What Does it Mean to Be Black?

According to 23andme.com, I have 71.3% Sub-Saharan African DNA, and most of that is West African. This is, of course no surprise, as most of my ancestors on both sides of the family were brought to the New World on slave ships.

But am I black? What does that even mean? I’m asking this question today, in light of the recent events around Rachel Dolezal. I have a lot to say, and this might be kinda long. I generally don’t like to talk about race. You might notice that the vast majority of posts on this blog are not about race. There are several reasons I don’t like to talk about race, and all of the reasons I don’t like to talk about race are going to be in this post.

Let me get one thing out of the way, first. This post isn’t really about Rachel. It’s about race. Rachel, for reasons that only she knows, chose to pass herself off as black for many years, deceiving many people she worked with. Deception of any sort is problematic behavior, and she definitely needs to be held accountable for this deception. And, likely, this deception came of some suffering and pain in her life – and for that, she deserves compassion, and likely needs some psychological/emotional support to make it through what must be an extremely difficult time right now.

Further, I understand why so many people feel betrayed, given the way racial dynamics play out in this country. I don’t actually know if she ended up going further in her life being deceptive as she would have if she actually used her white privilege. I don’t know if it is possible to know, and I don’t know that it matters. What matters is that she betrayed the trust of people who are already the victims of white privilege.

It’s important to reiterate that race doesn’t exist biologically. It is a social construct, largely created from the process of colonialism and the slave trade. There is no such thing as “black” or “white” in terms of biology. The human species is incredibly varied, and some characteristics, such as skin color, eye color, hair, shape of the eyes, etc. vary due to the environmental factors present in those people who lived in certain places for a long period of time. People belonging to one “race” have more genetic variability than people of different “races.”

However, race as a social construct in the United States is extremely powerful, and its power has not diminished since the end of the Civil War. This construct is why some people die at the hands  of police. Why some people can’t get jobs. It creates stark economic inequalities. It is at the core of a system that keeps some people well-fed and in power, while others languish, virtually powerless. It is a construct that is socially pathological, and creates great suffering.

For many years, the “one drop rule” was what governed the decision about whether or not one was black. Rachel seems to come from relatively recent immigrants, but many, many people in the US who identify as white have enough African ancestry to have been in Rachel’s place, and not really be lying. For a thought experiment, let’s take someone who is genetically the reverse of me: who is 71% European, and 27% Sub-Saharan African. It’s quite likely this person could be as blond, light, and straight-haired as Rachel is, and because of that, would be granted white privilege. Would this person be lying, then? What would that be like?

And the cultural construct of “blackness” is, frankly, not entirely imposed from without. It is also imposed from within. The #AskRachel hashtag is a compendium of multiple choice questions about black culture with the idea that because Rachel is really white, she’d fail them. Well, guess what? I can’t answer most of them! She might actually be able to answer more of them than I can.

It may be that most mainstream (read:white) culture can’t quite imagine a black, geeky, Buddhist-leaning scientist/science-fiction writer/theologian who likes to build circuits and help women with relationships. But the truth is, it’s mostly unimaginable inside of black culture, too. One of the most fabulous things that has arisen out of the age of the internet are websites like “Black Girl Nerds.” When I was a black, geeky girl and young adult, I was bullied incessantly (both physically and verbally) for not being “black enough.” It even went on later – I remember with some clarity an event that happened 20 years ago when I was a professor. There was a black student I had talked to in depth over the phone about a program I was helping to run. When I finally met her in person, she looked at me with some disdain, and said, “I was sure you were white.” It stung. The #AskRachel hashtag is an unfortunate reminder of that side of my history.

Just because race is meaningless in a biological sense, doesn’t seem to change anyone’s mind about its cultural significance. As a resident of the United States, and having the skin color, body, and hair that I have, I am labeled “black.” I can’t choose anything else. I don’t get to define myself. I think I’ve done pretty well being able to be who I am, but it doesn’t mean it has been easy.

There has also been a fair amount of talk comparing Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner. It is such an interesting question to me, because there are many levels to look at that issue. The first, most obvious, is, well, no, they are nothing alike. Based on varied reporting, Rachel knew she was being deceptive. It wasn’t a matter of who she really felt she authentically was.

But go just a little deeper. Race, like gender and sexuality, is a cultural construct. How fluid do we get to be? How much do we get to define ourselves? Some feminists (not me) feel that trans women are just men pretending to be women, and don’t deserve to call themselves women. Back to that thought experiment – does someone with 27% Sub-Saharan African descent get to call themselves black? Is what matters that you can’t pass? What about appropriation? Many people have pointed to Rachel as an extreme example of cultural appropriation. Is there such a thing as gender appropriation?

Ultimately, the most important things to me around self-definition are honesty, integrity, and self-examination. If you have the honesty to speak your own truth, the integrity to take responsibility for the deep and wide social implications of your self-definitions, the self-examination to really look at what’s going on emotionally and psychologically underneath self-definition, then, yeah, you get to define yourself however you damn well please. Rachel certainly didn’t pass that test.