Opinion, People, Profiles, Voices

Rachel Dolezal and what we don't know about racial identity

By Public Affairs

“Recently, I was watching television and became captivated by the story of a fascinating woman,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers writes this week on the Berkeley Blog. “She was born to parents who claimed one racial identity, which was affixed to her through infancy, childhood and adolescence. When she grew to be a woman, she made a choice to become someone else.”

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But Jones-Rogers, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of history and expert in 19th-century African American history, the history of American slavery and women’s and gender history in the United States, isn’t talking about news headliner Rachel Dolezal; she’s talking about Elvira Frederic, a woman born in 1921 to parents of African descent, who, at 18, decided to remake herself by moving North and becoming a white woman.

Jones-Rogers’ post, “Rachel Dolezal’s ‘deception’: What we don’t want to know about racial identity in America,” goes on to discuss other stories of personal invention throughout American history that she says signal something very important about the complexities of race and racial identity in America. “As a historian of slavery, I have encountered stories which mirror Rachel’s and Elvira’s time and again,” she says. “I’ve encountered many more which similarly call our contemporary sense of certitude about ‘race‘ into question.”

She says Dolezal’s story gives Americans an opportunity to consider how we’ve become so multiracial to begin with — a history bound to American slavery — and wonders how the conversation about race could change.

“What if we talked about what ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ really mean when we consider the multiracial heritage of many Americans, regardless of what they look like to us?” Jones-Rogers asks. “I approached the story of Rachel Dolezal in this way, and I concluded that Rachel did not deceive us at all. We have been deceiving ourselves.”

Read Jones-Rogers’ complete opinion about the intricacies of racial identity on the Berkeley Blog.