A question of identity: the case of Rachel Dolezal, who has chosen to live as a black woman, highlights the issue of personal politics in a world of weakening traditional values.Who we are isn’t black or white, in the sense of being one thing or another. Whatever her motivations or mental state, when US woman Rachel Dolezal says she identifies with – and chose to live as – a black woman, she is less an aberration and more a hotly confused example of the human condition in the 21st century.
We are all, to some extent, caught between the personal aspect of identity – who we believe and feel ourselves to be – and how we are perceived and accepted by others. In a faster-paced culture of too many choices, a weakening of traditional values, a world-sized array of influences via the internet, and a workplace that is less interested in what you have achieved than in how flexible you can be, the question of who you really are is a vexing one.
This analysis comes from Professor Anthony Elliott, director of the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia. He believes that the anything-goes thinking that was fostered by postmodernism has drilled “all the way down into the fabric of our identities”.
Hence, whatever you can hold on to in terms of belief can be like a lifebuoy. The problem is, if you’re not accepted for how you see yourself – a black woman trapped in a pale freckled body; a glamorous woman in the shape of a male Olympic champion – then you’re sunk.
Andrew Jakubowicz, sociology professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, subscribes to philosopher George Herbert Mead’s “interactive” model of identity in which society – especially those close or important to us – is the prime shaper of who we are.
This model, Jakubowicz says, “suggests to me that authenticity is best thought of as a political relationship between the individual and the social context of their lives, requiring ultimately the authority of significant others”.
Without that authority or approval, you’re not really who you think you are – or at least not effectively. “Identity, or rather the performance of identity,” says Jakubowicz, “is likely to reflect the power people have over their lives.”
It can also be measured in what the particular stories we tell about ourselves deliver in terms of our self-worth. “Identity is cognitive, emotional, and formative in that it generates the maps we use to chart our way – and as it is the consequence of interaction, is partly under our control and partly in control of us.”
Professor Martha Augoustinos, a social psychologist with the University of Adelaide, says because identification with a group is such a strong motivation in human psychology, Dolezal identifying with black people, at a personal level, has some legitimacy. “It’s hard to dispute or undermine that personal identification,” she says.
But if the group rejects you and doesn’t include you in the membership “that will cause problems in having your identity legitimated. And that might account for the lengths she went to in changing physical appearance.”
All of which might have been OK if Dolezal had been honest about her past. “Where she is morally accountable is in lying about her parentage,” Augoustinos says.
A persistent question in the Dolezal saga is why would a white woman want to identify as black in the first place?
Farida Fozdar is an associate professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Western Australia. The Dolezal situation, she says, is complex.
“It reminds us of the US’s one-drop rule, which for so long meant that anyone with one drop of African-American blood was classified as African American,” she says.
“Since then, we’ve become much more constructivist about it, to the point that ethnic identity is seen as being about self-identification. But no one ever thought that meant that a white person with no black heritage, but black friends and family, can claim to be black. We’ve had the idea of ‘passing’ for a long time, but it has always meant people of black heritage ‘passing’ as white, in order to improve their life chances. So this is an interesting counterpoint.”
Dr Linda Barclay is a philosopher at Monash University. She has sympathy for Dolezal’s comparison of her own situation with that of transgender people. “Society increasingly accepts that someone is ‘really’ a woman on the basis that they identify as a woman, even though they have a body that is socially deemed to make them a man.
“So why won’t we accept that Dolezal is black, on the basis that she identifies as black, even though she has biological characteristics that we deem to make her white?”
It’s argued that Dolezal has no authority as a black person because she hasn’t experienced “the kind of discrimination and oppression that is still routine for black people … Part of what many blacks experience is a credibility problem: that when they say how things are, people don’t believe them. So it is especially galling when someone (like Dolezal) speaks on their behalf.”
However, Barclay notes that our formative experiences are hardly uniformly determined by our sex and race. “Women do not all share the same formative experiences any more than men do. Nor do black people in the US. And we know that Dolezal’s upbringing was racially diverse, growing up as she did with black siblings.
“Given she is apparently very close to at least one of her brothers, and clearly has a dreadful relationship with her parents, is it really so extraordinary that she might feel some profound identification with blacks? There are many people whose biology and life story do not offer any simple answer to the question of their sex or race.”
According to social identity theory, when we identify with one group, we are essentially rejecting and even denigrating other groups. University of Melbourne philosopher Tamas Pataki speculates that “from the psychological perspective my sense of Dolezal is that she more likely was reacting against her parents than positively identifying with the adopted siblings, as some suggest”.
Dr Pataki adds: “There are people – perhaps most people – whose personal identity is weak or diffuse and need to assume a false identity or identify powerfully with a group to maintain their self-esteem.”
Pataki says this need for a powerful status-conferring group identity seems to have intensified, or perhaps just become more salient as the world has become more confusing and challenging. He writes: “To find a group identity or several such identities, to be an Aussie, a Carlton follower, a White, a Muslim, a Jew, to ‘be one of us’ … is now a kind of quest or passion, whereas in the past some of these things may have been background certainties.”
Dr Nicholas Hookway from the University of Tasmania says that “the leitmotif of contemporary sociology is that identity has become a sort of do-it-yourself project that we now make, sculpt and remake as the traditional anchors of the past – class, gender, religion, community – weaken. Identity has supposedly become fluid and fractured as we lose the narrative building blocks of the past such as secure employment and enduring relationships.”
A push-back can be found in the “culture of authenticity” that contests this purported fragmentation. “We see it most powerfully articulated in the ideal of being true to yourself, which has become a central guiding principle of our times.
“The pursuit of an authentic ethical self not only pushes back against identity fluidity and the compulsion towards reinvention, but also critiques the prevailing postmodern idea that there is no ‘real’ or ‘core’ self.”
But that idea isn’t new. As Dr Monima Chadha, a Monash University philosopher notes: “In asking the question why people create a false self, we are assuming that there is a true self underlying every narrative we tell ourselves. The Buddhists reject such a true self. But there is question about what makes our narratives authentic or legitimate.”
It’s here that Chadha is at one with the social scientists: “A deluded inauthentic identity is one which has few, if any, convergences with stories that others tell about us.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.