Complexity of Identity and Appearance

The saga of Rachel Dolezal and her claim to be an African American despite her upbringing reminds me of a couple of learning experience about the complex issues behind identity and appearance. Her appearance, which seems to have changed to what could be considered African American features, is one aspect that is really interesting to me. This post is not at all about Dolezal herself and neither is it an analysis of why she chose to pursue her life the way she did. But, I referenced her issue because it reminds me of two experiences related to identity and why I am now more careful to assign a person to ethnicity/race based on their appearance.

When I was a discussion leader for an international students’ First Year Experience course at UCSB a couple of years ago, I made the mistake of assuming one of my students was from Japan. In my eyes (very subjective eyes), she “looked” Japanese. So, I asked her what part of Japan she came from. Her response was, “I’m not from Japan.” From how she looked at me, she seemed offended, so I apologized to her for making that assumption. She then explained to me that she is from Chile and she considers herself Chilean. She spoke fluent Spanish and told me she doesn’t know any Japanese.

I also have friends who are South African Indians. Their families have been there for generations and they themselves grew up in the age of apartheid.  If I had not known this prior to meeting them, through my wife, I would have assumed they’re from India. Luckily, I did not make the same mistake of asking them how India was, since I think they’ve only gone their to visit.

On a related note, I wonder how the adopted children (African-Americans) of friends of ours (Whites) will identify themselves growing up.

Race, culture, and ethnicity from what I’ve learned are social and political constructs. So, who decides and defines who belongs to a certain race/ethnicity? Is it by appearance? What if that person doesn’t conform to what is generally attributed features of a certain race? Is there a formula to determine which group a person should belong to? What about a multi-racial person?

Clearly, I don’t have the answer to this, but rather more questions.

 

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