Once upon a time, the light-skinned black person trying to pass for white was an American archetype that testified to racial inequality in the U.S. Now that we have a black President, racial inequality and race hatred remain seemingly intractable facts of national life, yet we now have a white woman caught passing for black. It appears that Rachel Dolezal did this partly for personal advantage, having risen during her imposture to head an NAACP local branch, from which she has now resigned under fire after her parents -- whose word so far goes unchallenged -- affirmed that they were white. Dolezal has black siblings by adoption and black children of her own. She claims to identify culturally as black -- her skin is quite tanned -- and attended the historically black Howard University, where she accused officials of racial discrimination against her. Cynics may be tempted to see her as one of their own, out to benefit from modern regimes of "reverse discrimination." Others have compared Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner in order to address the complexities of voluntarily changing categories that were long considered involuntary yet essential to not just personal but political identity. On a weekend talk show a black host asked whether Dolezal's choice to identify as black could be described and discussed in terms analogical with Jenner's transition from man to woman. Her black panel shifted uncomfortably in their seats. It's a rightly uncomfortable moment.
We are often told that race, if not gender also, is a social construct, by which people presumably mean that minority-group or subordinate-group traits are defined by a dominant group to include factors that are not actually biological or genetic but allegedly explain their inferiority or subordination. In short, if race is a social construct it means that white people unilaterally defined what black people were, and if gender is a social construct it means that men unilaterally defined what women were. In neither case does it necessarily mean that a purely biological definition is impossible or forbidden, but it is implicit that the formerly stigmatized groups have priority in defining themselves along lines of their own choosing. But it also can be inferred from "social construct" rhetoric that exclusive definitions are undesirable, no matter who makes the definitions, since they artificially separate the masses and suppress each person's autonomy over self-identification. Inevitably, in our time feminists have had problematic dealings with the "trans" community over what it means, and who gets to say what it means, to be a woman. Since race is at least as much a matter of culture as it is a matter of genetics, and as such can have political implications, the prospect of whites identifying as black may seem heartening on one level, but it's also understandable if some blacks don't see it that way. Many may echo the complaints of some feminists that trans people haven't had the life experience that may, arguably, truly define gender. But black people have been having such arguments for quite a while already, and readers may remember some debate back in 2008 over whether inner-city blacks would recognize Barack Obama, raised mostly abroad, as one of their own. To argue that life experience defines race or gender begs the question: which life experience? Within any race or gender, life experiences vary vastly. To insinuate that Obama was less authentically black because he wasn't raised in a ghetto was unfair, but what of someone like Dolezal who wasn't even raised black in any sense? Her identification as black itself begs the question: what do you mean by black? It's not like she had to pass a test or swear an oath, after all. Instead, she defined her racial identify on her own terms, and now for many people she's either a con artist or a laughingstock. Her exposure should get us all thinking a little. It probably does testify to this country's progress on race that someone would want to pass for black, but the fact that she felt a need to identify herself racially, and the fact that her choice has become controversial if not criminal, reveal that there's still a lot of progress left for us.