Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Race claims raise intriguing questions

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Race claims raise intriguing questions

On his Facebook page, my friend Leon Dash invited comments on my last column in which I offered to trade Ben Carson for Rachel Dolezal/ Nkechi Amare Diallo. Commenters spared me the vitriol Dolezal/Diallo usually receives. However, they did provide some interesting critical feedback. Not surprisingly, no one opposed trading uncle Ben or receiving Dolezal in exchange for him. In fact, I suspect most were fine with getting nothing in return for the paragon of neo-coonery. In this small sample, animus toward the shuffling surgeon outstripped amity toward Dolezal.

Respondents rightly expressed skepticism about Dolezal/Diallo's claim to be black. I share this perspective with some reservations.

Her assertion of blackness grows out of an academic theory, the social construction of race. This concept sees race as an idea, albeit a bad idea, one that necessitates racial oppression. These scholars consider race "unreal" and "fluid." In their seminal work, "Racial Formation in the United States," the concept's most prominent contemporary theorists, Michael Omi and Howard Winant identify race as "a floating signifier." This awful metaphor partly explains why the concept has not captured the public's imagination. Nonetheless, it does partially describe reality. From the truth that race is a political designation, which changes over time, and across space, some social constructionists like Dolezal/Diallo seem to suggest a person can arbitrarily change their racial identity.

To a great extent, Dolezal/Diallo's claim to blackness takes social construction theory to its logical conclusion.

Genetically, race is not real but though fluid racial identity is anchored in lineage, in one's ancestry. Thus, as Angela Onwuachi Willig notes in a 2016 New York Times op-ed, "the social, political and economic meanings of race, or rather belonging to particular racial groups, have not been fluid." Onwuachi Willig also observes that whites in intimate relations with blacks regularly witness loved ones bludgeoned by the hammer of racial oppression and they may also be victimized by racially motivated discrimination. Because these individuals are occasionally deprived of their white skin privilege, she claims, they may come to think of themselves as no longer white.

Dolezal/Diallo's experiences conform to Onwuachi Willig's hypothesis.

Even though Dolezal/Diallo's DNA results suggest she has no ancestors of African descent, I find myself fascinated by the question of whether or not she should be considered black.

The term "transracial" was coined to describe the experiences of black children who were adopted and raised by white families. Adults who experienced this upbringing often discuss their assimilation into white culture and alienation from African-American people and black culture. Dolezal/Diallo's transformation of the concept "transracial" to mean someone who identifies differently than their racial designation at birth opens up a way to understand people like her.

Indeed, we have several studies about assimilated blacks, people who immerse themselves in white American culture. C.L.R. James, author of perhaps the best book ever written, "Black Jacobins" in his "autosociography," "Beyond A Boundary" describes his young adult self as a "black European." Nathan Hare, the founder of the first Black Studies Department at San Francisco State University, termed middle-class blacks whom he wrote about, black Anglo-Saxons.

So, while I'm not sure Dolezal/Diallo's partial appropriation of the term "transracial" is appropriate, it does raise intriguing questions. If socialization in English culture could make James a "Black European," why can't Dolezal/Diallo's experiences make her a "white" African-American? How do we understand a white person who is socialized into African-American culture?

Given that U.S. public institutions and the privately owned culture industry are steeped in whiteness and that few whites are raised in majority black neighborhoods and are socialized in African-American institutions Dolezal/Diallo's type of "transracial" is rare. Raised in New York City projects around largely black and Latinx people, sociologist Dalton Conley notes in his memoir "Honky" that despite feeling "culturally more similar" to his "dark hued peers than to the previous generations" of his family, his whiteness conveyed privileges upon him denied his dark-skinned peers. Yet, the blond-haired, dreadlocked, dashiki-wearing graduate student I met a decade and a half ago who claimed he was "aesthetically black" exists. Are people like him just allies or are they something more?

A child of the '60s Black Power movement, I conceive of blackness as a dialectical interaction between ancestry, culture and consciousness. Dolezal/Diallo seems to have two of these three attributes. If a hierarchy exists, wouldn't culture supersede ancestry? Isn't consciousness or ideology more important than lineage? However, for me all three factors must be present to claim blackness.

So, I do dispute Dolezal/Diallo's claim to blackness but I find her notion of transracialism compelling. And yes, I'd still trade uncle Ben for her.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is

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