Should we choose our racial identities?

One human race, divided.
One human race, divided.
Image: Fanqiao Wang
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Can we choose our racial identities? Should we?

In 2015, race as an identity has seemed more malleable than ever. As Bonnie Tsui, author of American Chinatown, wrote in this week’s New York Times Magazine, Americans will necessarily develop more nuanced readings of race as the country becomes more diverse.

“Multiracial Americans are on the rise, growing at a rate three times as fast as the country’s population as a whole, according to a new Pew Research Center study released in June,” Tsui writes. This means that “the need to categorize people into specific race groups will never feel entirely relevant to this [younger] population, whose perceptions of who they are can change by the day, depending on the people they’re with.”

Yet even as Americans recognize the fluidity of identity, it’s crucial to remember the complex, systemic inequities that continue to be tied to racism. To call for an end of “race” as a category that divides us is hopeful. But to suggest that America is a “post-racial” country would be outright delusional.

Race is a categorization primarily ascertained, though not entirely defined, by skin color. It is in some aspects a profoundly American invention, and very dependent upon the historical and cultural contexts. Take, for example, the history of the US Census, in which racial categories were revised, added, and erased on a decade-by-decade basis in accordance with cultural and political changes.

“Race has shaped American identities—individual, collective, and national—since the birth of the nation,” Timothy Patrick McCarthy, a historian of race, politics, and social movements who teaches at Harvard University, tells Quartz. “If slavery was the nation’s original sin, race and racism are our enduring inheritance. The benefits and burdens of this inheritance have always been ‘enjoyed’ unequally—as a source of power and privilege for white people and as an experience of subjugation and violence for people of color.”

In The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, Robert Sussman, professor of anthropology at the Washington University, St. Louis, argues that race has never has been biological. But “even though biological races do not exist, the concept of race obviously is still a reality, as is racism,” he writes in a piece for Newsweek last year. “These are prevalent and persistent elements of our everyday lives and generally accepted aspects of our culture.”

Sussman tells Quartz that he believes people still choose to self-identify under racial categories because they are “simply more willing to express themselves.”

A deadly creation

The most alarming thing about race as a construct is the fact that it is a creation with insidious and violent effects. This year alone, our news feeds bled with the senseless deaths of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and 21 transgender women of color, to just name a few. Race is not real, yet racism is so real—it is a drama that has played out and punctuated America’s history.

The interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too … The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

James Baldwin published these sentences in 1955. Let me emphasize: these words were written over sixty years ago.

In Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village,” he articulates the racial dichotomy that undergirds America. “The white man’s motive was the protection of his identity; the black man was motivated by the need to establish an identity,” he writes. Defining the other as “blackness” shored up the authority of “whiteness.” This tension still exists today.

“Whiteness” is the construct that mainstream America has used to wield power over people outside that category. It is what bell hooks, in Black Looks: Race and Representation, incisively described as “terror” in the collective black consciousness. Even though she did not engage with white people as a child, whiteness was everywhere. In this context, whiteness is not a biological or ethnic identity. It is code for the insidious forces that maintain systemic levels of racism in America.

Baldwin knew well that whiteness was a myth. In his 1984 essay “On Being White….And Other Lies,” Baldwin asserts “there is, in fact, no white community” in America. He writes that generations of immigrants—from Swedes and Jews to Italians and Japanese—“paid the price of the ticket” upon their arrival: “The price was to become ‘white.’ No one was white before he/she came to America.” Whiteness is not biology, he suggests, but a “moral choice,” one that sustains the subjugation of black bodies.

A new year, a new obsession

In 2015, we are at a moment of a wider collective consciousness about racial injustice. But it is a consciousness that has long existed in minority communities.

Not only has the internet given increased visibility to racial injustices in the US, it has also resulted in the technological structuring of our lives. Identities are always shaped by our culture; in the digital age, then, identities are things that can be played with, edited, queered and fabricated, much as we filter images on Instagram and curate our Snapchats.

The New York Times’ Wesley Morris, in “The Year We Obsessed About Identity,” says that personal technologies of the digital age are “help[ing] us create alternate or auxiliary personae.”

“After centuries of women living alongside men, and of the races living adjacent to one another, even if only notionally, our rigidly enforced gender and racial lines are finally breaking down,” he writes. “There’s a sense of fluidity and permissiveness and a smashing of binaries. We’re all becoming one another.”

This fluidity has limits, however. Bodies still matter. The history, and cultural heritage, of those bodies matter. In the US, as the deaths of Bland, Gray and countless black and brown Americans makes abundantly clear, the political, economic, and cultural structures that make up America discriminate against certain bodies. Police maim and kill these bodies.

“Americans have begun to interrogate how racism infects institutions like police departments, largely because of protests against anti-black violence,” Lester Spence, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University tells Quartz. However, he adds, “I don’t think Americans in general interrogate what race means in terms of identity—our brains don’t function like that.”

The idea of racial fluidity also found its limits in the case of Rachel Dolezal, a woman born to white parents who passed as black and, even more controversially, identified as black while serving as the head of a Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP. The revelation of Dolezal’s whiteness led to widespread accusations of cultural appropriation. Morris says of Dolezal’s commitment to her adopted racial identity, “It was as if she had arrived in a future that hadn’t yet caught up to her.”

Darnell Moore, a senior correspondent at Mic who wrote about Dolezal earlier this year, tells Quartz that Dolezal’s self-identification as “black” brought the idea of racial fluidity and self-identification to the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist. While “scholars, artists and activists interested in thinking through the connections between race-making and power in the US have been doing so for decades,” he explains, “Dolezal’s claim to blackness as authentic or inauthentic caused many of us to reconsider the malleability (or not) of race, race-making, and power.”

Moore continued, “This happened in a moment when the mattering of ‘blackness’ and black lives is more than a theoretical presupposition—it’s about solving material inequity and livability. Because of that, black and white figure as something more than just constructed categories. They are signs for access, denial, death and life. That’s why Dolezal’s claim provoked dialogue.”

Self-identification, or societal designation

What makes a lot of people uncomfortable about racial identity as a social construct is the possibility if we accept this idea, society will make the illogical leap to the claim that racism doesn’t exist. This is why so many journalists and critics contend that race is biological—without realizing this is precisely the argument made by racists for state-sanctioned segregation, eugenics and genocide.

Moreover, while we all seemed eager to play the armchair psychologist to Dolezel, there is something extraordinarily wonderful about a white woman wanting to become black.

And why wouldn’t she? Most of America’s strong, successful, and beautiful women are black women who we know by first name alone: Oprah, Beyoncé, Serena. Our first lady, Michelle Obama, is a national treasure. For decades, our feminist foremothers have told us that “black is beautiful.” What does it mean when a white woman not only believes this, but lives it? Gives up her “privilege”—her job, her family and credibility—to live as a black woman?

In an interview with the Guardian published earlier in December, Dolezal posits that race is a construct: “What I believe about race is that race is not real. It’s not a biological reality. It’s a hierarchical system that was created to leverage power and privilege between different groups of people.” She, it seems, identifies as “black” rather than “African American” because the former connotes a type of identity that is a cultural construction, rather than a biological and ethic heritage. “African-American is a very short timeline if we’re talking about people who have ancestors who were here during child slavery, biologically connected to those ancestors,” she explains. “Which I know that I don’t have.”

The essentialist trap

In what I believe to be the greatest critical analysis of the Dolezal story, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. interrogated Dolezal’s critics by unveiling the essentialism underlying their critique, as well as arguing that “blackness” is not a monolith. Claims to authenticity are tenuous and contextual at best.

“I can imagine an identitarian response to my argument to the effect that I endorse some version of wiggerism,” Reed boldly concludes, “or the view that ‘feeling black’ can make one genuinely black . . . Each position—that one can feel or will one’s way into an ascriptive identity or that one can’t—presumes that the ‘identity’ is a thing with real boundaries.”

But if our online world has helped make our perceptions of identity more fluid, I believe the result has been a greater rigidifying of identity offline. This is not only evident in the case of Dolezal, but also in the case of Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, who was taunted by conservatives for looking white (he is biracial), as well as the incredible moment on “All In With Chris Hayes” when CBS’s Nancy Giles chided Jay Smooth for “co-opt[ing]” blackness, only to be gently corrected by Smooth, who informed her that he is black.

Identity has become a litmus test for life in America—for one’s activism, for one’s art, for one’s passions and ethics. In 2015, therefore, our greatest cultural crisis may be the elevation of identity as a form of categorization that structures—and arguably stifles—our lives, from the continuation of a racist mass incarceration system to the policing of individual identities. These identity categories that we seem so fond of, which we believe make us more real, or more authentic human beings, are actually weighing us down. They limit us, make us immobile, and prevent us from moving forward as a united human race. The goal, therefore, should be to find a way to move beyond identity without stemming the fight against racism, sexism, and the other forms of political, social, and economic injustices that plague America.