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     Who I Say I That I Am I Am  – Race, Ethnicity, and Ethics

 by Dale Rominger

Dale RomingerMany years ago, by virtue of being the only staff member, I was head of the anthropology and sociology department at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. There was also an Native American office and since the relationship between Native Americans and anthropologists has not always been cordial, for good reasons, I thought it best I introduce myself. The office was filled with Native American art and artifacts. Behind the desk was a tall man with long braided hair. He wore Native American jewelry and he looked every part a Native American. Thing is, he was a white man.

Once he came to trust I wasn’t an Anglo oppressor of native peoples and not a half bad guy for an anthropologist, we got along well. I taught a class on the Crow reservation and he helped introduce me to people living there. He was a member of the Crow Nation[1] and had a Crow name, which I can’t remember. However, I will call him Plenty Coups after the last Crow Nation chief selected in the traditional Crow custom.

Plenty Coups had denounced and abandoned the white dominant culture and embraced Native Americans and their cultures. He completely self-identified as Native American. At first I found this intellectually interesting. Anthropologists talk about “going native”, which means to so identify with and to become so inculcated into perceiving the world through your “subject” that you lose your objectivity.[2] I assumed that Plenty Coups had indeed gone native, and when I was teaching anthropology, going native was not to be applauded.  As a result, despite myself, I was suspicious of my new colleague.

I don’t think that anthropologists are alone in their unease about going native. I think most people are suspicious of a person who completely identities with a different race, ethnic group, and culture. We question the person’s authenticity, doubting they can be,  or even should be, the person they are claiming to be. We may even wonder if they are just faking it for some reason.[3] And perhaps there is an unease felt towards a person who abandons their own people for another, echoing something of the traitor, though that is perhaps too strong an identifier for what I’m suggesting.

Ultimately in the case of the white Native American and me, I didn’t really care with whom Plenty Coups identified, partly because he was so genuine and complete in his adopted identity and partly because I learned the Crow Nation had adopted him. If he was accepted by the Crow Nation than who was I to protest?

Rachel DolezalAll this has come to mind because of the news about Rachel Dolezal, former head of N.A.A.C.P. in Spokane, Washington. Apparently to everyone Dolezal was an African American, but not in the way Plenty Coups was a Native American. Given the reaction to the controversy, I’m assuming most people believed her birth parents were African Americans, while there was never any question that Plenty Coups’ parents were Caucasian. White people claiming to be Dolezal’s birth parents announced that she is Caucasian, in a sense outing her, and questioned why she denies her true ethnicity. After stepping down from the Spokane chapter of N.A.A.C.P., Dolezal defended herself in an interview saying, “I identify as black.” When asked when she started deceiving people she said, “I do take exception to that because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black, or answering a question of, ‘Are you black or white?’” And, “Well, I definitely am not white. Nothing about white describes who I am.” She has also identified herself as transracial.[4]

There have been hundreds of thousands of words spoken and written about Dolezal and the issues of ethnic and racial identity. No doubt books are being written about this particular case. So, briefly, I see three things at play. Not surprisingly they are Race, Ethnicity, and Ethics. But let me explain.

Race: By “race” I mean the physical, biological, and genetic characteristics of a people. Race assumes shared genetic traits, however, it has been convincingly argued that race is a social construct and that a scientific basis for identifying distinct races is weak. Still, at least in a common sense way, there are certain phenotypes (observable characteristics or traits) that match particular racial categories and that “certain genetic markers have varying frequencies among human populations, some of which correspond more or less to traditional racial groupings.” In other words, even though we acknowledge that race is a social construct, people still identify me as Caucasian and not African or Native American.

DNA tests can identify our genetic markers and thus indicate our dominate genetic identity, as well as the diverse blend of genes that make us who we are. Again, while no one would hesitate to identify me as white, it is no doubt also true that I am more than simply Caucasian. In fact, I am also part Neanderthal! [5]  

In the case of Dolezal, people are requesting that she be tested to establish if the Caucasian couple claiming to be her birth parents are telling the truth. Dolezal has so far refused, I assume because she does not want to be genetically identified. If she were born of Caucasian parents, then she could not claim to be predominately genetically African American. If that were the case, I suspect that in most people’s minds having Caucasian parents would undermine the legitimacy of her self-proclaimed black identify.

Ethnicity: While people often use the words “race” and “ethnicity” interchangeably, by “ethnicity” I mean the cultural, anthropological, sociological traits belonging to a social group that has a common cultural or national tradition. These traits include, legal traditions, religion, language, etc. While most ethnic groups share a dominate genetic, or racial, identity, having an ethnic identity does not require a shared genetic heritance.

Plenty Coups had every right to ethnically identify with the Crow people even though he was genetically Caucasian, never denying that is parents were white. Despite is parentage, he embraced the cultural, anthropological, sociological traits of the Crow Nation. Given that his ethnic identify was authentic and genuine then it is not logical, reasonable, or ethical to deny him that identity, with one caveat. I would argue that the people of the Crow Nation did have the right to pass judgement on Plenty Coups’ claim to being Crow. In other words, the test of authenticity lies with the ethnic group itself. The Crow Nation adopted him as a member, and I should add, let him represent them at Rocky Mountain College. As a result most people took him for the person he claimed to be.

Dolezal has said clearly that she “identifies as black,” that nothing about the white ethnic group describes who she is. I have no difficulty accepting her claim, particularly given she was accepted by African Americans. The difficulty lies in the fact that she conflated her claims about her racial, or genetic, identity and her ethnic identity. Dolezal, in confusing her genetic and ethnic identities, has left people feeling betrayed, all of which leads me to the Ethics of Character.

Ethics of Character: I use the term “character” in the ethical sense and simply mean the nature of who we are and hope to become. To speak of character is to explore what it means to be a good person, what it means to maintain integrity, and to possess virtue (fidelity, trustworthiness, benevolence, etc.). When considering issues of character, we ask in what ways our actions reflect who we think we are and whom we want to become. Likewise, we ask how character and virtue affect our actions, what virtues are relevant for any particular situation, and whether or not our actions "fit" our "life stories." In the very act of living, in our making decisions and taking actions, we are forever creating and recreating ourselves. Character is a source of continuity from one action to the next. While each act is specific, the person we are as a moral agent continues through each action. If, then, character gives to us a sense of continuity and identity, it follows that our actions must ultimately "fit" the person we are and desire to become.

To be of good character most people would agree that a certain level of truth telling, non-maleficence (avoiding doing harm), respect for others, and beneficence (doing good) is required. I suspect that the unhappiness with and anger towards Dolezal is due to the fact that people feel that she failed one or all of the above virtues. In her identifying as black, she may have led people to assume she was born of African American parents and thus was not only ethnically black but genetically black as well. In so doing, I’m sure some argue that she was not telling the truth, was not respecting African Americans, their history and struggles, was not avoiding doing harm, and, perhaps most sadly, not ultimately doing good. The fact that she has thus far refused to clear up the matter of her genetic markers, only reinforces people’s criticisms, and results in people fixating on her genetic identity and not her ethnic identity. As they say, blood is thick. Being adopted into an ethnic community, though powerful and legitimate, is not the same thing as being born into that community. A person born African American more than not has a different relationship with the history of slavery than a Caucasian person, no matter how true and deep he or she “identifies as black.”

Perhaps, it is too late to both tell the truth about her genetic inheritance and protect her ethnic identify as African American. If true it is sad because I do not doubt that she is ethnically black, and again I come to this conclusion based on the fact that she was accepted by the African American community and her own genuine identifying as black and not white. Assuming her birth parents are Caucasian, that fact would not have necessarily denied her the opportunity to identify as black, seek and receive acceptance from the African American community, and to act as a strong advocate for African American dignity, justice and liberation. If she is now to be rejected by the African American community, thus, ostracized from her ethnic identity, the cause will not be race or ethnicity. It will be ethics.

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

[1] The Crow Nation is also called the Apsaalooké Nation. See: Crow Nation 

[2] I have always been uncomfortable with the phrase “going native” because it seems to imply a superiority over one’s “subjects”. It also assumes a value laden understanding of objectivity and subjectivity.

[3] When I lived in Montana a considerable wealth of natural resources was found in the Crow Nation. It was estimated that each citizen would bank $1.5 million. It was interesting watching how the attitudes towards the Crow people changed. But even more fascinating was the number of people who were claiming to be one quarter Crow, which, if my memory serves, was the threshold to becoming a member of the Crow Nation.

[4] I looked up the definition of transracial and found the following: Across or crossing racial boundaries; involving or between two or more racial groups; involving, encompassing, or extending across two or more races; and when a person born of one race decides to become or represent themselves as another race.

[5] Scientists have even determined that 1.5 to 2.1 percent of the DNA of people outside of Africa is Neanderthal DNA. See: At least 20% of Neanderthal DNA is in Humans

[6] The Latin root of excommunicate is to be “put out of the community.”