Philosophers on Rachel Dolezal (updated)

Philosophers on Rachel Dolezal (updated)


Rachel Dolezal, “in recent years… has portrayed herself physically, and on social media platforms, as a woman of black African-American heritage. However, her parents, Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal, who are both white and live in the Troy/Libby area in Montana, [say] their daughter is not African-American. They backed up the claim with a copy of their daughter’s birth certificate and photos. The images show a younger, pale, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Dolezal who looks much different than the woman with caramel-colored skin now leading the Spokane NAACP and helping review claims of police misconduct in that city.”

That is from the original news story on Dolezal in the Coeur d’Alene Press last Thursday. Since then, the basic outlines of her story have been shared and talked about all over the world. The story is fascinating on many levels. Since public discussions could benefit from the insight and carefulness of philosophical thinking, I invited several philosophers to share, briefly, some of their thoughts on the issues surrounding the Dolezal case. Their remarks are below. Others are, of course, welcome to join the conversation. Additionally, if you notice other philosophical commentary on the Dolezal case elsewhere on the web, please provide a link in the comments.

Let me thank the philosophers who, on short notice, took time out of their weekends to write up commentaries. They are: Esa Diaz-Leon (Manitoba), Meena Krishnamurthy (Michigan), Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown), Charles Mills (Northwestern), Daniel Silvermint (Connecticut), Quayshawn Spencer (U. Penn), and an anonymous professor who will go by the moniker Disembodied Inquiry. I’d also like to thank Kristina Meshelski  for suggesting a post like this. Now, without further ado…


Esa Diaz-Leon:

Is Rachel Dolezal black? In order to answer this question we first need to know what “black” means, and this is a question that philosophers of race can help us answer. It might seem at first sight that if we say that races are biologically grounded then it is clear that Dolezal cannot be black, whereas if races are socially constructed and “black” refers to a socially constructed property, then it is possible that Dolezal is black after all, given some of her social features such as self-identification, social position, cultural identity, and so on. But this is too quick. Here I want to discuss briefly some social constructivist views according to which she would count as black, and some according to which she wouldn’t, and draw some conclusions.

According to a social-historical account of races (defended by Chike Jeffers, Jorge Gracia and others), races are the shared historical properties that certain groups of individuals have in virtue of their common ancestries or common geographical origins. On this view, Dolezal wouldn’t count as black (insofar as she doesn’t have black ancestors), precisely because she lacks the relevant social-historical property. On the other hand, there are other versions of social constructionism about races, such as Sally Haslanger’s account, where being a member of a race amounts to occupying a certain social position of privilege or oppression along some dimensions, and someone is marked as being appropriately in that position in virtue of being perceived or imagined to have certain geographical origins (where it’s not necessary that one actually has those geographical origins, but just that one is taken to do so). On this view, Dolezal would count as black in some contexts, to the extent that she is assumed to have black ancestors, and occupies a position of subordination within certain social structures because of that. However, it’s reasonable to believe that there are or there have been contexts where she has not been assumed to have black ancestors and therefore she has not occupied the corresponding position of subordination. That is, I believe that according to Haslanger’s account, she would count as black in some contexts but not in others.

What should we say in response to this multiplicity of views? How can we decide which is the right account? In my view, the most important question is not about what “race” or “black” actually mean in our language (or what our current concepts are), but rather what the most useful concepts are, given our aims and purposes. What are our main goals when we talk about race, and what are the concepts that can better satisfy those goals? This is the relevant approach in order to answer questions such as “Is Rachel Dolezal black?”

In recent discussions of this issue in the media, some people have suggested that self-identification should play a role when it comes to determining what races are. In my view this is problematic. When it comes to the concept of gender, it seems clear to me that a concept of gender based on self-identification is the most politically useful in most (if not all) contexts, given the central aims of being maximally inclusive and fighting transphobia. I also believe, more controversially, that when it comes to sexual orientation, a concept based on self-identification is also very useful, given the moral duty of capturing people’s self-identities. However, when it comes to the concept of race, it’s not clear to me that our main aims and goals will give priority to a concept based on self-identification, given our current political context. The two social constructivist accounts of race sketched above, namely, one based on historical properties and another based on social position within a social hierarchy, can clearly satisfy crucial explanatory roles, such as explaining a history of racial discrimination and revealing different social structures of oppression. However, it’s not clear at the moment that a concept of race based (solely) on self-identification is politically useful to a similar extent. But we might envision situations where this might be different.


Meena Krishnamurthy:

As the current popular discussion illustrates, ordinary language makes use of a variety of concepts of race. Some are based on objective (mind-independent) facts such as ancestral ones (where one’s recent ancestors are from, geographically) and others are based on subjective (mind-dependent) facts such as self-identification (how one perceives oneself) or other-identification (how others perceive the individual).

This raises the question, which, if any, of these concepts of race should we use or appeal to when we refer to Dolezal? My own view is that, in contexts where such considerations are relevant, such as the public sphere, political considerations of justice ought to be given priority. They trump, so to speak, when it comes to concept selection in the public realm. Dolezal, as the president of her local NAACP and chairwoman of a municipal police oversight committee, is a public figure and political factors are of central importance. So, in asking whether we ought to refer to Dolezal as “black”, we have to ask ourselves, would doing so be consistent with and express a commitment to justice in the United States?

A just society is one that ensures that each individual, black or white, can participate in that society while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect, that is, a secure sense of her equal worth. Referring to Dolezal as “black” is not consistent with the demands of self-respect or a just society.

If society broadly accepts the practice of referring to Dolezal as “black”, this would work to socially erase or make invisible the racial privilege that Dolezal experiences as someone who does not suffer from the downstream and long lasting effects of slavery. It would express the shared public sentiment that the national political history of racial oppression and the resulting differences in power can simply be cast away whenever a person of racial privilege desires to do so, for personal benefit or otherwise. Referring to Dolezal as “black”, would fail to publicly express respect for properly “black” people by failing to express an equal valuing and acknowledgment of the lived experiences and realities that such people experience. It would suggest that they and their experiences do not matter. Because of this, it is difficult for other properly “black” individuals to participate in a society that refers to Dolezal as “black” while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect. In short, referring to Dolezal as “black” is inconsistent with political values of self-respect and, in turn, is inconsistent with the demands of justice. We ought not refer to Dolezal as “black”.

On what basis should we refer to people as “black”? When political considerations of self-respect and justice are taken into consideration, the ancestral concept of race ought to take linguistic priority in the public sphere. People who have sub-Saharan African ancestry are properly referred to as “black”. Ancestry is the appropriate basis for referring to people as “black” because it tracks politically relevant considerations such as oppression and slavery (historical political injustices), which are considerations that ought to be given weight to and taken into consideration when we interact with others in the public sphere. This is what self-respect and a just society require.


Rebecca Kukla:

First off, I am befuddled by how many people are interested in describing what was in Rachel Dolezal’s head and are willing to offer armchair diagnoses of her purported mental illness or condemnations of her motives. Not only do I not know what was in her head, but in fact, the more the conversation focuses on this particular person’s inner life, the less interesting I find the whole issue. The interesting question, I take it, is how to think and talk in general about people who identify and present as belonging to a race other than that assigned at birth, whatever their reasons and causes. I will focus on some meta-concerns about how we are talking about that question.

I am disappointed in how quickly almost everyone, including friends of mine who are strong anti-racist and trans allies, have been willing to engage in (1) ridicule and body-shaming – unabashedly mocking her hair and skin tone for instance; (2) confident descriptions of her as a liar who is choosing to pretend to be something she is not; and (3) fast and confident claims that she can’t claim black identity because she is appropriating a culture, hasn’t grown up with the black experience, can opt out at any time, etc. My main reaction to all this is that it’s surprisingly historically short-sighted and lacking in epistemic humility. So many times, ‘we’ (those of us with a recognizable and reasonably well-established embodied, socially positioned identity) have encountered a new way of being, and have responded with ridicule, shaming, and charges of lying. So often we think that forms of identity that have no clear social place are hilarious and clearly a pretense and that their bearers are fair game for humiliation. Honestly, I don’t know if Dolezal experienced herself as lying, or as making a voluntary choice to deceive, and more generally I don’t know whether or how there might be a legitimate place for transracial identities, as opposed to, in effect, race ‘drag,’ which is what almost everyone seems to assume is going on in Dolezal’s case. But I have learned from experience that body shaming and ridicule are always unhelpful and problematic, and that what we shame and dismiss one year we often come to understand and defend ten years later. I also know that people are driven to lie and deceive in seemingly incomprehensible ways when they find themselves without any socially recognizable way of being. As for the confident claims that Dolezal, or people like her, have no right to black identities because they didn’t have a lifetime of black experience, or because they are being appropriative of the experience and identity markers of an oppressed group, or because they want access to a community that their bodies preclude them from properly joining, or that their presence in black spaces threatens the integrity of those spaces for ‘real’ black people: well, I feel the pull of those arguments for sure, and I don’t want to dismiss them. But boy do they sound exactly analogous to ‘feminist’ arguments that were used to vilify and undercut the entire reality of trans women back in the not-too-long-ago day. I just don’t have the confidence that would allow me to proclaim immediately that this time the critique fits, that there is no real phenomenon here, no human need or way of being that requires understanding and a reconfiguration of my settled concepts. Can’t we learn from the past and proceed a little more slowly?

One final point: I’ve seen several philosophers online say that before we can settle what to think about the possibility of transracial identity, we need to know more about the metaphysics of race. I think this is exactly wrong. The question is not what race ‘really’ is, because whatever the difficult answer to that, we are all walking around with a phenomenological sense of self that does not hinge on or even include this answer, and race has a powerful social life independent of its proper metaphysics. Whether transracial identity is possible and should be given social uptake strikes me as a thoroughly political question about how various ways of claiming and recognizing identity do and don’t do harm to individuals and to communities. I can’t imagine how this hinges on metaphysics. Even if there was some real thingamajig in people that constituted their race, such that if they claimed to have a different one then they were saying something false (and does anyone think that, seriously?), I can’t see how that would settle any of the interesting questions about how people experience themselves and what sorts of identity-building we should acknowledge, support, or challenge.


Charles Mills:

The Rachel Dolezal case has it all—race as subjective (“I feel black; therefore I’m black”); race as intersubjective (“I need to start performing my blackness so these other folks will know I’m black”); and race as objective (“Rachel, honey, we’re white so you can’t be black”). The Dolezal parents know they’re objectively Caucasian (though the Caucasian race doesn’t exist), and perceive no absurdity in simultaneously declaring that they’re both part Native American (since by intersubjective consensus the one-drop rule only applies to blacks). The final proof is the eyeball test: presenting the photograph of their young daughter in her previous pristine blond blue-eyed incarnation. Walter White, another blond blue-eyed American, who was the (black) chair of the national NAACP from 1931 to 1955, might have quibbled: “Hate to break it to you folks, but back in the 1890s a whole bunch of octoroons headed up north—I believe some said they were going to Montana—after telling their kin: ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you … Actually, then again, we probably won’t.’”


Daniel Silvermint:

Here are three options for conceptualizing this alleged act of passing [what follows is an excerpt from a longer piece posted at Feminist Philosophers]:

If ‘passing as privileged’ involves a member of an oppressed group passing as a member of a privileged group for the sake of some personal advantage, then a fit for this sort of alleged case might be ‘passing as disadvantaged’, where a member of a privileged group passes as a member of an oppressed group for the sake of some personal advantage. There are many such examples. A politician with a wealthy background might present himself as “a man of the people” in order to sway voters in a low-income district. Cultural appropriation in the music industry or within artistic communities is another example, such as when a person passes in order to sell “authentic” indigenous pieces or narratives. Someone might pass as a member of a marginalized group in order to obtain a scholarship or other diversity opportunity, or in order to feel somehow special in virtue of having suffered, overcome adversity, or challenged the status quo. Some simply fetishize otherness.

“Might” is the operative word here, and not just because this is an alleged case of passing. Other types of passing could end up providing even better explanations and bases for assessment. For one thing, this doesn’t appear to be simple case of appropriation – setting aside the interpersonal and institutional fallout such a reveal could bring, by all accounts Dolezal is an effective and dedicated advocate for change. If so, then she wasn’t the only person intentionally and directly advantaged by her alleged passing, meaning that the case might have more in common with ‘mutually-beneficial passing’ than with cases where the passing agent alone benefits. In other words, the deception might be wrong, but the passing wouldn’t necessarily be parasitic or exploitative in the same way that, say, passing yourself off as a long-lost relative in order to be written into a will would be wrong. Dolezal might have usurped a position or displaced a voice when being a staunch ally would have been more appropriate, but that is a different kind of wrong.

Alternatively—and quite controversially—this alleged case might be something akin to transracial passing. If she genuinely self-identifies as something other than her assigned racialized group, and is actively living the life of a person of color (including taking on the oppressive burdens that go along with such identifications), then it is at least not immediately, decisively obvious that she is engaged in wrongful deception, or that she owed it to anyone to disclose her birth identity. Many have protested that Dolezal is obviously white because she, unlike people of color, can voluntarily walk away from oppressive burdens and disadvantageous racialized treatment if she so chooses. But this objection overlooks the ongoing history of ‘passing as privileged’, where genuine victims of oppression (tenuously, and at great personal risk and cost) have done just that. Dolezal, if she is indeed passing as black, has apparently paid familial costs among others, and faces fresh costs now that she has allegedly been outed. This is fraught and uncertain terrain, and I’m not sure what to say. We don’t normally think of racialized group membership as something that one can genuinely transition into or out of, but perhaps that’s as socially determined as everything else.


Quayshawn Spencer:

Why “Is Dolezal Black or White?” is a Bad Question

There are few nationally representative empirical studies on what current Americans mean by ‘race’ that use reliable and valid instruments.  But the few that exist show a clear pattern.  American race talk is a mess.  By that I mean, for any description of what a race is that has been studied, there is a large amount of Americans who accept it and a large amount of Americans who don’t.  The most comprehensive nationally representative study to date is the US Census Bureau’s Alternative Questionnaire Experiment.    The focus group portion of that experiment revealed that there is nowhere near a consensus among Americans about what race is.  Visible physical features, ancestry, culture, etc. were all frequently used to define ‘race’.  Similar results have been found in all other nationally representative studies, such as this one and this one, and in studies that are close to nationally representative, such as this one.  Even more interesting is that there is not only widespread disagreement about how to describe a race among Americans, but also about which groups are races, which presents problems for even a referentialist account of what Americans mean by ‘race’.  For instance, a nationally representative survey of US Hispanic adults conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2012 found that 75% of Hispanic Americans reject “Hispanic/Latino” as their race.  The most popular self-identity was “White”, at 40%.  So, do Whites include Hispanics?  Or is ‘Hispanic white’ an oxymoron?

The messiness of American race talk has motivated some race scholars, such as myself, to endorse a pluralist position on what race is in the contemporary US.  The pluralist position maintains that there are multiple, equally legitimate national meanings of ‘race’ in the contemporary US.  Also, by a “national” meaning, I mean a meaning that is one of the widest, competently used meanings in a nation.  Racial pluralism, as we can call it, can be particularly helpful when assessing a case like whether Professor Rachel Dolezal is Black, or, rather, is just a White person passing as Black.  From a pluralist viewpoint, this question is unanswerable until we add the additional context of a national racial discourse.

I’ve argued in a recent paper that one US racial discourse is something I call “census racial discourse,” which is the race talk currently used by the US Census Bureau, and is also the official race talk of the US government (it was introduced in 1997 by the OMB).  In this race talk, there are five races: American Indians, Asians, Blacks, Pacific Islanders, and Whites.  Furthermore, these groups are, roughly, just ancestry groups and individuals can have mixed racial membership.  For example, most Mexican Americans would be mixed people of predominantly American Indian and White ancestry according to census race talk.  The interesting thing about census racial discourse is that it permeates many important facets of American life.  It’s found on college applications, job applications, birth certificates, medical patient information forms, mortgage loan forms, childcare registration forms, etc.  So, all Americans are bound to run into it at multiple points in life.  Professor Dolezal might have run into census racial discourse when she applied to Howard University (she graduated with an MFA in 2002), when she filled out her job application for Eastern Washington University (she’s faculty in their Africana Studies Program), or when she reported being the victim of a hate crime to the Spokane police recently.  We do not yet know whether Dolezal racially identified as Black in these linguistic contexts.  However, if Dolezal did identify as Black in these contexts, and census racial discourse was being used in these contexts, then Dolezal misrepresented herself.  Given her ancestry, in census racial discourse, Dolezal is White.  However, Dolezal very well could be Black according to some other US racial discourse (perhaps one that emphasizes cultural affinity).

So, why does any of this matter?  Well, one reason is because linguistic competence and honesty about one’s racial membership(s) is presupposed in the execution of many social programs designed to promote social justice.  For instance, the preferential treatment of Blacks in college admissions and faculty hiring, the federally-mandated racial tracking of mortgage loan borrowers, the CIA’s racial tracking of hate crimes, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ racial tracking of health disparities all rely on Americans being linguistically competent and honest about their racial membership(s) in census racial discourse.


Disembodied Inquiry:

I have concerns that the Dolezal case raises issues too complex and fraught to be productively enough addressed, via this approach, for the general audience of Daily Nous.

Meta concerns aside, I’m more curious about than critical of Dolezal. She certainly appears to be down with the cause of Black political (and cultural) solidarity. Her ambitions seem to have been limited to making a life for herself and a difference around Spokane, WA. Bracketing the matter of deception about her family background, she seems to represent (what I argue elsewhere) is the real, if rare, possibility of a non-black person being a member in, not merely “ally” of, Black political solidarity. Still, Dolezal evidently has some substantial psychological challenges, which could explain why she gratuitously lied about easily enough confirmed facts about her immediate family.

But here’s what could get me in arguments that I don’t have time to deal with: I do think there is a parallel between this type of color-conscious “passing” and trans identity (an observation I make without prejudice, one way or the other). What I’ve read rejecting this parallel has been unconvincing and overly anxious–namely, in appealing to differences that don’t go to the heart of the matter. Also, I get the sense that whites are mainly the ones who seem outraged, while blacks mainly seem wryly bemused–an interesting issue unto itself.

Dolezal might deeply believe she is somehow black/African–regardless of knowing she was born to parents who are classified as and “look” white/European. Since the world is not yet ready to recognize this kind of identity change, she might have gratuitously lied in order to feel closer to–and be seen as–living what she experiences as her true, color-conscious political, cultural, and soul self. From the perspective, Dolezal is not merely a fraud or an opportunist; nor is she merely confused.


UPDATE (6/15/15): Laurie Shrage (Florida International University) was interviewed by BBC Newsnight last Friday about the Dolezal case. The interview prompted her to write the following, which she kindly agreed to share with Daily Nous readers:

Suppose a person is brought up in a white family and is treated from birth as a white person.  Imagine further that this person discovers that one of her parents or grandparents, with whom she has had no contact, is black.  Based on this new knowledge, if she were to “come out” as black, would we see her new identity as inauthentic, fraudulent, a kind of fakery, and an instance of cultural appropriation and opportunism?  If she didn’t begin to identify as black, would we now see her as trying to pass as white?

Now imagine a person who is brought up in a mixed black/white family.  No one in this family identifies as “mixed race,” instead they are all either black or white.  Suppose one of the white members begins to identify as black.  She has no known black ancestors, but she has black siblings.  To gain acceptance in this new identity, she cuts herself off from white members of her family, and she closets her past as a white person.  Should such a person be viewed as an imposter, fraud, liar, and fake?

The case of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane NAACP, who was recently “outed” by her parents as a white person, is being treated in the media as a bizarre instance of deception and fraud.  This would make perfect sense if race was a genetically inherited trait.  But decades of scientific research has shown that there are no racial genes, and there is more genetic variation within any recognized racial group than between groups.  While there are genes for skin color, hair texture, and physiognomic traits, the classification of bodily traits as racial is culturally based and variable.

In the scientific community, race is regarded as a social construct because the rules for assigning people to racial categories are socially and historically created, and do not have any significance in a biological or genetic sense.  A person’s bodily features may tell us something about the human populations around the globe her ancestors swapped genes with, but they tell us little about her culture, personality, abilities, traditions, and so on.

Saying that race is social construct does not mean race is not a socially significant and real category.  Nor does it imply that racism is not real.  Indeed, one thing we might be able to infer correctly from people’s bodily appearance is that they have faced a history of social discrimination in one form or another—experiences that have shaped their social ties, perspectives, and understanding of themselves.

Given that one’s racial identity is socially created, can we change our racial identities or the rules for assigning people to racial categories?  For example, the “one-drop” rule assigns someone to the category “black” if they have one black ancestor.  This rule once served an exclusionary purpose that many today would regard as racist and oppressive.  Yet, if the person in our first example were to be accepted as a black person, it would be based on a “one-drop” understanding of blackness.  Shouldn’t we contest this understanding, given its historical purpose and consequences, and also the choice of someone to identify as black based on it?

A person who identifies as black based on a problematic and historically racist rule may have good reasons for self-identifying as black.  She may want to show her social solidarity with the black community, and she may feel that she cannot do so while she enjoys the privileges of whiteness.  She may feel that others will identify her as black, based on the one-drop rule, and so if she goes on identifying as white, others will perceive her as racist.

Rachel Dolezal’s racial identity does not follow the historically racist rules of race assignment.  Because of this, the media has treated her case as one of deception and fraud, and we see reporters trying to catch her in an outright misrepresentation of her familial relationships, and thereby publicly shame her.  The media has uncritically accepted her parents’ understanding of her racial identity—parents whose motives should be questioned for forcibly “outing” their daughter and potentially causing her significant harm.

Whether Rachel Dolezal is really black is not a question I can answer here.  Whether she can live a life as a black person depends to a significant degree on whether she can be accepted by others and by her community as a black person.  With most social identities, there’s a gate-keeping process in which other members of the group are invested with the authority to say who’s in and who’s out.  In the wake of the media storm, many black leaders and commentators have said she should be put out.  One reason seems to be that because she does not have the characteristic experiences growing up as a black person, she cannot truly understand what it means to be black.  This reason, of course, should exclude the person in my first hypothetical example too.

One difference though between the hypothetical case and this real one is that, once people find out that someone has a black ancestor, they will be viewed by others as black and begin to experience what life is like living as a black person.  In Rachel’s case, in order to experience this, she had to hide the fact that she has no known black ancestors, and therefore is not black by conventional criteria.   Importantly, Rachel has the choice not to be black, while someone with one drop of “black blood” does not.  While this is problematic, the problem seems to be with the exclusionary one-drop rule, and the inevitable social discrimination that someone in my hypothetical case would likely experience. That is, there is a genuine problem that someone like Rachel has a choice to retain or not the privileges of whiteness, while others are denied this choice, and more importantly, the privileges of whiteness.  These privileges include automatic social respect, trust, and inclusion.  The real problem is that white identity is still a source of social privilege, something that the many recent stories of police violence underscore.

The upshot is that we should focus less on whether Rachel Dolezal is a fake, and focus more on how her story illuminates our own still very troubled and unscientific understandings of race.


 (image: photo of Rachel Dolezal by Colin Mulvaney / Associated Press, modified)

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