Race, Identity and Identification

by Sunita

The discovery that the head of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, has been claiming an African-American identity for the past decade despite having white parents and being raised as a European-American white female has been dominating online news and social media for the last couple of days. In the process, race, ethnicity, and identity have been mashed together in ways that make sociologists and other social scientists who study the topics cringe. Repeatedly.

I’m not much interested in contributing to the many, many thinkpieces on the person, her motivations, and What It All Really Means. But I research, teach, and write about ethnicity and race, I’ve been contributing to this literature since graduate school, and I’ve spent a lot of time parsing the differences between various social categories and constructs. So I’m going to write about that.

Let’s get one obvious issue out of the way. Race and ethnicity are both socially constructed. But they aren’t constructed the same way, or according to the same criteria. And they don’t operate the same way in social practice. Although race is subjective in terms of how categories are constructed and in terms of the assignment of those “racial” categories to individuals and groups, it is measured objectively. Whether or not you are of a given race is entirely dependent on whether it is found in your genetic makeup (though a direct ancestor; DNA attribution is much more recent).

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a combination of genetic makeup (your ancestry) and social practice. A black person raised by white people in an all-white setting will be identified as black by most Americans (they won’t necessarily be considered “culturally” black, but that’s a separate issue). A person born to Italian-American parents but raised by Swedish-American parents in northern Minnesota will be accepted as having Italian ancestry, but she will almost certainly be treated as culturally Swedish-American by most people.

We Americans are a motley bunch in terms of race, let alone ethnicity, but because of the one-drop rule, anti-miscegenation laws, and other formal and informal racial and ethnic boundary policing practices, acknowledgment of mixed-race and mixed-ethnicity backgrounds has become more common only in the last couple of decades. Despite incorporating conquered populations from societies with different racial categorization schemes in the 19thC, like formerly Spanish Mexico, the US government only officially recognized that “Hispanic” was a category incorporating more than one race in the 1980 census. In short, both our social practices and official categorizations lag way behind the reality.

Which brings me to identity. When we talk informally about identity, we’re usually conflating two concepts: identity and identification. Identification is what an individual considers herself to be, culturally speaking. It usually lines up with socially accepted categories, but not always. A white person who grows up in a dominant non-white culture may identify more with the latter. Someone who does not embrace the culture in which she was raised may not identify strongly with that culture. Identification is therefore associated with individual attitudes.

Identity, on the other hand, is the product of aggregated, group-level decisions about the shared characteristics that define and shape the boundaries of a social group. It’s a two-way street in which a group asserts a specific identity and the rest of society affirms the importance of that identity. For many individuals who share those characteristics, the group identity mirrors their individual identity: my name and background identify me as a South Asian Hindu Indian, and I identify as South Asian Hindu Indian. But not all individuals embrace their group identity. And unlike the case with identification, they cannot easily choose to reject it and assert a contrary identity in its place. If the society around you identifies you as white, you are accorded that identity irrespective of whether you feel white or identify as white. For example, a Westerner living in India for decades would, in the 20thC, have always been categorized as non-Indian. They might be accorded “honorary” Indian status, but they would be an ethnic outsider.

In the US, qualifications for whiteness have changed over time. During the Ellis Island era of mass immigration, southern Europeans were not considered white. By the 1970s, they were. Since the 17thC, Americans who bore outward characteristics that signified black forebearers would not be categorized as white no matter how small the quantum of black ancestry might be (that’s the one-drop rule at work). White societal dominance meant that black Americans did not determine their own identity; whites did. If a person was designated as black by whites in their local/national community, the black community had no ability to exclude them.

What Rachel Dolezal did was self-identify as racially black even though she had none of the markers that supported it. Whites accepted her self-designation, presumably because her academic background, hairstyle choices, and skin tone provided confirming evidence. Blacks accepted her, I think, because the US black community has historically been generous in welcoming self-identified (and white-identified) blacks without asking for papers, so to speak.

But even for black Americans, generous as they are, you need to have some ancestry or lived experience if you’re going to build a career around black self-identification. And Dolezal hasn’t had that. (We’ll leave aside her Native American self-identification, since NA identity is considerably more complicated, in part due to sovereign status, and deserves its own discussion). Not only that, she lied about her racial and ethnic background and her lived experience for years.

Rachel Dolezal can self-identify as whatever she feels she is, and if she comes across as sincere, it’s no one’s right to refute that. But her identity? That’s not something she can unilaterally claim. Maybe she should be able to, but that’s not how the social construction and practice of identity works.