Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Only her hairdresser knows for sure

Given the unending torrent of commentary and comedy (100% of Larry Wilmore and most of John Stewart on Monday, e.g.), I didn't think I'd have anything unique and worthwhile to say about the bizarre tale of Rachel Dolezal. But having absorbed much of this slice of zeitgeist, I realize I do need to say something.

One of the byways in my career was as research director of the New England Coalition for Health Equity, concurrently with occupying the same role for Latino Health Institute in Boston. (Both now, alas defunct. I guess they couldn't survive without me.) Anyhooo, in said roles one of my major preoccupations was with the definition, measurement and amelioration of health disparities, which in turn meant a deep dive into how we classify people and the meaning of race and ethnicity. So, here's the 4-1-1.

Yes, race is a socially constructed category, not a biologically valid or useful concept. We arbitrarily circle certain ancestral regions and call the people who come from them members of a "race," even though they have no more in common genetically than any given one of them might with somebody who happens to be outside that zone. And then of course people actually have mixed ancestry so we need to decide who is in and who is out based on a complicated set of rules. In the U.S., there's a "one drop" rule for being "black." Tiger Woods, for example, whose mother is from Thailand and whose father has mixed African, European and Native American ancestry, is generally considered to be black. Culturally, he's probably more Thai than black since he follows his mother's Buddhist religion but that's apparently beside the point. So even though race is a social, rather than a biological category, it's a social reality.

Ethnicity is different, however. Ethnicity means affinity with a culturally distinct community. It's a much more fluid concept, and heavily dependent on context. For example, a person who was born in Mexico and lives in Mexico may be defined ethnically as part of a particular indigenous people, or as part of an immigrant enclave, or whatever. If the person moves to the U.S., however, they acquire the label of Latino or Hispanic, which is how most Americans will see them. They themselves may not accept that label and may continue simply to consider themselves Mexican, but now that's a new kind of ethnicity within a wider society.

Ethnicity, unlike race, is a matter of degree. You can feel a strong or weak affinity to an ethnic group, and outsiders may also perceive you as fully or only partly in it -- depending on the context, of course. In Nazi-occupied Europe, there weren't any degrees of Jewishness. On the other hand Judaism, apart from the thinking of some racists, is not a race. It's an ethnicity which is partly, but not entirely, defined by religion. You can join it. If you marry a Jew and convert to Judaism, and start going to the temple, you'll be as Jewish as anybody else and so will your kids. Not all ethnic groups allow it, but as a generality, you can assimilate and change your ethnicity over the life course; or it may happen willy-nilly if you migrate. Ethnicities can also more or less disappear. Not many places are left in the U.S. where you can really be Irish, or Polish, but those used to be clearly defined minorities.

So African American and Black don't mean the same thing. Barack Obama's father was African, but he was not African American as a child an adolescent. He belonged to a white family and had no contact with any African American community. Then he started organizing in African American communities in Chicago, married an African American woman, and attending an African American church. So before, he was just Black (thanks to the one drop rule), but now he is African American, because that's the community with which he has affiliated.

However, note something important here: people perceive race and ethnicity, in this particular case, as being closely linked. The New York Times once called Lennox Lewis an "African American" boxing champion, even though he is of course a subject of Her Majesty Elizabeth II.  People mix them up. If you have the defining physical characteristics of black race, then you can't stop being African American. On the other hand, if you don't, you can, as many people did in the early 20th Century by passing. Some of them later went back to being African American. And so there are people who consider themselves African American, and who as shorthand call themselves black, who don't really look like people of African descent are supposed to look like.

But here's the thing. Obama isn't trying to fool anyone. He wrote a whole book about his life, with a major focus on the fact that he didn't know his father. His story is as public and as fully revealed as it gets. You can decide for yourself if he's black enough for you, if that's something you care about.

So it would be perfectly fine for a white woman to feel an affinity for the African American community, marry an African American man, teach African American studies and work for the NAACP. If she even said, "You know what, I have really come to identify as African American," okay. Somebody might say, you can't really know what it's like because you didn't grow up with it, and I suppose that's an argument you can have, but she can probably have a pretty good idea, especially if she has black (one drop does it!) kids.

But that's not what Dolezal did. She darkened her skin, died and curled her hair, even presented a photo of a black man who she claimed was her father. She didn't tell people, "I have an affinity for the African American community," she told people that she is, in fact, black, and let it be believed that she grew up that way. Which is not true.

This seems like a pretty obvious distinction but it's one that a lot of people seem to miss. For some reason. So there you are. She can feel as black as she wants, but she has to tell the truth.


robin andrea said...

I have purposely avoided reading anything about this story because I knew that most of the "news" and commentary would miss the bigger picture. I'm glad I stopped by and read this. You have explained it and summed it up perfectly. Thank you.

mojrim said...

Aside from the obvious issue of her deliberate misrepresentation of irrelevant signifiers (e.g. hair, skin) you have just made her case for her. Given the bizarre and convoluted history of "race" in america, can anyone really say she's wrong in a substantive way?

Cervantes said...

Because she misrepresented her background, that's all. That was really my point.