Rachel Dolezal and the individual right to ethnic self-determination

Rachel Dolezal has dropped out of the headlines following the horrible racist killings in South Carolina last week. But the controversy about her is worth some thought. Dolezal, who resigned as president of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP, is more complex than the debate that has focused on her alleged breach of ethics and the fact that, unlike most black people, she could revert to being white if she chose to do so.

Despite pounding by the media, Dolezal has insistently reaffirmed her identification as a black person and her continuing commitment to social and racial justice.

There are certainly questions about her honesty regarding her biological background and her consistency throughout her life, but that is not a reason to doubt her sincerity at the present moment and in recent years in identifying as black. In this she has the support of the regional NAACP, which issued a statement June 12 declaring, “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.”

It may be extremely unusual, and for some “weird,” but Ms. Dolezal, is not the first noteworthy person of white heritage to identify as African American. in the 1940s, Mezz Mezzrow, a jazz musician and one time manager for Louis Armstrong, insisted he was “a voluntary Negro” and wrote about it in his autobiography “Really the Blues.” Mezzrow lived in Harlem with his black wife and, when he was imprisoned on a marijuana charge, demanded and received placement in the blacks-only unit where he said he was far more comfortable than in the whites-only units. There are of course many cases of children of white or very light-skinned parents raised in black families who grow up with and maintain African American identities.

It is also extremely common for people to choose an ethnic identity different from the one of their parents or the one in which they were raised. It happens every day when immigrants renounce their former citizenship and become, sometimes quite vehemently, citizens of the United States. It frequently happens when people marry someone of a different background and adopt their spouse’s ethnicity. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish community, I knew people married to Jewish spouses who, while not converting to the Jewish religion, dropped their Christian backgrounds and identified culturally as Jews.

There is no genetic basis for race. There are no African American genes. In the more than 1 million years since our species, homo sapiens, appeared on the African continent, there has been so much genetic mixing that it is impossible to distinguish ethnic groups on that basis. African Americans have the full range of skin color, the primary means used to identify them. But in many other ethnic groups there are people with extremely dark skins, including people from India and South Asia, and people from Caribbean countries and Latin America, not to mention the innumerable peoples and ethnic groups from the continent of Africa.

But even if there was some genetic basis in distinguishing African Americans, Caitlyn Jenner has made it clear that one’s identity can be independent of their biological makeup. Jenner, born genetically male, is a transgender woman who deserves to be respected by everyone else for expressing her gender identity.

Ethnic groups are a social and historical category, which, unfortunately, dominant oppressive classes have exploited as a means to divide and conquer and extract super-profits. From the beginning of our country, the propertied classes promoted the racist concept of white superiority to rationalize the enslavement of people kidnapped from Africa, whose labor was the basis for the American economy until the end of the Civil War. The dominant racist view was that Africans and people of African heritage were genetically inferior. That view has mostly become unacceptable today but has been replaced by equally false and harmful ideas of cultural superiority alleging that African Americans have inferior values in such areas as family structure, parenting, work ethic and proneness to crime. This serves as the means to blame the victims for the inferior conditions of life the American capitalist system’s pervasive racism imposes on people of color.

More problematic than Ms. Dolezal’s choice of ethnic identity or her unwillingness to disclose her background is her white parents’ action to denounce and “expose” the decision and lifestyle choice of their grown daughter and to thereby disrupt the NAACP. Equally reprehensible was the action of the cynical reporters who exploited the situation for the purpose of sensationalism and self-promotion.

The individual right to ethnic self-determination has generally been recognized in socialist countries. In the former Soviet Union, for example, all adults had ID cards stating their ethnicity which was their own choice to make. Ms. Dolezal has been criticized on grounds that she could have easily fought for civil rights and led the NAACP as a white person, but her identification as black clearly goes deeper and is more complex than political beliefs. She has made a personal ethnic identification and, hopefully, can go on with her life without further uproar.

Photo: Rachel Dolezal poses for a photo in her Spokane, Wash., home, March 2, 2015. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review via AP, File)



Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for the People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.

Rick is the Ohio District Organizer of the Communist Party USA, member of The Newspaper Guild Local 34071 CWA, and delegate to the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, serving on its Political Coordinators and Racial Justice Committees. He is co-convenor of the Tamir Rice Justice Committee.