Jonathan Blanks is a writer in Washington.
Is it acceptable to base your identity on a lie? What if that lie is hundreds of years old?
The apparent outing of Rachel Dolezal as a white woman living as a black woman challenges how Americans collectively and individually think about racial identity. A larger question may be whether the people who maintain American black identity — at its core, an artificial classification created to justify wholesale subjugation — can control who acceptably wields that identity.
Unlike other Americans who can trace their roots directly back to countries or tribes around the globe, most black Americans have had their histories stripped from them. Slave owners demanded that their slaves assimilate to a position of English-speaking beasts, obliterating the languages, religions, cultures and traditions of our individual forebears. The slaves were largely kept illiterate, destitute and unable to object to the destruction of families, brutal whippings and rape at the whim of the masters. For centuries, this was what it meant to be black in America.
For these reasons, much of black identity is and has been linked to our position relative to the rest of American society. Chains gave way to emancipation but were soon replaced by segregation and mob terror. In the South and elsewhere, laws codified the social imbalance and enforced white supremacy until the 1960s. Our people were black whether or not they wanted to be.
Today, the laws are gone, but much of our nation remains racially segregated by geography, education and economics. Black segregation and disproportionate poverty are not historical accidents: They are the legacy of years of neglect, abuse and mistreatment. And time and again, what is black is portrayed as taboo — up until the point that whites decide to appropriate it.
Black Americans have taken the centuries-old lie — that there is an ingrained, fundamental difference between blacks and whites — and carved out of a hostile America the sense of community and identity taken from our ancestors so many years ago.
To be sure, the collective “black community” is a general idea rather than a delineated group. As with any community, what may qualify as normal in one place may be viewed with apprehension or derision in another. In fact, urban blacks of the North were deeply skeptical and often resentful of the migrants who escaped the South during the Great Migration of the early 20th century. Moreover, there has yet to be a consensus about what we call ourselves. Over the course of just my lifetime, the terms Negro, Afro American, black and African American have all been used to describe the same group of people. Blackness has never been easily defined or authenticated.
And individual identification, particularly for those of us who can claim more than one identity, can be even more fraught with contradictions. My own experience, as a black person who could pass for white, made self-identification a long and conflicted process. It took me many years to come to terms — literally, whether I was biracial, mixed, black, mulatto or something else — with this identity. Some people accept me as black, while others do not because of my European appearance or my white mother. I can’t do anything about that. My embrace of black identity has never been to the exclusion of my Irish heritage or my American-ness. Nevertheless, my white mother wept when I told her I considered myself black.
Suffice it to say, assertions of identity can be deeply personal. In some ways, we are still a people looking to define ourselves within America. But for many of us, black identity is staking a claim to our place in a nation that has branded us and our ancestors as something different and shameful. Having been robbed of any direct ties to our ancestral homes, we have adopted the identity within the only homeland most of us have ever known, for all its flaws and continued degradations. Acceptance of black identity is, in part, to end the shame put upon us for generations.
As a local leader within the country’s oldest civil rights organization, Dolezal triggered a cataclysm of conflicting emotions from blacks on social media. Dolezal, by all but her own accounts, has no African or American slave ancestry. The problem that bothers many is her lack of authenticity — not necessarily because she was born and raised white, but because she lied about herself to be accepted.
By taking on a history that is not hers, she appears to have entered a community fraudulently that may have accepted her for who she was regardless. Blackness isn’t a prerequisite for being an activist, ally or black studies professor. But the black community is one conceived in unimaginable trauma, and a large number still suffer the legacies of that trauma. To adopt this identity under false pretenses is akin to faking a serious illness or childhood abuse to join a support group. Deeply felt empathy is not an entitlement to inclusion via false history.
The broad community from whence black identity sprung is precious, despite its roots in slavery, segregation and exploitation. A sense of kinship drives many of us to seek remedies for old and persistent injustices, especially for the less fortunate among us, and all those who suffer the indignities of systemic abuse and endure individual prejudice. Dolezal seems committed to the same goals, and more power to her if she remains so after this episode. But throughout American history, black Americans have had their individual and collective identities foisted upon them with little regard for how we felt about them. Out of an awful lie, we have forged a sense of community and culture in the country that created us. It is our turn to define who we are and what it means to be black in America.