Race, Identity and Identification

The discovery that the head of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, has been claiming an African-American identity for the past decade despite having white parents and being raised as a European-American white female has been dominating online news and social media for the last couple of days. In the process, race, ethnicity, and identity have been mashed together in ways that make sociologists and other social scientists who study the topics cringe. Repeatedly.

I’m not much interested in contributing to the many, many thinkpieces on the person, her motivations, and What It All Really Means. But I research, teach, and write about ethnicity and race, I’ve been contributing to this literature since graduate school, and I’ve spent a lot of time parsing the differences between various social categories and constructs. So I’m going to write about that.

Let’s get one obvious issue out of the way. Race and ethnicity are both socially constructed. But they aren’t constructed the same way, or according to the same criteria. And they don’t operate the same way in social practice. Although race is subjective in terms of how categories are constructed and in terms of the assignment of those “racial” categories to individuals and groups, it is measured objectively. Whether or not you are of a given race is entirely dependent on whether it is found in your genetic makeup (though a direct ancestor; DNA attribution is much more recent).

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a combination of genetic makeup (your ancestry) and social practice. A black person raised by white people in an all-white setting will be identified as black by most Americans (they won’t necessarily be considered “culturally” black, but that’s a separate issue). A person born to Italian-American parents but raised by Swedish-American parents in northern Minnesota will be accepted as having Italian ancestry, but she will almost certainly be treated as culturally Swedish-American by most people.

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