A Confusing Thing About American Culture and Racial Identity

As I continue to work on my next book on Racial Classification Law in Modern America, I often notice tangential but fascinating issues.

Here is one. Take the example of an American who grows up with two white parents, “looks” white, still considers himself white, and assumes all of his ancestors are European. He embarked on genealogy and, during his research, discovered that a great-grandfather was a fair-skinned African-American, mixed race by descent, who “passed” for white and married a woman of origin. European. This upsets his whole sense of identity. He began to read about black history and culture and, over time, began to do everything possible to make black friends, attended a predominantly African-American church, and eventually saw himself as part of the. African American community and identifies as an African. American. My feeling is that while some people would find this transformation odd, few would view his new identity as fraudulent or illegitimate.

Then consider the case of Rachel Dolezal. She grew up with two white parents, looked white etc, but adopted black siblings whom she sympathized with, didn’t get along with her parents, and decided to adopt an Afro female identity. -american. From all the accounts I’ve read, she embraced this identity with sincerity, not to play affirmative action or take advantage of the system. Unlike my first example, it has been widely denounced and mocked as a fraud.

I wondered if there was a reason beyond racial essentialism (ie your racial ancestry “matters” in a concrete way, a view generally considered racist) why these cases are different. Is it because Dolezal hid his past? Because she worked for the NAACP and thus took a job from a “real” black person?

If so, let’s say none of those things were true. Let’s say we were talking about James McBride (The color of The water–an excellent book, by the way) mother, a white woman who married a black man and, judging by the book, fully integrated into the African American community. If, over time, she had come to think of herself as an African American, does it matter that she did not have a black ancestor? If she found out that she had a distant African American ancestor, would that make a difference? If yes, why?


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