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Ethnic Fraud and the Quest for Authenticity

Dina Gilio-Whitaker
6/27/15

The Rachel Dolezal scandal came as a harsh wake-up call to the black community about what it means when people falsely claim an identity they were not born into, especially when there are tangible benefits to be gained such as scholarships or jobs. While the NAACP didn’t seem too concerned since they officially stood by her as the news about her deceptions unfolded, other black commentators were not nearly as tolerant or forgiving.

The public debates raised issues that most racially unmixed white people in America probably don’t spend too much time contemplating, such as transracialism. The term refers to the crossing of racial boundaries which can occur in numerous ways, but most often it refers to white parents who adopt children of another race. Some argued that Dolezal was practicing a form of transracialism (drawing the ire of transracial adoptees and others who challenged the concept as it applied to Dolezal). She denied the transracial label, however, and adhered instead to an actual “black” identity.

Debates about transracialism inevitably attempted to compare Dolezal’s fraudulent ethnic claims to transgenderism. The transgender community vociferously rejected the comparison and used it as a teachable moment to educate the public on the distinctions between transracialism and transgenderism. Others speculated about mental illness. One article pegged her as a pathological liar and another referred to her as delusional and narcissistic. Another author argued it was not necessary to think of her as mentally ill.

No matter how you look at it Rachel Dolezal pissed off a lot of people.

Of course for all the handwringing, Indian country was quick to point out that for Indians this is a very old story. Dolezal-style ethnic fraud is arguably what most Indians would think of as a form of cultural appropriation, a phrase we seem to increasingly be hearing in the black community as well.

Whether one thinks of Rachel Dolezal as transracial, a liar, mentally unstable, or simply an ethnic fraud, at the center of this identity politics issue is the American obsession with racial and cultural authenticity. The central questions are: is Dolezal’s claim to blackness legitimate? What does it take to be an “authentic black person,” and how do we define authentic?

The American obsession with black authenticity is related to Indian authenticity, and it is tied to “blood” purity. The difference is that for blacks the one drop rule applies, while Indians are required to prove a minimum (and often arbitrary) amount of “blood” to qualify as legitimately Indian. Less blood quantum, less authenticity. For Indians there is an even more complicated dynamic that equates authenticity with cultural purity: not only are “real” Indians those who fit a stereotypically Indian profile, they also live in “pure” cultures untouched by the modern world. In other words, real Indians only exist in a noble but tragic by-gone past. Modern Indians can never be authentic because they have been corrupted by modernity.

But there is another element to this unattainable authenticity. It is about what the American fixation on Indian racial and cultural authenticity says about white Americans’ own identity. Native scholars such as Phillip Deloria and Shari Huhndorf have written most brilliantly on this. Americans as settlers and descendents of settlers (whites in particular) have struggled to form their own unique collective identity because they were caught between the cultures they left behind in the old world and the new world which was foreign and had belonged to the Native. The old world symbolized what it meant to be civilized and proper but ironically, it was also those things that they found so constraining.

The new world, on the other hand, represented freedom from those political and psychological constraints. It presented the possibility to become something new and the Indian was the ultimate symbol of that wild, “savage” freedom. The Indian was also the only truly authentic “American.” But because Europeans could never truly become Native, American identity remains unfinished and confused. As Deloria explained, it is also why Americans historically have vacillated between exterminating Indians and venerating them. It also explains why Americans have always been so obsessed with playing Indian, and why Americans create narratives that write Indians out of local landscapes and re-scripts settlers as indigenous.

The desire to be something other than what one is stems from the discomfort of this confusion and also white Americans’ desire to distance themselves from the racist aspects of American history and society. Staking false claims to a non-white identity—whether black, Indian, or other—is one way white people can deny responsibility for the racism of the past and for the systemic racism that still structures American life and their own racial privilege within that system.

Rachel Dolezal as an academic in Africana studies is well versed in the language of racial constructivism, i.e. the idea that race is socially constructed and therefore not real. She took it to extremes though, and reached an illogical conclusion (that she is black just because she says so), and lied to back it up. There is something pathological about that. But it may be that her dysfunction is only symptomatic of the larger struggle of white Americans to understand themselves in the context of a society that is still deeply racist, whether they like to admit it or not.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.

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Sammy7's picture
What is it that calls people to Indianness? What is it that motivates such irreverent opposition from Tribes? N. Scott Momaday speaks of blood memory, others of spirit memory. History is clear that intermarriage between settlers and Indians took place during the last five hundred years. Consider the statement of Chief Lewis Downing of the Cherokee Nation 1867-1869, “I believe that anyone who knowingly has a reasonable amount of Indian blood, and who accepts it as a fact should work at it (the culture) and be vain and glorious of being a part of the Indian civilization”. Statement of Chief Robert Bennett of the Rosebut Sioux, “The United States ought to recognize that a person who says he is an Indian, and acts like an Indian, and is recognized in his area as an Indian, is an Indian…..we’ve got people who are 1/32 degree of Indian Blood and they act more like our early full blooded”! Statement of Eskaqua, son of Dragging Canoe of the early Chickamauga Cherokees, “even should the habits and the customs of the Cherokee give place to the habits and customs of the Whites, or even if they themselves should become White by intermarriage, not a drop of Indian blood would be lost, it would only be spread more widely, but not lost”. These are statements from Indian People who experienced the heartbreak of genocide and the removal and scattering of their people. Even under the most trying conditions, their wish was to preserve their People. Should we not honor these sentiments too? Must we cheapen the paths of so many with dark references to money as the motivator. Can we not parse the existing reality and see these as our brothers and sisters too absent the insults of young warriors?
Sammy7
I think you all need to revisit the word "ethnic" and resist using it without qualification. How can the original People of this hemisphere be called ethnic and lumped into the same category as the real ethnics of this land when our Native ancestors were here tens of thousands of years before the first transplant ethnics from other parts of the world arrived 500+ years ago (who are by-the-way the real "ethnics" to this continent) black, white, and yellow? Part of the problem in this quagmire of obfuscation is the continual dividing and sub-dividing of words and meanings, like the word ethnic and Indian, which leads us inexorably down this murky road of racial description to our current problem. Doleza, as a professional academic, understands this loop-hole and so exploited the ignorance of blacks and whites to the hilt as did wannabees Highwater, Scholder, Iron Eyes Cody, Yeffe Kimball and a hundred other questionable "Indians" do likewise, to the original folks of this land. Native Americans and First Nations should simply stop referring to themselves as ethnics and aboriginals for to do so surely signals to the colonialists and transplant ethnics amongst us that we fully accept and embrace their sorely uninformed descriptions of us.
idiotwind
natsera's picture
Very nice article! I believe people can be adopted into a tribe or ethnic group, and not have any of that particular blood (like Indian, black, Asian or Hispanic children adopted into white families). If they were raised in a culture, or if they seriously study and participate in that culture, maybe they should be considered a member of that group. So the question is whether Rachel Dolezal was adopted into the black ethnic group (or race, if you will), or whether she bulled her way in. Did the people around her accept her? No, she doesn't LOOK black, but there are many people who have black (or Indian for that matter) ancestry, and don't look like they do. I once saw a blue-eyed blond with light skin (i.e. totally European looking) young man dancing with a group at a powwow. Did he have the right to do that? I certainly agree that it is a philosophical question that intelligent people can debate, with many nuances to consider, and I don't claim to have the answer, but I think it's better not to jump to judgment, but to think and consider the meaning of tribe, race and ethnicity.
natsera
softbreeze's picture
Her case is definitely interesting. I've been trying to get a grasp of what might have motivated her, without actually knowing her or meeting her personally. It may be that she just felt more at home in the African American community and culture. But, to claim to be of the black race when she wasn't at all definitely takes it a step further. I guess in one way it could be considered flattering. But, on the other hand, I think it illustrates an incredible level of ignorance. If she really had ANY idea what it's like to be a person of color in America, there's just know way she could have done this while being intellectually honest with herself. The difference for her, is that at any time, she can go back to her white identity racially, and probably back to the privileges that come with being white in America. An authentic, brown or black African American cannot. Nor can they attain the level of privileges that she can enjoy being racially white. She clearly does not grasp the blatant insensitivity of what she's done. She's been soley focused on herself in all of this, it seems. I am 25% black, but I do not look it. Therefore, I do not claim to be a victim in that sense, because if people don't know me, I will be automatically given the privileges of a white person, because I appear white. I do take a lot of nasty crap for being an "ethnic indian", but even then, I still experience many of the economic privileges that whites enjoy, that many American Indians do not. People who appear white, even if they are mixed, like me, or, if they are white, but identify with another culture, ethnicity, or even race, need to understand, IF YOU LOOK WHITE, YOU HAVE PRIVILIGES, period. Which means you are NOT like them. Your life IS different than theirs. To claim otherwise is to be living with your head buried in the sand.
softbreeze
The ''one drop rule'' no longer applies towards a marker for Black identity. It was solely used during slavery in order to increase the number of slaves one had on the plantation. The ''one drop rule'' is actually more prevalent among whites claiming an Indigenous identity who think having an Indian ancestor some 350 years ago entitles one to identify as American Indian.
wovokanarchy
curtj's picture
The Certificate of Indian Blood is meant to dilute Natives into nothing, so the government can claim there are no Natives here. Another form of colonialism and the glossed over theft and murder that constitute cultural genocide of Natives. The Caucasians must come from another planet if their sole interests is grubbing and siphoning stolen and coerced resources and lands from bribed dictators and puppet regimes. As can be seen our so called Native leaders suffer from a form of the Stockholm Syndrome and have made it their lifelong careers to be bureaucratic middlemen in helping get rid of their peoples lands and resources. And thus with their deliberate silence, refuse to say that the policies used against our people, are nothing more than terrorist creating policies with Americas main export of trillions of dollars worth of colonialism.
curtj
apostles12's picture
TALK OF THE NATION Are we responsible for our color or is our color responsible for us As a nation what color are we hued to red, white and… Does a crayola lose its color when the wrapper comes undone Does a pigskin get its pigmentation from the one making the run Do we still live in a century of first back commemorations Was Michael Jackson bleached? What makes you black or brown or red, yellow, white your skin -- your origin, place of birth, culture, race or religion, nature verses nurture Is it in your genes or do you pull it out your pants and show it like a trophy Is it mind blowing or spirit breathed Is your family half-filled or half-empty Is Obama really black, did he really have a choice or is it all up to who you believe yourself to be? Is there a color code that everyone knows white all right, brown stick around, black get back, how was your bus ride to this planet anyway Do you dress your eyes, paint your lips big, color your hair according to the skin you’re in – Angela Davis sportin’ an Afro reddening! What color is your God just your Color You can’t be a good samaritan only to your kin or does it depend on who’s preaching Is it Reverend Wright or is it Reverend Wrong Were you trained to go to school or taught? Do your parents know with whom you’re sleeping Do they call you mellow-yellow, do you pass for black in the heat of the night white in daylight Does dying the egg change the color of the chic within Are you the black cat out walking your white pussy? Can you do a “Dr. J” in white face with Jordans on Can a white man be black a black woman red a brown man be brown or a yellow man turn blue? Does it matter where you come from Does following Kunta Kinte make you Africun Searching your Chaka Zulu give your dignity Change the Redskins name to Crimson Pride saddle with a mascot hailed Pale Face Did Princess Summer Fall Winter Spring ever know what season she was in? Can you order oreo-apple-cracker-cookie from an ice cream parlour without smiling Did someone just ask for a pear Is your finger food fusion not asian What in the de colores is hispanic cooking? Oh my god we haven’t even talked sex- gender yet Let’s end it here, Hillary.
apostles12
apostles12's picture
TALK OF THE NATION Are we responsible for our color or is our color responsible for us As a nation what color are we hued to red, white and… Does a crayola lose its color when the wrapper comes undone Does a pigskin get its pigmentation from the one making the run Do we still live in a century of first back commemorations Was Michael Jackson bleached? What makes you black or brown or red, yellow, white your skin -- your origin, place of birth, culture, race or religion, nature verses nurture Is it in your genes or do you pull it out your pants and show it like a trophy Is it mind blowing or spirit breathed Is your family half-filled or half-empty Is Obama really black, did he really have a choice or is it all up to who you believe yourself to be? Is there a color code that everyone knows white all right, brown stick around, black get back, how was your bus ride to this planet anyway Do you dress your eyes, paint your lips big, color your hair according to the skin you’re in – Angela Davis sportin’ an Afro reddening! What color is your God just your Color You can’t be a good samaritan only to your kin or does it depend on who’s preaching Is it Reverend Wright or is it Reverend Wrong Were you trained to go to school or taught? Do your parents know with whom you’re sleeping Do they call you mellow-yellow, do you pass for black in the heat of the night white in daylight Does dying the egg change the color of the chic within Are you the black cat out walking your white pussy? Can you do a “Dr. J” in white face with Jordans on Can a white man be black a black woman red a brown man be brown or a yellow man turn blue? Does it matter where you come from Does following Kunta Kinte make you Africun Searching your Chaka Zulu give your dignity Change the Redskins name to Crimson Pride saddle with a mascot hailed Pale Face Did Princess Summer Fall Winter Spring ever know what season she was in? Can you order oreo-apple-cracker-cookie from an ice cream parlour without smiling Did someone just ask for a pear Is your finger food fusion not asian What in the de colores is hispanic cooking? Oh my god we haven’t even talked sex- gender yet Let’s end it here, Hillary.
apostles12