How Rachel Dolezal, and the Rest of Us, Can Know We’re Not Black

Rachel Dolezal, Race relations in America, who can call themselves black

If one is raised in a particular sector of urban culture, or with black siblings, and does all her homework on the cultural concept of blackess in the U.S., can she then pass as a black woman?  No.

Much has been said over the past few days about Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader who it turns out isn’t a black woman.  But the issue isn’t really as cut and dried as “Dolezal has white skin” (which would make her white) or “Dolezal loves black culture” so much that she was able to get a scholarship to Howard University.  Given that the entire notion of blackness, as it is constructed in America, is a completely artificial construct, how might we negotiate the tangled web of culture and genetics to figure out where we fit into the reality of being Black in America?

Here’s something of a guideline…

First, let’s consider the whole idea of that even a portion of a person’s ethnic heritage makes them black.  This was a common notion in the South for a long time (might even be still a notion—I don’t know the South all that well.)  I happen to have a last name—Grier—that is well represented in the South.  When I spoke at an event in Newark, N.J., I met a black women who’s name was Tish Grier—the same as mine.  Knowing what we know about ancestors who may have miscegenated back in the day, there’s a small possibility that this woman and her family may somehow be related to my family.

Genetics would clear all that up.  But would that make me black?  Well, perhaps in the minds of some folks, who believe even a small amount of African genetics makes one black.  For others not at all.  A small amount of genetic heritage can be buried very, very deeply and remain unknown if not for our current science.

Let’s look at another factor—culture.  If one is raised in a particular sector of urban culture, or with black siblings, and does all her homework on the cultural concept of blackness in the U.S., can she then pass as a black woman?  No.  Definitely no.  Some would say it’s because she doesn’t have black genes. Others would say that it’s because she wasn’t raised in black culture.

I may have black genetic heritage on my father’s side and with mother’s Sicilian genetic heritage, as well as with my extended family’s Sicilian-American culture.  They too experienced the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and job discrimination.  And my white Southern dad thought my Sicilian mother was of another race.  But none of this makes me black in any way.

Because when I walk in the door, I’m a white skinned, green-eyed, chestnut haired woman.  I might be discriminated against by the fact that I’m a woman or by the fact that I’m of a certain age, but I can’t say I’m discriminated against because I’m Black. When I step in the door, my skin states that I’m white.  It is immediately assumed, regardless of culture or genetics, that I am white.  So there is no way I can claim that I am Black in America today.

And neither can Rachel Dolezal, with her white, liberal, American Christian heritage.  Not at all.

Tish Grier is a writer and longtime blogger living in Easthampton, MA.  Even at middle-age, Tish is still a girly girl who enjoys blogging about fashion and beauty.  She also writes essays about her formerly dysfunctional life and wants to let everyone know that things change.  You can read her at High Fashion Average Woman. Tish is also a contributor to Midcentury/Modern on Medium.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/in the public domain

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