What is Race?

Rachel Dolezal, is the past president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP civil rights organization and was a university instructor in African-American studies. She has been portraying herself as a black woman for ten years. However, her biological parent’s ancestry is Swedish, German and Czechoslovakian. She states that she is not white and identifies most closely with the African American culture. By all accounts, she was a passionate advocate for human rights. Her professional skills are not being challenged, but her integrity is. She has misrepresented herself by claiming to be a black woman. She adapted her physical appearance over time to create ethnic characteristics and described herself as transracial.

Ms. Dolezal would not have received criticism if she had said that her ancestry is white but she identifies as black. Many take offense to a liar and no one likes a poser. But maybe it’s not that simple. Race is more complex than we’d like to think. Ms. Dolezal’s story raises the issue of whether race is determined by genealogy or by identity.

Upon examination, I have come to realize that race is really quite fluid. We are not this, or that. We may be some of this, that and the other. The U.S. Census Bureau collects race data not based on genealogy but on self-identification. Their racial categories reflect a social definition of race and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as American Indian and Caucasian. People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino or Spanish may be of any race.

So why is our ancestry so important? Our identity is rooted in our ancestors. Finding and charting one’s family help us understand who we were, how we got here, and who we are now. On some level we are all related. But on another level, we are distinctly related to a particular group of people, sharing certain physical, mental and social traits. All of the individuals in our family trees have contributed DNA that makes us who we are.

Our ancestry connects to our past but Ms. Dolezal has attempted to break from her ancestral heritage and leap-frog into a new cultural identity. She chooses to break with her parents and identify with a racial group that she was not born into. After reading of her family problems, I can’t say that I blame her. They are embroiled in conflict and she is in a legal dispute with her parents over allegations of abuse in the home.

Some say that race is a myth. What we use to determine race is really a combination of physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another. My brother recently searched Ancestry.com and found that Pocahontas is our grandmother, twelve generations removed. I can now claim to be American Indian. I have a larger percentage of German and Swedish ancestors than American Indian. As far as I know, Pocahontas is the only link I have to American Indian people. But what percentage of ancestry is enough to claim it as a racial identity?

Ms. Dolezal would say that racial heredity does not equal identity. We are all free to choose to identify with a racial group with those whom one may have a strong affinity. But what you can’t do is lie about your ancestry for personal gain. She has resigned from her position with the NAACP, is no longer teaching and is under investigation by an ethics commission. Ms. Dolezal’s integrity has been challenged in a public format, but it serves a positive function on the discussion of race. With this, she may be pleased. As a civil rights advocate, she wants us all to reflect on the meaning of race. She has opened a helpful dialog.

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