For the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot about identity in the news, especially concerning the racial identity of Rachel Dolezal, who recently resigned as President of the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP after it was revealed that though she had been presenting herself as ‘black,’ she is, in fact, biologically caucasian. This, accompanied by the excellent response written by my Edinburgh colleague, Chris Duncan, in regard to a Religious Studies Project podcast interview on Race and Religion with Rudy Busto, got me thinking here not just about the differences between how individuals identify themselves and how we identify them in our own ways, but about the scholastic obligations we have in ensuring we lean more toward the former than the latter.
The response to Ms. Dolezal’s ‘transracial’ identity was quite popular via a number of news outlets, some of which seemed confused, or, if nothing else, heavily opinionated about the matter.
Here’s a few examples:
While the story behind her racial identity got picked apart and discussed ad nauseam by a number of media outlets, her side of the story didn’t really appear until she sat down for a brief interview for NBC with Savannah Guthrie. Here, Ms. Dolezal answers a number of questions, particularly about her identity, justifying how it is that she defines herself as ‘black.’ A few things stand out here that I think are worth isolating:
- Her use of the term ‘creative non-fiction‘ in response to whether she feels she has been ‘deceptive in her identity,’ and how that has assisted her explanation as to why she identifies as ‘black.’ (0:20-0:59)
- Her response that “nothing about being white describes who I am,” and the difficulty in defining a word that might describe that, especially as she sees herself as ‘black’ via ‘values’ and ‘lived experience.’ (3:15-3:54)
- Her ‘physical identifiers’ that make up the ‘construct’ of ‘race’ in response to how she has changed her appearance over the years: hair, skin colour, and eye shape. (7:10-7:54)
- Her resonation with some of the themes shared between her sense of being ‘transracial’ and Caitlyn Jenner’s ‘transgender’ identity. (9:30-10:02)
Here’s her interview in its entirety:
As well, this conversation was expanded a bit more in a separate interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s The Today Show. This time, when bluntly asked whether she identifies as an ‘African American,’ her response is: “I Identify as black.”
While her story inspires a great deal of discussion (as it has) about racial identity, as well as the racial, ethnic, and cultural nuances that occur within a context such as the United States, Ms. Dolezal’s identity construction likewise serves as a unique insight into the manner with which we might more objectively approach these sorts of complex categories.
This, I would further argue, gives us an equally unique opportunity. Because her story has become somewhat controversial, and because the way in which she identifies herself might be perceived by some as offensive or insensitive, it gives us the chance to remind ourselves not only of our responsibility in examining and presenting data such as this in an unbiased manner, it also provides us with a sample in which to test ourselves on how that is done.
That is, if we were to translate her story as ‘data,’ and treat her as a subject of inquiry, regardless of what that story tells us, we are required to approach and present it entirely void of our opinion on the matter. In this way, her identity construction, as well as the language she uses in the process within her unique cultural boundaries, acts as a testimony that we might use in order to interpret her sense of self or ‘selfhood.’ Then, by observing, recording, and even re-writing her story for the benefit of an empirical research agenda, and by placing that story into the larger narrative of her contextual surroundings, we would be able to further develop a sense of appreciative knowledge about a particular aspect of American racial identity in the early twenty-first century. As well, we could even take this information and measure it against a number of comparative sources, such as the historical background of racial development, inequality, and progression in the United States, giving us a larger chronological, and thus culturally-nuanced, perspective on the way that type of identity has developed from then to now.
In another way, the comparison she makes between her own story and that of Caitlyn Jenner also serves as an important reminder, especially about the simple, yet also precarious, role that comparison plays in these sorts of analyses. While her sense of commonality or resonance with Caitlyn Jenner’s story is an example of her internal construction of self developing in relationship to an individual with whom she might perceive as belonging to a similar identity group, from an external position (like an anthropological or scholastic manner) this sort of comparison is neither clear, nor usually fair to make. This has, in fact, been pointed out already (albeit, in a very different way), such as by Zeba Blay for The Huffington Post. What’s more, this is no different than comparing like things because they look similar, such as religious identities that rest under the same broad canopy (monotheism) but that have different cultural or geographical origins (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). For a clearer example of this, see J. Z. Smith’s “In Comparison a Magic Dwells” in his (1982) Imagining Religion.
That is to say, though Ms. Dolezal and Ms. Jenner equally share an identity that they have, individually, constructed in contradiction to their biological and genetic makeup, our perception of them should remain relative to their usage, rather than to what might be ‘expected’ of these sorts of identifiers.
Lastly, while an objective perspective on this subject might appear similar, though still somewhat different to, Ms. Dolezal’s notion of ‘race’ as a constructed or fluid ideology, in that the lack of an opinion might be translated as a type of relativism, it is also something that exists merely as a methodological constraint.
That is, as a means of analysing, recording, translating, and representing a cultural snapshot within the context of a distinct time and place, our perception of Ms. dolezal’s identity as data does not mean that we are not permitted to have an opinion. Rather, it simply means that our use and treatment of this data must be made in a manner void of such an opinion in order to “prevent subjective views from coloring objective facts” (Geertz, Works and Lives, 9). This is all that more important because it is our responsibility, in this capacity, to ensure our subjects have the opportunity to ‘speak for themselves.’
Said another way: identity matters.
It matters to the individuals identifying themselves, because not only does it represent how they see themselves, it establishes a sense of self that we might infect or damage via our labelling or defining them.
Thus, while to some Ms. Dolezal might seem deranged or insensitive, like a charlatan racially identifying herself in a way that might benefit her financially, or as someone drastically ignorant about, or maliciously knowledgable of, the insult her identity might inflict at this time in history, to an individual researching her as data, this does not matter. Even if she constructs that identity via ‘creative non-fiction,’ it is not our place to state otherwise because, in simple terms, it is not something that belongs to us, regardless of our feeling of ownership.
To address any accusations that I myself did not provide an opinion here, this is my response:
Issues of racial identity are likely to arise within nations (such as the US) wherein the ethnic and racial identities of the citizens that make up that nation’s culture come from a myriad of different origins. In response to this, comedians have attempted to address this in an equal number of ways. As I perceive it, perhaps the three best, if not most memorable, are the links below. I place them here as a supplement to my own opinion, a translation, if you will, of a heavily serious topic, textually transformed into a comedic response.