Flipping the Script on Racial Identity

Like Rachel Dolezal, I am no longer white.

Last month, I officially changed my race. But unlike the former Spokane NAACP chapter president, I didn’t darken my skin or concoct a phony story about my past. If anything, I stood up for the racially blended heritage that’s always been a part of my life.

The change I’m referring to was strictly a bureaucratic one, a simple process that I initiated the moment I found out the state of Maryland considered me to be white. It happened during my recent visit to the Motor Vehicle Administration to update my driver’s license. After waiting for more than an hour, I walked up to the counter and submitted all the required paperwork – passport, Social Security card, proof of current residency, and my old Ohio license.

The woman seated behind the counter took the papers and began typing on her computer. “I see here you’ve had a Maryland license before,” she said.

“Yes,” I replied. “I moved out of state a few years ago; now I’m back.”

She entered some more information then directed my attention to a nearby monitor with a series of questions on it.

“Hispanic origin or non-Hispanic origin?” She asked, skipping over the first question on the screen, which asked for my race.

“Non-Hispanic,” I answered. “But what about that first question?”

“You’re already in here as Caucasian,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Yeah, that’s how they have you listed from before – as white,” she said.

“Well, that’s not right,” I told her. “Can you check black and white?”

“Nope,” she replied. “Only one.”

Unlike the U.S. Census, which for the past 15 years has allowed respondents to mark more than one racial category, Maryland doesn’t provide for multiple check-offs. Instead, anyone wishing to indicate membership in more than one race must pick a stand-alone “multiracial” category – an approach the federal government, after much debate in the 1990s, rejected.

“Then I guess you need to mark ‘multiracial,’” I told her. As far as I can tell, the answer does not appear on the actual driver’s license but remains stored in the agency’s records.

“Man, how does that happen?” I asked, still in disbelief that I could be labeled as white in an official government database without my knowledge – and it is not the first time it has happened.

The clerk shook her head. “Somebody probably just looked at you and thought they knew,” she said.

It must be the hair. Rachel Dolezal styled hers in such a way as to make her claim of blackness seem believable. My hairstyle options, however, have narrowed over time.

In my younger days, I had an afro. But when I started going bald in a way that I could no longer deny, I eventually gave in and went with the shaved-head look. And apparently more and more people began to think I was white.

Folks have been making racial assumptions of one kind or another about me all of my life, of course. At various times I have either been a light-skinned black person or a Mediterranean-toned white person, depending on your point of view. It’s a phenomenon I refer to as The Chameleon Effect, and I’ve written about it before in describing the life experiences of many mixed race people. We’re viewed as black one minute, white the next, Latino half an hour later.

Hollywood casting directors and Madison Avenue advertising executives have described us as “ethnically ambiguous” – melanin-challenged, caramel-colored people who are difficult to pigeonhole when it comes to race and ethnicity.

(For a hilarious take on this, head over to Netflix and check out the Season 5 episode of 30 Rock entitled “Qué Sorpresa!” Philippine-born actress Vannessa Minnillo Lachey plays fictional TV reporter Carmen Chao, who confounds Jack and Liz with her ambiguous appearance and shifting speech pattern.)

As one psychologist I know once put it, we are like ink blots – walking, talking Rorschach tests on how individuals see race. And what they see always reveals more about themselves and their own social conditioning about race than it says about us.

My father, for instance, was listed as “mulatto” on his birth certificate but “black” on his death certificate, a reflection of the shifting attitudes toward racial classification over his lifetime. My mother, an olive-complexioned woman who self-identifies as black yet acknowledges a mixed race background, has frequently been mistaken for Filipino – and you should see some of the confused looks she’s gotten when she informs people she is not. Go figure.

As for me, well, I was biracial before biracial was cool. It’s the label that’s always suited me best, given the facts of my racial ancestry and the social realities of my life experience.

In contrast, Dolezal’s position seems to be that “black” is the label that suits her best right now, given the life she has fashioned for herself in the last decade or so. But her racial ancestry and earlier life experience would say otherwise. That’s what I find most perplexing about her story. What little we know about her past is so at odds with her present identity that somewhere along the way she began to make up details about her life so the two would seem more congruent.

As professor Camille Gear Rich, writing in The National Law Journal, recently observed, “Apparently, white people can be trapped in minority people’s bodies, as long as they are mixed race. Multiracial people are the only persons routinely allowed to identify as white or minority and escape cultural vilification.”

Rich may be onto something. When challenged about my racial identity, I can point to any number of people in my biological family tree to justify whatever label I want to claim – black, white, or biracial. Dolezal doesn’t have that option.

When I told the clerk at the Motor Vehicle Administration – an African-American woman – to change my race from “white” to “multiracial,” I wasn’t challenged at all. In fact, she didn’t even blink. Maybe she was simply following standard procedure for processing license applications and marked the box as directed without comment. Or maybe she saw in me what those prior clerks, who I remember as being white, didn’t.

Either way, there are indeed legitimate reasons to collect racial data. Such statistics are important not only for tracking social and demographic trends, but also for monitoring compliance with the Voting Rights Act, anti-discrimination laws, and the effectiveness of programs designed to close racial gaps in education, employment, and health care.

I get that. Which is why I have no objection to the collection of such information, as long as those surveys also provide a mechanism for capturing data on those of us who identify with more than one race.

What I do object to is some bureaucrat taking the liberty of marking these racial questionnaires without asking me, as if these sorts of things are self-evident. They are not. With 9 million people checking two or more races in the 2010 Census, racial identity in America today isn’t as cut and dried as a lot of people would like to think. And that may be the most important lesson to come out of Dolezal’s story.

By the way, my race wasn’t the only thing in those drivers’ license records that was, shall we say, less than accurate. My weight was also wrong. But I left that answer alone, and I’ll bet you can guess why. Like race, it’s one of those things we think should stay constant, but for some of us it’s always in flux.

Elliott Lewis is the author of “Fade: My Journeys in Multiracial America” (Carroll & Graf, 2006). He has since moved again and is now a professor of journalism in New York. Visit Elliott’s website at www.lewisfreelance.com. 

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