“Passing” as black: classification and social implications

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(Originally posted on Activating TOK) A story currently running in the media jolts me out of summertime diversions, straight back to TOK. I find knowledge questions about classification magnetic, especially when the categories constructed have social and emotional resonance as they are applied to human beings – as has the categorization of “race”.

This week’s incident gives an interesting twist to American stories of people of one race “passing” as another. Rachel Dolezal, president of a Washington state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has been exposed by her birth parents as lying about being black. She is white – and they have the birth certificate to prove it. Many people have condemned her deception, including her black adopted brother who describes her “blackface” as “a slap in the face to African-Americans”.

Yet she is clearly a leader in Washington state’s black community, an expert on Black American culture, and an advocate for the community on issues of civil rights. Asked by a reporter whether she was black or white, Dolezal responded only, “That question is not as easy as it seems. There’s a lot of complexities … and I don’t know that everyone would understand that.”

If you’d be interested in taking this story into a Theory of Knowledge class, it seems to me that there are a few central knowledge questions, to which this story brings an intriguing example and a range of perspectives:

  • On what basis do we classify our observations of the world? How are the ways of knowing of sense perception, emotion, language, and memory particularly involved? For instance, if people are categorized according to race, what ways of knowing are interactively in play?
  • How do we categorize our concepts? How do naming and defining (WOK language) both reflect and create categories, and how might generalizing (WOK intuition, reason) both entrench and question concept boundaries? In the example of race, where scientists tell us that biological differences are minute, skin-deep, and variable across a spectrum, how do concepts of race influence observation?
  • What are the implications of accepting and applying general categories when it comes to people? When we are seeking knowledge, why might it matter for us to understand the basis and justifications for the conceptual categories we use?

There’s no shortage of coverage on the internet to demonstrate that racial categorization in this case is intensely important to people, but this particular article acts as a good introduction: “Race v ethnicity: the strange case of Rachel Dolezal, explained (sort of)”.

It also contains links to a range of further coverage with major perspectives identified. Some commentators focus on biological information, others on race as a social construct, and others on the likeness (or not) between claiming racial identity and sexual identity. Stephen Thrasher, a mixed race columnist, comments:

“I have zero personal insight into why Dolezal chose to perform race as she did. But the reason that her story is so fascinating to me and to the rest of the world is that it exposes in a disquieting way that our race is performance – that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible.”

Theory of Knowledge certainly has a role in helping students to enter discussions of race and racism in terms of conceptual categories and their impact on what we claim we know about the world. A TOK class can give students vocabulary and a somewhat detached space in which these hot social issues can be considered more calmly and thoughtfully than they are on the internet. In every area of knowledge and in every society, I would venture to say, people are likely to think more clearly and advance their knowledge more effectively if they are aware of the concepts they assume or accept.

As for Rachel Dolezal, she has said that she’ll make a statement shortly. Are her personal knowledge claims the deciding factor, in your mind, for determining her racial identity? Why or why not?

Selected References

”NAACP official Rachel Dolezal’s race being questioned”, CNN. June 12 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ih777exy_fA&feature=youtu.be

Ray Sanchez and Ben Brumfield, CNN. “Rachel Dolezal’s appearance is ‘blackface,’ brother says”, CNN. June 15, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/13/us/washington-rachel-dolezal-adopted-brother/index.html

“Race v ethnicity: the curious case of Rachel Dolezal, explained (sort of)”, The Guardian. June 12, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/12/rachel-dolezal-race-versus-ethnicity-explainer

Steven W Thrasher, “Rachel Dolezal exposes our delusional constructions and perceptions of race”, The Guardian. June 12, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/12/rachel-dolezal-delusional-construction-perception-of-race