Can people chose their race?

Back in April, Rachel Dolezal, the embattled former NAACP leader, gave an interview to CNN essentially talking up her new book, a memoir, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World. The article title for the interview is a quote she gave to the reporter: “Race is a social construct.” Ms. Dolezal is a White woman. Her own parents came forward and made it known that she is a White woman, not the Black woman she claimed to be.

In the interview, she discusses her memoir and how she identified as black when she was very young. She even goes to far as to say that a family member made a “black Raggedy Ann doll.” She then goes on to say quite clearly that she identifies as black…not African American, but black. She feels strongly that race is a complex label.

Ms. Dolezal is not wrong–race is a social construct. According to Winant (2007) the concept of race has been around for quite a long time. In fact, “[t]he construction of white identity and the ideology of racial hierarchy were intimately tied to the evolution and expansion of the system of chattel slavery…[and] [t]he ideological and rhetorical move from ‘slave’ and ‘free’ to ‘black’ and ‘white’ as polar constructs marked an important step in the social construction of race” (Harris 1995, p.278).

What’s especially interesting about this “case” for lack of a better term, is that Ms. Dolezal seems to be co-opting blackness. White people tend to co-opt ideas, terms, language, lots of things, from people of color. Since white supremacy is the basis of United States society, it doesn’t seem surprising that a white woman could claim to be black; but God forbid a black woman claim to be white. The infamous “one drop” rule would not allow it.

Whiteness has often been determined to be the end goal, yet Ms. Dolezal presents the opposing point of view. I must admit, I’m intrigued enough to possibly read her memoir because I would like to judge for myself, from my own white perspective, if her lived experiences as a black woman compare to those of darker skinned black women. I’d hazard a guess that they do not compare.

Works cited

Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), pp. 1707-1791.

Winant, H. (2007). The dark side of the force: One hundred years of the sociology of race.


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