When Indians pretended to be ‘White’: Conflation of race and identity as a very ‘American’ phenomenon

In early 20th century, when immigration laws excluded Asians from immigrating to the U.S., some creative Indians claimed they were indeed White, when they landed on the U.S. shores. They were landless laborers, who had landed on the shores of California, looking for work and were surprised to find themselves in this predicament. Kambiz Ghaneabassiri mentions the curious case of an individual, who argued for this, in the courts and won. In his book The History of Islam in America (2010), Ghaneabassiri suggests that this immigrant’s argument in court was that Indians, being from the Aryan race are white and should be treated as such. Barring them from entering the U.S. on their slightly darker complexion is unfair, the plaintiff argued; and won the case. Is this a case of racial appropriation? Yes, absolutely. Historically, this has occurred in the U.S., with race, ethnicity and religion being conflated – all the time.

Photo courtesy : http://www.racialcompact.com/SciAm12-03.jpg
Photo courtesy : http://www.racialcompact.com/SciAm12-03.jpg

Coming closer to the case that is making headlines today: Rachel Dolezal, the White woman who pretended to be black. Why is her identity-appropriation wrong? I think the biggest strike against her is this: She used her black identity when it suited her and for material gains. She apparently sued Howard University for not giving her a Graduate Assistant position, according to this report. Even in recent media interviews, she has not convincingly presented her case. All she comes across is as an opportunist, who saw the benefit of being black, and sought to label herself as such. While her intentions in terms of studying black culture, adopting it, taking care of kids who are black may all well be genuine, but her behavior as regards her professional advancement seems a bit ingenuous.  But is there all to it, or are we mixing up two different questions here : One of a person lying to advance their career and another – a far more complex one – of how people define their identities and how we, the people react to it.

Consider the counter-intuitive scenario: What if Dolezal is the sign of things to come? Academics, scholars of race and identity – from Stuart Hall, the famous British critical theorist to our very own Clifford Geertz and a host of thinkers including Michel Foucault have argued that identity is a ‘fluid’ construct. Albert Melucci, who is famous for his work on collective identities argues for identity to be a ‘work in progress,’ and not a fixed construct, as we see it. Also, take the case of mixed-race families and kids born of those unions. Which race do they actually belong? As the Pew Research report argues, the number of bi-racial couples is increasing and also acceptance of interracial marriages is at a high of 87 percent in 2013, up from four percent in 1959. The Pew Research further argues that this does not justify Dolezal’s fraud, but it does bring into question how mixed race couples talk about their own identity and that of others.

If one considers identity as a ‘social construct,’ and indeed race is a social construct; then it means that what a certain race means and how it is understood is constantly changing. As Burger and Luckmann (1966) remind us, identity is ‘formed by social processes,’and is not a static phenomenon. As an example, the way that any American black groups has socialized in America has continued to shape their own subjective notions of what it means to be American and Muslim at the same time. The changing social relations among Muslim groups and other mainstream groups can be seen as having a significant impact on how American Muslim identity is ‘created’ and ‘managed.’

Historically, this ‘creation of identity,’ and self-appropriation of identity has occurred and this debate about one’s group identity – and also individual identity, is being contested ; as we speak. Just take the case of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. – a topic I am intimately familiar with. In the case of Arabs, they had to define their identity in terms of the paradigms of identity offered to them in the U.S., and they chose a ‘White’ identity. With a legal case in 1915, Syrians became legally recognized as such. Infact, only recently is there a push by some activists and groups to call for a ‘Middle eastern’ ethnicity to be added to the U.S. census and there is momentum to test this idea, as this report points out.

So, what is the moral of the story and point of all this debate? I would say that as far as Dolezal’s ‘self-identification,’ is concerned; she is free to choose to identify as anything she wants. Indeed, the U.S. allows one to do that – with freedom. The case of Caitlyn Jenner, Chelsea Manning and others illustrate this all too well. Infact, the American public sentiment is in support of such self-identification, no matter how absurd it may seem, to a conservative. There are far more sympathetic voices cheering them on, rather than pulling them down. What went wrong in Dolezal’s case was not her just her self-identification, but her (apparent) lying and manipulation of her identity, to suit her professional and personal ambitions. This, the public opinion is going after. And from the sound of it, and from the facts before us, I don’t think they are wrong. It is about time she admits that she screwed up. No point pretending to be the victim, anymore.

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