If you look up a dictionary definition of, “transracial,” you might find the following: “Involving, encompassing, or extending across two or more races.” In the sense, most people on earth are by dictionary definition (and an ancestry test) probably transracial in theory. But many people identify strongly with one particular race and ethnicity, and where that isn’t true, most people identify as biracial or multiracial. Race is not biology. But it is a construct and an important one at that – because of the past, because of the present, and because it is a difference that had made a difference in the perceptions and experiences of people.
Why is transracial making its way into the public conversation? Well because people are choosing to make asinine comparisons between Caitlyn Jenner recently making headlines for her official coming out, and a hot, fresh story about Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. Dolezal has apparently spent much of her life pretending to be Black. Among other identifiers to pass as Black, she allegedly darkens her skin (which I cannot confirm), and purports to wear her “naturally curly hair” which is not quite so natural. She went to Howard University, has been involved in civil rights work for much of her career, and when asked, does identify as, “Black.”
There is much to unpack here.
Adrian Piper wrote this brilliant essay published in 1991, titled, “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” Piper discusses what it was like to be a Black woman who identified as Black, whose politics and interests were Black, but who by virtue of her light skin could “pass” for White. She writes candidly from a personal experience about how she would often get to witness the very real racism that occurs between White people when (they think) Black people are not around. And in her essay, you also learn that there has been a history of light-skinned Black people in the United States passing for White, many times for the sake of safety in communities that it would be dangerous were they to be seen as “misrepresenting themselves.” But indeed sometimes to gain access to White privilege.
What are we to do with a White lady who attempts to pass for a Black person? Perhaps we should start by what we shouldn’t do. In the first place, comparing Caitlyn Jenner’s transition to passing is neither warranted, nor a reflection of contextual thinking. It is Sociology 101 that sex and gender are not the same thing. Moreover, to compare the politics of sex and gender to the politics of race and ethnicity is to ignore the two different histories that have created the two separate constructs and how they are manifested in modern-day America. Being “transracial” in such a manner as to negate the experiences of a collective group of people with which you choose to identify with, and therefore portray yourself in a way that misrepresents your genealogy not merely by sight but by your proclaimed identity, is not tantamount to gender transitioning. Let’s not get it twisted.
Now dealing with the matter of Dolezal’s identification as Black is something that has many people, including myself, shifting in my seat uncomfortably. Nobody wants to be the person to tell someone that they can’t identify how they “see” themselves. But in the history and politics of race as it has come to be understood in the globe, and specifically in the United States, race and identity are simply not a matter of one’s desires and wishes. They have very real implications and consequences. The constructions of Blackness are big enough and diverse enough to be inclusive of the many shades of Black and Brown there are. But what Blackness will not accept is false pretenses dressed up in cultural appropriation, while essentially performing a certain Blackface with natural hair, and calling it’s one’s identity.
For a lady who has arguably shown that she is invested in Black culture and in the advancement of Black communities, how she cannot see that this performance would be at the very least contentious within the Black American community and to those who are Black globally, is beyond me. You can appreciate and respect and support and stand by Black people and Black culture in the United States, without performing as a Black person.
Perhaps Dolezal “feels” Black. Perhaps her consciousness and her politics and her interests are deeply connected to Blackness. Perhaps she wanted to escape from the harmful constructs of Whiteness in so far as how it has treated Blackness institutionally in the country, and in the world. Perhaps she wanted to be free from White privilege and how it harms and disadvantages People of Color. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But what I do know is that fundamentally (her) White privilege was at work here. But even more than that, her denial of such privilege by the lie and portrayal of a false identity, harms the constructs of the very people she wishes to identify with. The irony is pitiful.