Earlier this year a CBS commentator in a panel with Jay Smooth embarrassingly revealed that she thought he was white (Smooth’s father is black) and this week the internet learned that Rachel Dolezal was white all along (both parents identify as white). The CBS commentator’s mistake and Dolezal’s ability to pass both speak to the strange way we’ve socially constructed blackness in this country.
The truth is that African Americans are essentially all mixed race. From the beginning, enslaved and other Africans had close relationships with poor and indentured servant whites, that’s one reason why so many black people have Irish last names. During slavery, sexual relationships between enslavers and the enslaved, occurring on a range of coercive levels, were routine. Children born to enslaved women from these encounters were identified as “black.” The one-drop rule — you are black if you have one drop of black blood — was an economic tool used to protect the institution of racialized slavery (by preserving the distinction between two increasingly indistinct racial groups) and enrich the individual enslaver (by producing another human being he could own). Those enslaved children grew up and had children with other enslaved people as well as other whites.
In addition to these, of course, voluntary relationships between free black people and white people were occurring all these years as well and they have been happening ever since, both before and after they became legal. And the descendants of those couplings have been having babies all these years, too.
We’re talking about 500 years of mixing between blacks, whites, Native Americans (who gave refuge to escaped slaves), and every other group in America. The continued assumption, then, that a black person is “black” and only “mixed race” if they claim the label reflects the ongoing power of the one-drop rule. It also explains why people with such dramatically varying phenotypes can all be considered black. Consider the image below, a collage of people interviewed and photographed for the (1)ne Drop project; Jay Smooth is in the guy at the bottom left.
My point is simply that of course Jay Smooth is sometimes mistaken for white and it should be no surprise to learn that it’s easy for a white person — even one with blond hair and green eyes — to pass as black (in fact, it’s a pastime). The racial category is a mixed race one and, more importantly, it’s more social than biological. Structural disadvantage, racism, and colorism are real. The rich cultural forms that people who identify as black have given to America are real. The loving communities people who identify as black create are real. But blackness isn’t, never was, and is now less than ever before.
Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Samissue — June 13, 2015
"During slavery, sexual relationships between enslavers and the enslaved, occurring on a range of coercive levels, were routine. " First of all, this idea needs to go. The rest of the article is excellent, but any "sexual relationships" between white slave owners and black slaves was rape. Full stop. Whether it was the white male master raping the women (and men) or the female white master raping the men (and women) it was an abuse of power known as rape and we should not be calling it anything but that.
The rest of this article is on point though. Imho we need to dispel this myth of race. We are all one race: human. Different ethnicities and cultures and amounts of melanin, but we are all a single race.
Quantummist — June 13, 2015
This article is nothing more than a "Get out of Jail Free Card" for a white woman that committed fraud and gained funding for school and a career by spending a little time in a tanning booth and dying her hair .... The race baiter's are now having to swerve and twist to justify giving a high position and authority in the NAACP to a white woman in black face... So now we will hear how she relates to the black culture and inside shes really black... Truth is she's a con woman that scammed the government for funding her life until she could con the NAACP into giving her a job...
Japaniard — June 13, 2015
"Rachel Dolezal was white all along (both parents identify as white)"
Wait, so which is it? If the fact that her parents "identify as white" is what makes them white, then why doesn't the fact that Dolezal identified as black and was living her whole life as a black woman for 20 YEARS count for anything?
Velvet — June 13, 2015
If people are saying you "identify" as black or white it sounds like race is now a choice.
Andrew — June 14, 2015
One thing that occurred to me in this bizarre discussion is how Rachel's choice to present as black wouldn't really be seen as so extraordinary if it weren't for the exceptional and historically entrenched way that blackness is marked as an outsider status.
Aside from that detail, very little of what she did was all that unusual in America. It's completely normal for people to misrepresent or fudge details about their family heritage, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, and any number of features tied into identity. And in a country so deeply fixated on identity politics, it's also quite commonplace for many individuals to latch onto identity structures with a particular kind of intensity and fervor. Major cities are full of people looking to reinvent themselves, to cut ties with their pasts and present a new face to the world.
To me, this case reveals how increasingly difficult it is to do that in the age of the Internet. Rachel Dolezal made a strange choice in becoming something of a public figure, but she certainly wouldn't be the first one to make deceptive claims about her past - and on the scale of things, most of those deceptions were relatively benign. I seriously doubt she or anyone else is psychologically prepared for the extreme and disproportionate scrutiny that come with large-scale internet public shaming.
J N — June 14, 2015
I was glad to read this article. It reminded me of the difference in perceptions of 'white' and 'black' in parts of Africa. I've heard about a number of African-Americans who were unnerved to be classified as not black in sub-Saharan Africa. And it's worth listening to comedian Trevor Noah's story, both because he tells it well and for its content. He grew up as a mixed-race South African (black mother and white father) in apartheid South Africa, when having mixed-race children was a crime. He talks about how he always wanted to be black, how he found the black people and black cultures around him very cool. He describes one of the delights of being in the USA: being considered black, when in South Africa nobody of any race put him in that category.
AngryDoc — June 14, 2015
While her parents identify as white, it was also not uncommon for people in Western states to have substantial Native American and African American ancestry and go west specifically in order to be "white". This is something one line of my family did at the advent of Jim Crow. I wouldn't presume that the story stops with her parents.
ViktorNN — June 15, 2015
It doesn't seem like it was THAT easy for her to pass.
Seems more like she carefully constructed a life for herself where no one ever questioned her race. Probably took a a great deal of work. Not easy at all.
Paul Harrison — June 16, 2015
So people must have quite often enslaved their own sons and daughters.