What Rachel Dolezal Teaches Us About Race
Race is a social construction. We have heard that phrase over and over again to the point that it has become a bit hackneyed. When I teach my sociology students, I tell them, “Sociologists study what people do together: we create families, schools, economic systems.” All of these things are social constructions that are produced, reproduced, and even demolished because people together make it so.
And then Rachel Dolezal comes along.
She tells us race is a social construction therefore she is transracial and has decided to live and identify as a black woman. The media becomes fascinated by this white woman born to white parents who has decided of her own accord to spend time in black communities, wear black hairstyles, fight for black lives, and leave whiteness behind. She has even changed her name to Nkechinyere Amare Diallo, coopting West African names, including my own, in her quest for blackness.
The thing is that I’ve seen this before.
From 2008 to 2012, I conducted interview with 95 black-white couples in Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles. When I was in Rio de Janeiro, I encountered several whites married to blacks whom everyone knew as white, who had white physical characteristics, yet found their own white identity problematic. They did not identify with white people. Several of these whites talked about the vibrancy of black cultural expressions that spoke to them and denigrated the discrimination against people with darker hues. White wives spoke to me about their love of black hairdos (including my own short dreadlocks) and Africa.
They also loved black men. The phrase that I heard over and over again was “adoro negão.” “I adore (big) black men.” This phrase was not solely sexual, although it certainly was for some women. There is a stereotype among many Brazilians that white men are short because of their Italian and Portuguese ancestry, while black men are tall and muscular as descendants of Africa. Adorar negão was almost the Brazilian equivalent of liking men who are “tall, dark, and handsome.”
These negão were supposed to help them meet their fertility goals: having black children. However, this did not always work out as planned. Ângela was one such white woman, who upon first seeing her newborn, was disappointed that the child had inherited her own light skin and hair. She was sad that her baby was white by Brazilian standards.
Some of the black husbands and wives called their spouses negra frustrada or negro frustrado. Frustrated black woman or black man. They were frustrated because they wanted to be black but were not. These frustrated blacks experienced stigmatization, especially from their white parents and particularly if they were women. One white woman told me how her mother gave her the nickname “Slaveship” because she was always bringing home black friends. However, no one wrote newspaper articles about these frustrated blacks. No one chased them down for interviews on camera. They did not write tell-all book of how they came to their identity.
There was no Brazilian equivalent of a Rachel Dolezal for several reasons. Race mixture is a part of how Brazilians understand themselves as a people. While European families originally migrated to the United States to pursue religious liberty, European men migrated to Brazil to exploit its natural resources. They left their wives and families — if they had any — behind in Portugal and did what single men away from their families have a long history of doing: they had sex and formed families with the women available to them. They had sex with native Indigenous and enslaved African women, creating a nation formed in the sack.
I asked all of the spouses, “What is your color?” the Brazilian equivalent of asking “What is your race?” Almost all of the white spouses said that they were white, at least initially. However, they often referenced grandmothers who were indigenous or Afro-Brazilian (despite all of their other white ancestors) as reasons their whiteness was “loosey goosey” in comparison to the United States. If ethnoracial boundaries were made of concrete, in Brazil, race mixture were the polymer microfibers that made it flexible. As they pushed against ethnoracial boundaries as negras frustradas, those boundaries became pliable: not fully yielding, yet losing rigidity.
However, black spouses in Brazil did not experience this same flexibility. Several black spouses told me of the racial discrimination they experienced in predominantly white spaces, including shopping malls and touristy areas of the city. Black wives shared how they could be confused for being prostitutes with their husband as their john in the wealthy, white neighborhoods like Copacabana and Ipanema. For Afro-Brazilians, the colorline was not silly-putty. White spouses had more freedom to delve into all things black than their spouses did to do the reverse. As most things in a white supremacist society, the colorline was more flexible if you were white.
The United States is different. After slavery, decades of Jim Crow and federally created residential segregation has left the country with more segregation in 2017 than in 1917. Segregation is in the air we breathe and our ethnoracial boundaries are far more rigid than in Brazil. Dolezal, or Nkechinyere Amare Diallo as she goes by now (My Igbo sistah?), is experiencing the rigidity of the colorline in the United States. Like a brick wall, as she pushes against it, it does not budge.
As a white supremacist society, the United States privileges Dolezal’s challenging ethnoracial boundaries. This is so unlike the thousands of blacks who quietly dissolved into the white population a century ago. A media stir would have cost them their lives. Even Anatole Broyard, the New York Times film critic who passed away in 1990 took his hidden blackness to the grave to be taken seriously in his career as a writer. At the same time, unlike the acceptance that many Afro-Brazilians have for their negra frustradas, many Afro-Americans find her problematic at best. Their relatives and ancestors who passed as white (or do so now) do not receive the same rewards. Instead, it has to be quiet without any fuss, for fear of upsetting the status quo.
Yet, as a white woman, Dolezal travels the world, causes a media sensation, and sells books about her personal decision to side with blacks. She is not involved in a social movement or openly linked arms with other U.S. frustrated black women to challenge our racial categorization. It has been done before in recent memory. Look at the multiracial movement of the 1990s, which largely involved white mothers of biracial children. As a result of their mobilization, the Census bureau allowed Americans to “mark one or more” ethnic or racial category for the first time ever. The fact that the term “multiracial” is in common parlance is a result of these efforts. Together, they were able to drill through the brick of the U.S. construction of race.
Instead, it is just Dolezal, alone, pushing against a brick wall. She has no one-drop to stand on. She experiences the scrapes and bruises of the U.S. construction of race. She cannot hold a steady job. As a society, working together, we accuse her of having mental health issues. We stigmatize her. Her choices and transracial individual identity are no match for a stalwart societal phenomenon. Race is a social construction, not an individual one. If she lived in Brazil, its flexible colorline would have allowed her more breathing room in how she publicly sees herself. She would have just been another frustrated black woman. But the United States is not Brazil.