Regarding the recent controversy over a women, Rachel Dolezal, claiming to be black despite having parents who say they are white and that she is too, and despite having been white as a child, is interesting to consider. Set aside that this case involved various kinds of lying, etc. Indeed, set aside this case, per se, entirely. Consider a hypothetical person who is part of some particular cultural community – Black, Latino, Jewish, Catholic, Cherokee, or whatever – in a good society – which is of course another leap away from the specifics of this case.
Is what determines this person’s community an objective determination based upon something biological that the person has wired in? If so, then it is wholly dependent on birth parents. The widespread discussion of the Dolezal controversy seems to implicitly take for granted that to be one thing, at one time, and then another thing, at a later time, has to involve something called “passing” – which is to say, fooling folks into accepting a false claim.
Suppose a Jewish person decides to become Catholic or vice versa. Setting aside the precise details, broadly what does it take? It seems to me the answer is (a) wanting it, and (b) fulfilling certain levels of involvement or commitment or knowledge. In fact, isn’t it rather like moving from being French to being Italian, German, or American. Remember, people celebrate and also kill over all these things. Indeed, most people get quite a lot, and often maybe more, from their national identification than from a religion, say, or often even from a race, depending on the time and place.
Surely we can agree that if I, who have been Jewish by virtue of my mother having been Jewish, and her mother, and so on, plus my having a little awareness of the heritage – instead decide to become Catholic, likely with a lot more commitment to the new culture and heritage, as otherwise why bother switching – that should be okay. And vice versa, of course. Indeed, maybe we can even agree that a cultural community ought to allow exit and entry as a quite minimal condition of having healthy cultural and community relations. I certainly think that is the case.
But if that is true for nationality/citizenship, and if it is true for religion, why shouldn’t it be true for something called race?
The only credible answer would be biology. I might prefer to be a squirrel than a human, but it would make no sense to say that being a squirrel is a choice I can make because it simply isn’t. To say that a person is what their parents were/are and cannot be otherwise only makes sense at all, I think, if the attribute we are talking about is wired into the genes that the person got from the parents, like being a person and not a squirrel. (And even in the case, regarding gender/sexuality, where genetics really does play a huge roll, interestingly we are okay with people making choices to change gender.)
So the critical point is, as far as I know, and as far as science reports, race is not biological. There is no genetic boundary between races, much less a boundary that bears on the “stuff” that actually gives a person a racial cultural heritage. It is all social, all historical, very powerful, to be sure, and very oppressive in racist societies, to be sure, but not biological. So, why shouldn’t a person, as they grow up, in a good society, be able to choose their race just like choosing their religion or nationality, much less their gender? Indeed, why shouldn’t preventing that kind of freedom be seen as a horribly oppressive violation of people’s right to determine their own values and community allegiances?
If we set aside the lying in the Dolezal case, or if we charitably decide that it was a function of the exterior social context putting constraints on her cultural choices, and we of course understand the racist context, what remains controversial and worth thinking about? Maybe it is not the behavior of “passing” even when it is to join the oppressed rather than privileged community. Maybe instead what is controversial is the fact that most people regard “passing” as intrinsically a lie, rather than a choice.