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The Mixed Race Community’s Response to Rachel Dolezal

Last Saturday I volunteered at the 2nd annual Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles, for which I had been a featured writer the year before. Naturally, panels, comedians and attendees discussed the Rachel case, which had broken just a day before. While of course there is no one viewpoint for the entire mixed race community, and there are certainly mixed race individuals who support Dolezal, here is a brief rundown of what some of our presenters had to say:

1. USC Communications Professor Marcia Dawkins

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Marcia Dawkins

The day before her panel, “Mix Mesh Blend: How Diversity, Tech & Creative Storytelling are Changing Everything,” Dawkins pulled over the side of the 405 freeway to take an interview with BBC World TV. While concerned over Dolezal’s public outing and the potential effect it would have on her safety, she also discussed the public confusion over why Dolezal felt she couldn’t have made a difference in the black community as a white woman.

At the panel on Saturday, Dawkins mentioned the eeriness of speaking about Dolezal with the headline under her image reading “US Race Identity Controversy: prominent activist says she’s African American,” and how Dawkins’ image with that headline could have sent the false message that it was she herself who had donned blackness through tanners and hairstylists and not Dolezal.

This apprehension is a common concern within the mixed race community. Many, like Dawkins, are light-skinned with partial European features and have had to prove their blackness to others throughout their lives. With the entrance of Dolezal, many fear that they will be placed under the microscope once again. Dawkins is the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity.

2. Writer and Performer, Aaron Samuels 

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Google

Before making his way to the Mixed Remixed Festival as the Live Show Host, Samuels made a pit stop to address the Dolezal controversy for the Today Show.

“She made a choice in her life to say ‘I’m going to borrow these aspects of blackness in order to live my life,’” Samuels says. “And that is not a choice that many black individuals have in this country.” This viewpoint is another that perfectly sums up many biracial and black individuals’ response to Dolezal’s choice. While Dawkins looks “too white to be black,” Aaron’s experience as a half black individual with a Jewish mother is that he is too black to be Jewish and too Jewish to be black.

Therefore, for Samuels, he has spent a lifetime asserting that Jewishness and blackness can exist simultaneously in one person. Samuels’ statement isn’t meant to imply that he wishes he had the choice to identify differently than what he is, but rather that racial identity is intrinsically tied to our everyday experiences, from friendships to academics to confused stares as we walk down the street. Samuels is the author of Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps.

Writer and Public Health Consultant, Willy Wilkinson

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Willy Wilkinson

Willy Wilkinson graced the Mixed Remixed Festival stage on Saturday night with comedy and spoken word about his experiences as a half white, half Asian transgender individual. He opened his act with the words (or my loose quote of them), “It’s an interesting day to be both biracial and trans,” for which he received loud applause from the audience.

Most of us know that some are comparing Dolezal’s experience to that of transgender individuals. Wilkinson didn’t expand on this too much, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’ll instead share my own take on the very real differences.

A transgender individual can be born in a male body, identify completely female, and still enjoy traditionally “male” activities. The sex a person identifies with is biological. It is only pure gender that is a social construct. Conversely, there is no biological component to race. We pass down DNA, which results in pigmentation and physical features. Other than that, race is a completely arbitrary concept. What isn’t arbitrary are people’s responses to race.

All of Dolezal’s physical markers are self-applied, and any responses she gets from the public regarding her “black race” are due to those physical markers. Therefore, she has literally “put on” race in the most arbitrary and surface way possible, while transgender individuals undergo surgery and hormone injections in order to give themselves the biological features associated with their correct gender. Wilkinson underwent surgery just a couple of years ago but has always self-identified male. His forthcoming book is entitled Born on the Edge of Race and Gender: A Voice for Cultural Competency.

While there is no single viewpoint for the entire black or biracial community, the general consensus from those at the Mixed Remixed Festival seems to mirror my own. We have spent our own lifetimes, and many lifetimes before us, asserting our place in society as multiracial individuals. To be multiracial is to fully claim our complete and seemingly contradictory selves. We assert our multiracial status in order to reject the idea that we must renounce part of our own culture and heritage. What Dolezal has done, on the other hand, is to reject her culture and take on a different one.

We expand our multiracial and complex identities, while Dolezal abandons hers.

Shannon Luders-Manuel

Shannon Luders-Manuel

Shannon Luders-Manuel is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

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