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.