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Rachel Dolezal's Story Sparks Questions About 'How People Experience Race'


A national conversation about race grew louder today with these four words - I identify as black. They were spoken by Rachel Dolezal in an interview this morning with NBC's "Today Show."


RACHEL DOLEZAL: It's a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of, are you black or white?

CORNISH: Dolezal resigned as president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash. She did that after her parents said she's white and has been misrepresenting herself as African-American. For reaction to her comments, we first went to the campus of her alma mater, Howard University, the historically black school here in Washington, D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can't just wake up one day and think you are another race. Just because you have, you know, great reverence for that, you know, race or that culture, does not make you that culture.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's crazy, but at the end of the day, she wanted to help black people. I mean, she shouldn't have lied.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't see how someone can identify as a race that they've never really experienced being and so they just decided to try it out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I think there's room for that, you know? I think we're used to people being born a certain way and staying that certain way. And nowadays, people are kind of coming around to the idea of transgender.

ERIC JAMES: I mean, I think it's crazy. I think it's not, you know, honest of people to do.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I don't really think it's possible just for a white woman to say I'm black.

CORNISH: That was Howard University student Emmanuel Johnson, and before that Eric James. He works there. We also heard from Imani Brown, Samia Hamlin, Michael Lott, who is a local high school student, and Howard senior Rasheed Van Putten. And to talk more about the questions this case raises about race and identity, we turn to Allyson Hobbs, author of "A Chosen Exile: A History Of Racial Passing In American Life." Welcome to the program, Allyson.

ALLYSON HOBBS: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: And Khadijah White - she's a communications professor at Rutgers University. She studies race and gender in the media. Welcome, Khadijah.

KHADIJAH WHITE: Thank you. I'm really happy to be here.

CORNISH: So you just heard some of the students there expressing some skepticism, to say the least. So I'll start with you, Allyson. What does it mean to identify as a particular race?

HOBBS: You know, I want to start by saying that I just think that this is wonderful that we have this conversation. We're having such a lively, candid public conversation about what race means and how it works in our society. I think that to identify as a particular race is a very complex and a very difficult concept in the sense that identity is so flexible. It's malleable. It is so complicated. It is so personal. So I think that it often means that you have a certain affinity. You have certain relationships that really bind you to members of a particular group.

CORNISH: You argue that identity may be malleable. What's your response to people listening to this, maybe people of color, who say it doesn't feel all that malleable, who feel like they can't change quote, unquote, "to another race" and that they can't access whatever privileges would come with doing that?

HOBBS: I think that's such an important question, and it really speaks to this issue about race as a social construction, that whenever someone says, oh, well, race is a social construction, it sounds so sort of intangible. And when we think about how people actually experience race, it's extremely tangible. It's extremely material. You know, if we just look at police violence, when we start thinking about incarceration rates, when we start thinking about economic inequality - I mean, I could go on and on about all of the forms of inequality in our country that really track along racial lines. So I think that there is lots of validity to the pushback on the idea of race being a social construction or identity being flexible.

CORNISH: Khadijah, does it sound less flexible to you when you hear people describing their experiences, and can the experiences that Rachel Dolezal talked about in terms of raising sons who are black - does that contribute to her argument?

WHITE: No. I would say that everything I've heard from Rachel in terms of her expressing how she understands her blackness has been located quite essentially in the midst of exotification. She's admired black culture, that she thinks it's beautiful. I mean, these are direct quotes. And when we talk about identity, we're talking about - Storehall (ph) is a famous theorist. He talks about it as the ways in which we speak of ourselves and our own experiences from a particular place and time, that it's about context. And she's lied repeatedly about her experiences. She's lied repeatedly about her identity. She's lied repeatedly about her past, her heritage, her family. And so in giving that lie, she's placed herself as a white woman as an authority on blackness. She's spoken as an authority on blackness, and that's, in every way, a betrayal of the community that she says she's a part of.

CORNISH: Given this discussion, there's also been parallels drawn around the idea of trans-racial - using this term - and somehow comparing it to the idea of being transgender. And I want to get your response first, Khadijah, to this parallel. Does it make any sense to you? How are you feeling about it?

WHITE: I think for some people who don't understand transgender identity, it seems parallel that someone is kind of changing an identity that other people had known them as and taking on a new one. But really, if you think about this particular case and even the way that race works, it's a really pernicious idea that trans people are fundamentally dishonest and untrustworthy. And that kind of idea fuels trans-phobia and the disproportional violence that transgender people endure. Transgender people are not trying to lie to the world and deceive them about who they are, and that's exactly what Rachel Dolezal has done in order to construct this idea that she's black.

CORNISH: Khadijah White, in the end, what has this discussion revealed to you about how people in America are thinking about race today?

WHITE: Well, can I just say that one of the things that stood out to me the most in this conversation is the way that black women themselves are disappeared in this conversation around Rachel. You know, black women are also disproportionately affected by violence and by unemployment, by murder, by homelessness the same way that transgender people are, and they've been pushed out of this narrative. I think what this whole thing reveals is the ways in which we have really inadequate spaces for communicating and language around communicating these ideas.

CORNISH: Allyson Hobbs, on this topic, do you sense people grasping at straws here in terms of language?

HOBBS: I do. I do. I think that this really points to a lack of appropriate language that we have. And I do think that this is a time where we need to sort of expand our language so that we can have the right words to use to describe the complexity of different identities.

CORNISH: Allyson Hobbs - she's the author of "A Chosen Exile: A History Of Racial Passing In American Life." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOBBS: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: And Khadijah White is a professor at Rutgers University. Thank you for joining us.

WHITE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And a special thanks to Khadijah White. She actually pulled off the road while traveling to speak to us on her smartphone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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