Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Race, Ethnicity and Rachel Dolezal

The recent uproar over the local Director of the Spokane Washington Chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Anne Dolezal claim of her racial identity points to a serious flaw in the public understanding of the concepts "race" and "ethnicity." As anthropologist, we should be doing a better job of informing the public about the differences between the two concepts, at least in the technical sense. This applies both to Ms. Dolezal, and those who have raised allegations that she had lied about her racial identity and other aspects of her biography. It is more than a question of "race".

It is the confusion within the media and the public mind between the concept of "race" as a biological term and "ethnicity" as a socio-cultural term. These terms have had technical and valuable specific meanings within the biological and social sciences. However, as Boas and his associates pointed out, "race" (biological markers of physical and now genetic differences) are also used by individuals and groups to define social and/or cultural categories.

The former term "race," defined as a "breeding population" by Carlton Coon, has real scientific value when researching evolutionary and medical questions arising in and between populations, such as historical linguistics, archaeological identifications or the presence of sickle cell and other inherited diseases. Modern Medicine and DNA studies benefit from the biological concept of race. It helps to define what "can't" (or could not) be changed by the individual -- albeit modern technology for gender change fogs that the issue today.

"Ethnic" has generally been used to define a cultural group based on one's sense of common beliefs, values, and practices. Ethnicity is a far more fluid term since it is ideational, not biological in origin. It goes as far back, anthropologically, as Morgan's studies of the Iroquois and their kinship system which demonstrated the cultural significance of family as a culturally based identify. Ethnicity, in today's cosmopolitan society, is a characteristic much more open to personal choice and expression.

But today in the case of Rachel Dolezal, we find the media using these terms interchangeably. This represents, I feel, the lazy editing and lack of anthropological sophistication found in the public media.

One might suggest that it is the confusion between the terms and their application that might have contributed to issue in the first place for the media, the local NCAA Chapter, and especially for Rachel, herself. She may be racial, White, as her parents claim. But she may also be ethnically (culturally) Black or Afro-American as she claims As reported, her personal experience with her adopted siblings and her marriage to a black man may have help her to form an ethnic identity with Black/Afro-American culture.

If we can accept that a technological change in gender such as Bruce/Kate Jenner is a biological possibility and practical alternative for reconciling one's self identification issues, we should be able to accept a less radical, psychological and social, change in an individual's ethic self identification as another method. This would also help to explain how radical fundamentalism can take place -- through a self motivated change in one's "ethnic" identity.

The world will become a better place when we can recognize the diversity that is part of the power of the human species to control life on this planet. A power that seems to grow technologically much faster today, than our cultural beliefs and practices toward one another.


Bev Davenport said...

Most modern day anthropologists would say that race is a social construction; it doesn't even function as a biological idea for humans because in order to define "race" biologically, there must be greater genetic difference BETWEEN two populations than WITHIN them, and pick any two human "races and you will find that this doesn't apply. Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, did this analysis in the 70s, I think. His concept has been critiqued, however, and this wikipedia article is a good summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Genetic_Diversity:_Lewontin%27s_Fallacy.

But Carleton Coon? OMG, Coon's thinking is very very antiquated and pretty racist. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carleton_S._Coon#Racial_theories

Anonymous said...


Yes, I have also found that people get confused while talking about Race and Ethnicity. I would also like to add 'Religious Intolerance' too to the existing list. Though religion is a part of Ethnicity yet whatever is going on in the world today in the name of religion, especially in the Middle East, is as hardcore as ethnic and racist thinking.