Proof Positive: America is Crazy over Race

Okay, the verdict is in. Of all the many areas of craziness for us Americans, race tops the list, and the Rachel Dolezal matter confirms that.

When the then Bruce Jenner declared that he was a woman, and made good on that declaration by his transformation to Caitlyn, he was hailed in many quarters as courageous. If someone is born, say, Catholic and decides she is really Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist, for the most part no one cares. The latter choice is so widespread and so ancient a practice (going back at least to Abraham) that we have a long-standing term for it – conversion – an adoption of new opinions or beliefs, especially in religion. The former case, particularly as it involves surgical alteration, is more recent, but still since about 1979 there has been a term for it – transgender – of, relating to, or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth.

But there is no comparable term for someone who “identifies with or expresses a racial identity that differs from one which corresponds to the person’s racial assignment at birth.” In the case of gender identity, we have come to recognize that there is a difference between biological assignment (sex) and gender assignment (culture), and that the latter at least is not binary – it is a spectrum ranging from masculine to feminine with all shades of grey in between. As to religion, most people recognize that as an accident of birth, and acknowledge that as a person matures, their thinking in relation to spiritual or religious questions many change. Yet we treat race as if it were (a) binary and (b) fixed.

Modern DNA testing has shown that almost no one in the world can claim a “pure” racial heritage biologically. First of all, modern science has shown that, improbable as it may seem, everyone on earth is descended from a single pair called the Y-Chromosome Adam and the Mitochondrial Eve, who lived about 200,000 years ago. Racial diversity as well as other genetic variations then came over time, but all races can be traced back to this pair – as Jeremy Rifkin put it, “in this case the Bible got it right.” Even if we look at the later differentiation into races, particularly the history of African-Americans in the US, there was so much cross-race breeding that very probably no one whose family has lived here more than three or four generations can credibly claim to be “pure” Caucasian or Negroid (the “correct” racial terms).

So that brings us to Rachel Dolezal. Leaving any questions of genetics or biology aside, she has declared herself Black or African-American. If the reverse were true, if she was born to an African-American family and lived as White, she would be said to be “passing.” In business circles, the term “covering” has come into use to mean the same thing with regard to race, sexual orientation, etc., but Dolezal “passed” in the unconventional direction – a so-called white person living as a so-called black person. Why is this different from Jenner’s coming out as a woman or a convert’s coming out as a new member of a different religion? The answer should be simple – it’s not different – yet her parents insist that she “come to embrace her true identity,” and she is frequently described in the media as “fraudulently claiming to be a black woman.”

Full disclosure: I am a caucasian, cis-gender, straight Jewish man. I am all those things because I say so, and I say so because they all fit my experience and authentic expression of myself. If what fits Rachel Dolezal’s experience and authentic expression of herself is to be a black woman, who’s to say she’s wrong?

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