The saga of Rachel Dolezal and her claim to be an African American despite her upbringing reminds me of a couple of learning experiences 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 interesting to me. This post is not at all about Dolezal or 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.” She seemed offended by how she looked at me, so I apologized to her for making that assumption. She then explained that she is from Chile and considers herself Chilean. She spoke fluent Spanish and told me she didn’t know any Japanese.

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

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

From what I’ve learned, race, culture, and ethnicity 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 have 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?

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