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The Rachel Dolezal Case Challenges The Definition Of Race


Reinvention is a fundamental part of the American ethos; the idea that any of us can shed our past and become a different version of ourselves. But this past week, the story of Rachel Dolezal stretched that idea to what many people see as its breaking point. Dolezal built a distinguished career as an African-American civil rights activist. Except she is not African-American. Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team shares his thoughts.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: The story struck a nerve. Her name was trending all day on Twitter Friday, and the conversations were all over the place. There were lots of very funny jokes about the particulars of her hair care regimen, but much of the discussion turned really serious. Some people accused her of co-opting blackness for personal gain. There were other tense, confusing arguments about whether people can be trans-ethnic or trans-racial the way that some people are transgender. But race has always been more fluid and more messy than any rules that we might come up with as several folks at the Census reminded me not too long ago. Since the very first U.S. Census in 1790, the categories on the race question for that survey have changed every decade. German-Americans were once viewed as a distinct of untrustworthy foreigners. But today, they're America's single biggest ethnic group; we just think of them as white. The same thing happened with the Irish and Italians and Jewish-American. While whiteness has always been aspirational, a thing to be moved towards, blackness has always been gerrymandered around disadvantage. Our crude, racial rubric has always held that a little bit of whiteness doesn't make you white, but one drop of black blood can make you black black. And at different points in history, blackness has meant people can deprive you of your dignity and your rights, including the right to live with impunity. There have always been people of color who were light enough to pass for white who did so to escape discrimination, often at great personal risk. And so we're much more familiar as Americans with people going from something else to white, but we're far less familiar and less comfortable with stories in where someone is going the other way. That's probably one of the reasons why this story has elicited so many eye rolls and so much nervous tittering. So much of what we think we understand about race makes Dolezal's choice incomprehensible and strange. And it leaves us with this bigger question - how much of race is about who we are and who we think we are, and how much is about who other people think we are and how they treat us because of it? And there's no clean answers for that question. Maybe, like Rachel Dolezal, we're all making up the rules as we go along.

MARTIN: NPR's Gene Demby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.