Thursday 18 June 2015

The Dolezal ambiguity


The Rachel Dolezal story seemed too silly to comment on, but silliness thrives if left unchallenged.

A white woman in the US has pretended to be a black woman, lied on her application forms, and risen to represent a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She has mendaciously presented an unrelated older black man as her father and a younger black man as her son. She says she “self-identifies as black” and when asked precisely when she began to deceive people about her ancestry she replied:“I do take exception to that because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black, or answering a question of  ‘Are you black or white?’  She also described herself as “transracial” and said: “Well, I definitely am not white. Nothing about being white describes who I am.”  She was in fact born to white parents, married a black man and had a child with him and later divorced, and had attended an almost all black college where, reportedly, she complained that as a white woman she was not treated fairly.

In her mitigation, her parents had adopted 4 black children, so she must have concluded that either her parents were very kind people in the public and general sense of that word, or very unkind parents in a very personal sense, and apparently she eventually came to the latter conclusion, and they are estranged. Her parents, Christian missionaries,  certainly kept making a point.  A purely psychological interpretation (I occasionally indulge in those, so please bear with me) is that she became convinced that her parents loved black children four times more than her, and thus wanted to become black to regain their love. A less convoluted interpretation is that after a racially perplexing childhood which favoured Black Americans she just exploited a particular set of historic circumstances in the US in which her assertion that she was black was accepted “at face value” though inspection of her face showed she was not. Whatever her confusions, she appears to have played the system, choosing whichever self-identification seemed convenient at the time, either as the aggrieved white person who had chosen a black college, only to be let down by perceived black racism; or as the noble black person championing black causes, and being subjected to perceived White racist threats, for which the Police could not find supportive evidence. Her parents, who shopped her to the Press for her deceit, might have have done well to have kept quiet, and to have thought more carefully about their own contribution to her confused reactions. (Please note: I have given you the environmentalist/cultural explanation, which comes easiest to me. The genetic explanation is that she is the biological daughter of missionaries, and is imbued with missionary zeal, and as she ages she is becoming more and more like them in rescuing fallen Africans and battling for social justice).

Enough about this poor lady. If there is any doubt about who her real parents are, one good quality DNA test will sort out her ancestry in exquisite detail, going back for as far as anyone is interested. No such test result has been provided so far, and she doubts her parents are her biological parents, birth certificate not withstanding.

Now for the real oceans of silliness: public figures and journalists in the UK have sought to excuse the deceit, not on the basis of the confusion very probably engendered by her parents’ adoption strategy, but on the basis of “race doesn’t exist because we are all confused about it, just as she is, and who can say what race they are anyway?”

In the Sunday Times a past leader of the Race Relations authorities followed this line, discussing discrepancies in census classifications but also using reference to past African slaves in London to explain the occurrence of sickle cell anaemia in white British populations and, by implication, their being somewhat African in racial terms. In fact, as regards racial self-classification, most people have no difficulty deciding from which genetic group the majority of their ancestors come. They look at themselves in the mirror, look at people round them or in books and films, and do a match. However, the “what is race anyway?” commentators have the megaphone, and broadcast their obfuscations as the new, fashionable position, thus: in certain situations race exists, as in race crimes (some people noticing the race of others, drawing unwarranted conclusions, and treating them badly) and in other situations race does not exist (some people pretending to be another race, and drawing unwarranted benefits). Race becomes a “now you see it, now you don’t” classification, a free pass to whichever charmed circle is desired.

Does one really need to spell out the difference between an emotional affiliation and the genetic code? People can support the cause of the Palestinians or the Israelis without claiming to share their DNA. A white person can be a supporter of black causes. Patently, this lady’s white parents did not pretend to be black when they adopted black children. Of course, individuals of mixed race can choose to favour one set of ancestry over another when they describe themselves socially, but they cannot change their genome. Accepting the occasional quirky racial self-description may be a courtesy socially, but it ceases to be credible when it is being used to deny ancestry and gain advantage.

The availability of genomic analysis will very probably lead to a much better classification of race. “Hispanic” needs revision, and perhaps just a scintilla of more specification should be applied to “Other”. The original classifications of race were a good match at a time when generation after generation had lived in relative geographic isolation. Now that about 1% of the global population are on the move, updating is required. Eventually the genetic code may substitute for census categories, even though self description usually matches the genetic facts pretty well. Race exists as a fact in the genome, whereas the classification of boundaries involves social choices, but so does the evaluation of poverty and inequality, and few of the social commentators want to abandon those latter concepts.

To me the main surprise is that we are truly living in a age in which a person can say “white is black and black is white” and be confident that no-one will have the courage to challenge them. 

The kindest thing one can say about the silly obfuscators is that they are mired in the past. The genome is our ultimate birth certificate. It traces the history of the pairings that gave rise to us, and gives the lie to fanciful stories and evasions. Look at your genetic code, find your individual dot among the branch of your close relatives in the scattered family tree of 7 billion, and learn to live with it.


  1. The hunt is on for the African American gene.

  2. At least those who defend Rachel Dolezal on the basis that race is a "social construct" are being consistent. The one's who are engaged in serious doublethink are those who adamantly insist that race is a social construct while equally adamantly insisting that Dolezal is committing a "fraud" by claiming to be black.

  3. Two things sum it all up:

    I can respect those (few) who are at least consistent.

  4. You can try to change the surface your psychological-mental identity but race or proto-race is not modificable. Is like a blind guy to say that he can choice a non-blind identity. Even the word identity can't be literally used for fixed-biological-physiological aspects.


  5. I think perhaps some of those who defend Rachel Dolezal on the basis that race is a "social construct" are being consistent, and some are snarkily pointing up the contradiction between the vilification of Ms Dolezal (a white women who insists she's black) and the sanctification (by the president among others) of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner (a man who insists he's a woman).

    a) the