We live in a world where we are told we can be whatever we want — a doctor, lawyer, astronaut.
Recently the Washington branch president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was “outed” as being white after posing as black for more than a decade.
Black twitter was on it, as it often is, with gold such as #incognegro and #AskRachel. My personal favourite was “got a dark skinned friend look like #RachelDolezal got a light skinned friend look like #RachelDolezal”.
With Halle Berry, a mixed-race woman, being considered the first black woman to win an Oscar and Chinese people in South Africa being classified as black the question starts to resonate a little deeper than pop culture.
It’s sparked a debate as to what it actually means to be a race and whether there is such a thing if a woman can do this for more than a decade. She is also not the first and certainly not the last. All societies with entrenched histories of racial divide will be cognisant of the notion of “passing as”.
This fluidity has allowed some to argue that you can choose your race. What Rachel Dolezal did does not show the ease at which one can move through racial divides but how it can be used by people for certain ends. The experience she went through would not be the same as if a black woman decided she would in fact be white for the purposes of furthering her career or a cause.
It was not a matter of survival or a matter of trying to exist in a world that might fight your existence.
The Dolezal thing shows the ease at which some are able to use race and are able to perform it. She was able to choose to be black but the option to revert to her more privileged position of being a white woman of European descent was also there. Just take off the fake tan and straighten your hair.
As was pointed out in one analysis “not everyone has a conscious choice in performing race” or even a choice in what race they are allowed to perform. A dark-skinned person will always be black, no matter how much heavy metal they listen to.
Furthermore we must not be ignorant of the real worldly implications that come with this “mass delusion” that “race is a construct”. Much as it is heartfelt to speak of this showing how we really are all one it does not change the fact that the colour of your skin will affect your existence whether you are cognisant of it or not.
The major problem many people of colour have with this debate is the notion, “See? Race is not a real thing so stop racialising things and let people be human”. The idea that we are all the same is good but the point still remains — centuries of ingrained thinking will not be done away by one white woman with braids and a few rap albums. Although there are elements of race that are performed and are internal there are important elements that are external.
It is not so much about the matter of acting black but also the matter of being black. I, as a black woman, am not alone in the construction of my racial identity.
In fact, I have even been called-out by other black people on being a “white girl” in some of the things I do. Despite my ability to “don another race” even temporarily in the eyes of some of my peers I am still very black to others. This is why I often have white people snapping their necks and fingers at me and calling me “sister” or “sisi” and doing the “Afro-sister” dance as I like to call it.
This happens because to certain people no matter how many degrees I have, how “alternative I am”, how long my flowing, golden locks are I will always and forever be, black. In this knowledge they will conduct themselves accordingly, which often means trying to get me to dance, asking me about “black culture”, presuming I am sassy and attempting to make me “feel comfortable” by playing hip hop music and speaking about how their house help was their “African mother”.
These are things that have actually happened, repeatedly and recently.
What it shows me is that race is not just mine to construct and we should be careful of obliterating this important fact.
The performance of race is not a solo one but one in which the whole world is a stage. So much as I can wake up and decide that I am the most amazing blonde-haired surfer indie chic white woman other actors in this play will not accept this performance. I will still shoulder the weight of being a black woman in a world that does not place me at the top of the totem pole, no matter how much I relax my hair, bleach my skin and buy hipster clothing.
At the end of the day, I am still black.