We don't know if she's been 'deceitful' insofar as her 'ethnic' identity and she could see the man she now calls 'Dad' as just that, her 'Father' ETHNICALLY.

Where she is getting into trouble is in saying she doesn't understand the question when directly asked. Simply put, if she doesn't understand the question, then she doesn't belong in the position she holds. If she does understand the question and doesn't want to answer, that's not necessarily deceit; but, it's also not helpful. In short, she, the media, and many in the public are working with different definitions of race/ethnicity; thus, she appears 'deceitful' to many.

She has identified herself ETHNICALLY as Black, White, and American Indian. By strict definition, she CAN do so; even if it's a bit of a stretch in some respects. The NAACP has said that RACIAL identity is not a qualifying/disqualifying criterion; therefore, her genetic history is not the issue, despite how the media is playing it. But, that's the problem, it comes across as trying to dance on the head of a pin using size 13 shoes unless everyone is using the same set of definitions.

Tiger_Armando_Jose wrote on June 14, 2015, 7:19 AM

Race is made up, children don't care about it but unfortunately it is taught.

Ruby3881 wrote on June 14, 2015, 8:02 PM

I wasn't trying to credit you with authoring an anthropological theory. Just with mentioning it here.

morilla wrote on June 14, 2015, 10:12 PM

Uh... It's not "anthropological theory." It's the dictionary. If you wanted to get into the historical, sociological, anthropological, et al. aspects of it, we could really get lost in the weeds. emoticon :smile:

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:46 PM

I think the main problem is the deception that has been alleged. I don't know too many of the details, but race alone (or what race a person identifies as) shouldn't make or break a person's eligibility for such a position.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:47 PM

I think that even without the lies that are alleged, she would still have been laughed at. Which is interesting, to me.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:48 PM

Yeah, I think the lying is the really big problem.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:49 PM

I don't know all of the details either. I would have a problem with outright deception, especially for some kind of advantage (such as a position with an organization.) I wouldn't have a problem with the mere fact that someone identifies as another race. But I think this story goes deeper than that.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:50 PM

It's disappointing to me that there are possible lies here. Because it then becomes more difficult to make a straight comparison to someone like Jenner. I think it's interesting, though, how people's attitudes towards someone identifying as another race might be different from a person taking on a different gender.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:51 PM

Yes, I agree, it all comes down to the fact that we should be making more efforts to come together, rather than stay divided based on these identities.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:52 PM

I think a person's intention has a lot to do with how I perceive it. If it is intentionally to deceive people, or to attain some kind of advantage (such as a job with the NAACP) then I would frown upon it. If a person simply identifies as something else, I really couldn't care less otherwise.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:54 PM

I think the lies make it harder to compare, but it raises the interesting question of whether identifying as another race is acceptable, especially in the minds of the same people who think changing one's gender is acceptable.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:55 PM

Yes, I think it is very interesting to think about. On a certain level, we could say that people do this type of thing to a certain extent simply by assimilating to societal standards. I also have a problem if there were blatant lies told.

SoundNFury wrote on June 15, 2015, 9:56 PM

Agreed. It's a shame that we lose the ability to see how unified we really could be, if we set aside our perceived differences.

morilla wrote on June 15, 2015, 10:00 PM

It's might be 'interesting' for one reason or another; but, it isn't surprising 'gender' is also a social construct. As the terms are utilized, race and sex are biological. Ethnicity and gender are 'social' issues. Even with all the surgeries and injections, you do not change the underlying race or sex of the individual.

Thus, they are bucking 'social conventions' and since such 'conventions' are what a society is built around and give it stability... and they are, in essence, thumbing their nose at 'Nature/God,' which we are all subject to.

Last Edited: June 15, 2015, 10:05 PM

GemOfAGirl wrote on June 24, 2015, 1:57 PM

I have so many mixed feelings on this. I think anybody should be able to identify with whatever they choose, and I do wish that people would treat each other without regard to skin color. However, this is with the knowledge that a person's experiences in life and the experiences that shape the person they are, are often the result of how others react to their skin color. I would never presume to know what it's like to live as a black woman, because no one reacts to me as if I were a black woman - they react to me as the white woman that I am. And I might be completely off-base about this, but I think that a lot of what the NAACP's work is about is about overcoming the negative experiences of being experienced by others as a black person. I have not followed this story closely enough to know if she actually lied about being black or not, but I do know that the outrage I see in social media (at least among the people that I'm FB friends with) has been exclusively from white people, most of them, Southern white people - I've not seen one iota of outrage about this from any of my black FB friends.

Caitlyn Jenner identifies as a transgender woman, but I can almost guarantee that she's never truly experienced life purely as a woman. I've also seen a lot of outrage about her from Southern white people, most of whom I suspect of being homophobic as well, and all of whom identify as evangelical. The biggest differences I see with Caitlyn Jenner v. Rachel Dolezal that concern me are that, a) Caitlin Jenner never lied - no one ever suspected that she WASN'T born with male genitalia, and b) Caitlyn Jenner is willingly a public figure, while Rachel Dolezal is not. Jenner probably does not mind the controversy so much, because chances are pretty good that it's going to help her make a living on her reality show, and she willingly proceeded into that controversy. Dolezal, however, was a private person who is now probably going to have a very hard time finding a way to make a living in a way where she can be taken seriously.

I'm not sure what my concluding thoughts are on this. The jury in my mind is still out on this.

SoundNFury wrote on June 25, 2015, 2:11 AM

Yeah, I think there is a limited comparison that can be drawn between the two. Because Dolezal's scenario involves possible deception on her part, not just the fact that she identifies as a black person. That's the only part that I would have a problem with (the lying.) I don't care if a person genuinely identifies as something other than what they were born as, but it's another story to outright lie about your past, etc.

CoralLevang wrote on July 12, 2015, 3:10 PM

I think we need to get rid of the racial boxes on applications all-together. On job applications, it's only part of the Affirmative Action form, which is voluntary disclosure. I usually check the box "other" and fill-in "Human". emoticon :winking:

Shellyann36 wrote on July 13, 2015, 1:48 AM

I don't mind that she identifies with being black. That is her business but I do wonder how many times she has used the basic lie to build herself up and put herself in a better position. From funding for college education to the position that she is in now. If her lying took away from someone else in some manner then she should be held accountable for that.

SoundNFury wrote on July 13, 2015, 5:55 PM

Agree. I think if a person is being intentionally deceptive in order for certain gains, they should be held responsible for that.