The Limits of Identity: Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith

When news reports excoriating Rachel Dolezal’s representation of herself as Black first surfaced (the question of her presentation of herself as Indigenous seems to have not sparked similar interest or concern), she was almost universally condemned. The NAACP, however, for whom Dolezal worked as the President of the Spokane chapter, released several statements of support for Dolezal, saying this upon her resignation: “The NAACP is not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership but the institutional integrity of our advocacy.” But few seemed to share this position, or even ask what the value of Dolezal’s work as an activist, scholar, or teacher may have been.

My point here is not to undermine the outpouring of grief and anger regarding Dolezal or question the forms it took. Rather, I’m interested in the questions and stakes are emerging now that a much more well known scholar and activist, Andrea Smith, has become the subject of a somewhat similar scandal. Soon after the Dolezal story broke, a series of Tumblr posts, and a dedicated page, emerged under the heading “Andrea Smith Is Not Cherokee” (see Joanne Barker’s blog for a detailed chronology and analysis. Here is a statement from the author of the original Tumblr post about her motivations for writing about Smith. A Tumblr archive dedicated to outlining the issues around Smith’s representation of herself as Cherokee, and calls accountability around this, can be found here).

One of the things that is important to foreground in pairing discussions of Smith and Dolezal is attending to the differences between appropriating Native and Black identities. For example, Kim Tallbear, in a post on Facebook, notes how differing historical legacies and racisms lead to a particular kind of erasure of the practices of cultural appropriation of Native identities: “Indeed, the US has established a hard line between white and black yet it has simultaneously established the right to inherit everything from Native peoples, our land first, now our customs and our very identities.” Tallbear points to the ways in which appropriation of Native customs and identities is normalized in US society. While Dolezal has been roundly critiqued for her appropriation of Black identity, reports of Dolezal’s claim to have been “born in a tepee” are paraded as bizarre, salacious details rather than as a form of appropriation that is equally as egregious as the cultural appropriation of blackness.

There are also other significant dissimilarities between the two. Dolezal labored in relative obscurity in Spokane, apparently cobbling together work as an activist and adjunct university lecturer, and was not well known on a national or international level until the recent news reports hit. But Smith is an renowned international activist and academic superstar, is a lawyer and a tenured professor at UC Riverside, and is quite well known as an Indigenous and woman of color author, activist, and scholar. But while lack of familiarity with Dolezal’s activist and academic work perhaps made it easy discard her and that work, the same cannot be said for Smith, whose work and person-hood people seem less willing to dismiss (at least thus far). This perhaps offers an opportunity examine what seemed to be clearly demarcated relationships between identity, identification, and anti-racist activism in Dolezal’s case.

As a former scholar and current media activist whose work centers anti-racist methodologies — and who is a settler and person of Italian, Scottish, and Irish descent — I am not in position to offer the same kinds of important analyses regarding Smith that Indigenous activists and scholars in the field of Native/Indigenous Studies can, and nor to I wish to try. But I do have some things to say about identity and representational politics, as well as how these stories are circulating. In addition, my interest is in considering how and why academics and activists routinely legitimize and delegitimize people and their work based on identity, including ethnic and racial identities, and how this might structure participation or non-participation in anti-racist work.

In what ways is identity useful and important activist and academic work, and in what ways is it not? In the academy, people often, if not usually, assume identitarian relationships between scholars and their fields of study. In feminist studies, ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies, it’s not uncommon to hear whispers and suspicions questioning the motives behind someone choosing to work in a field when when the person has no announced or perceived identity relating to the field. Even if no one ever says it aloud, even if no one actually believes that said fields should be limited to scholars with the “proper” identities, identity often provides a grounding, a rationale for one’s interest, for both the scholar and those around them. Without it, can one’s motivations for entering the field ever not be suspect?

This is not actually a new question. Feminist scholars have created a large body of thought on the subject, going back to the 80s at least (see for example Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa edited anthology This Bridge Called my Back and Donna Haraway’s essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”).

Still, I find myself left today with these questions: how do our investments in Smith and Dolezal’s work change if our understanding of their racial identities shifts? What are the implications of continuing to value the work that they have done? This is not the same as saying that appropriating Native or African American identitites doesn’t matter. But perhaps it’s important to not assume that we already understand all the ways in which it matters and to take time to articulate them in detail. See here and here for many important insights in this regard.

Thus far the reaction to Smith has been quite different than Dolezal. Many seem to feel shocked and betrayed; others question the motives of arguing that Smith “is not Cherokee” and see the Tumblr as an attempt to discredit and delegitimize Smith’s work.

I am not here to make proclamations about Smith’s “true” racial and ethnic identity or heritage (in fact, I’m going to critique the very idea of such a thing a moment). However, I do think everyone should be listening to the concerns of the Indigenous scholars and activists who have come forward in the Tumblr page and have been writing about the issue (see the “syllabus” posted on the Tumblr page).

Without making direct reference to Smith, Joanne Barker highlights many of the issues at stake in calling Smith to account for how she has represented herself: “Everyone has a basic human right to identify themselves (who they are) and their membership in groups and polities (who they belong to). But self-definition and governance do not operate in a historical or political vacuum.” The notion that there may be limitations to one’s ability to self-identify, however, is not one that is commonly acknowledged or explored in activist or academic spaces.

What Dolezal and Smith make all-to-visible is the usually unacknowledged gap between self-identification and others’ recognition, or refusal to recognize, a person in the way they would prefer to be seen. As Barker addresses above, and as is common in the radical queer-identified spaces with which I am familiar, we take it as the norm, indeed as an imperative, that people be recognized and addressed however they desire, on their own terms. This is an intentional refiguring of social norms and legibility via a kind of politics of consent, in which we choose to privilege how people identify themselves over state, medical, colonial, and normative dictates and conventions.

But it is precisely because identity and recognition are not solely self-determined that practices have emerged to counter the sometimes violent and traumatic experiences of non-recognition both on the street and in institutional settings (universities, medical offices, border crossings are just a few example). In part, all moves to re-present oneself are conditional upon the recognition of the others, and thus the idea that we can have control over our identity and self-representation is a fantasy in the technical sense (not in the sense of being a fictional imaginary — these issues are quite material and real-worldly). The fantasy is that there is some sort of coherent self that can be molded exactly as we wish, and that this self is one over which we have absolute control, regardless of the participation of others we might encounter.

David Shorter takes up the issue of the relational aspects to identity politics in the context of his experiences with Smith during graduate school (full disclosure: Shorter, Smith, Barker, Tallbear and I all received our PhDs in History of Consciousness over roughly the same period):

“Reading many of the blogs and news sources over the last few weeks, both about the African American and American Indian cases of fraud, I can’t help but notice a lingering sense that people should not ‘police’ (a truly overwrought word in academic circles) other people’s identity. Though, to be sure, that is a particular form of individual based rights thinking to come to the conclusion, ‘Who am I to tell another person who they are or not?’

When the Dolezal story first broke, there were frequent comparisons between her desire to shift her racial identity and Caitlyn Jenner’s gender/sex transition from male to female (see here and here and here for some of the reasons I’m not using the term “transracial” and am instead taking up Barker’s language of “racial shifting“). The logic usually went something like this: Jenner is expressing her true/essential/biological self through her transition, but Dolezal is masking her true/essential/biological self by identifying as Black. Thus the former can be seen as legitimate, while the latter is not. But both logics are equally problematic, reifying gender, sex, and race as scientifically quantifiable rather than as social constructs that are hardly immutable. In addition, these logics implicitly demand a sort of equivalency between sex/gender transitions and racial shifting: if it’s acceptable to change sex/gender, why is not acceptable to change race/ethnicity (thus erasing concerns about cultural appropriation); or, conversely, so the logic goes, if racial shifting is unacceptable, why should we support people who change sex/gender? This kind of transphobic sentiment has been rampant in discussions of Dolezal, fueling trans-exclusionary “radical feminist” (TERF) arguments and practices in which cisgender women refuse to recognize trans identities and self-determination as anything but a threat to their identities as women.

These kinds of equivalences, however, are specious. Just because we understand sex, gender, and race all to be socially constructed doesn’t mean we have to understand them as operating identically, or even similarly. Because in actuality they don’t. Attempts to understand sex and gender through analogies of race usually wind up erasing and co-opting the specificity of work on race and ethnicity (see Janet Halley’s “Like Race Arguments). And, as has become apparent in transphobic discourses used to either critique or support practices of racial shifting, trying to conceptualize race and ethnicity through the lens of sex and gender transitions is equality problematic.

But of course many of the discourses around Dolezal in particular (less so thus far in discussions of Smith, as most of the writing thus far has come scholars and activists who are familiar with the problems of gatekeeping identity, though this tendency can also be seen in the most mainstream article on Smith to date) have seemed desperate to lock on to rationales of scientific and other forms of “proof.” In particular, the “visible evidence” (see Bill Nichol’s Representing Reality) of Dolezal’s indisputable whiteness was everywhere:

dolezel3 dolezel2 dolezel1

In every case, two photos of Dolezal are paired: one of her “true” identity — Dolezal as the picture of blond, white, feminine girlhood — and another of her presenting as Black as an adult, emphasizing changes in skin and hair color as well as her appropriation of Black women’s hairstyles. The photos provide all the “proof” that is needed for those of us sitting at home to determine Dolezal’s guilt.

But the fact is that people determine each others’ identity, and feel that they have a right to do so, all the time— as happens here with Dolezal as well as with transphobic responses to Jenner’s “coming out” that refused to recognize her as a woman. Cases such as Dolezal and Smith make visible the ways in which we ascribe limits to identities because they do not, as Barker is quoted above, exist in “a historical or political vacuum.” Thus sometimes people delegitimize others’ “right” to self-identify, as with Dolezal and possibly Smith, even if most of the time we challenge limits to self-identification and self-determination vociferously, as we can see in contemporary organizing such as Black Lives Matter and trans activist movements.

White supremacy works in endless ways to facilitate settlers’ ability to abdicate responsibility from addressing issues of race and colonization. In the past 24 hours, I’ve seen a number of people assert discussion of Smith’s identity is something that should be addressed by Native scholars and activists and not by settlers. But I’m going to make the opposite claim: rather than waiting for BIPOC folks to do all of the analytical work around Dolezal and Smith, settlers should take the risk of potentially doing or saying the wrong thing (always a danger when doing anti-racist work, but it is not something that should ever stop one from doing it anyway) and dive into doing the work, alongside and in conversation with Black and Indigenous people, of understanding the conditions that have prompted and enabled practices of racial shifting.

As Kim Tallbear notes: “Non-indigenous folks make important contributions to our field. One need not make problematic claims to tribal or indigenous identity in order to stand with us. That only continues the appropriation.” As a non-Native activist thinking about Dolezal and Smith, I’m learning a lot from Native scholars and activists about how to think through politics of identity and authenticity, particularly the importance of: 1), listening to and foregrounding Native feminists regarding frameworks for Native identity, belonging, and affiliation, including critiques colonial and racist metrics of determining identity; 2), not appropriating the culture or or identity of a community or group as one stands with it while doing anti-racist work; and 3), being transparent and honest about one’s location and identity when doing anti-racist activism, while understanding that there isn’t any positionality from which it is impossible to do such work  (and thus no excuse for choosing not to join in).