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Why do some people adopt an ethnicity that does not appear to be their own?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 26 June 2015


The case of Rachel Dolezal, the civil rights activist who seemingly pretended to be African-American, and says she "identifies as black" (despite having no known black ancestors), has refocussed public attention on matters concerning ethnic identity.  In particular, it raises the issue of the status of individuals appearing to be of a given ancestry but who declare a different identification.  

Ms Dolezal, 37, has been widely criticised in the US for building a career around racial issues, while deceiving people about her (Czech, Swedish and German)ancestry.  She says her identity was shaped by "my self-identification with the black experience as a very young child" but, according to her father, she only started to self-identify as black when she was in her 20s and 30s.  Photos of a young Rachel Dolezal, show a pale complexion and straight blond hair, contrasting with her current apparently darker skin and dark curly hair.  Amid the controversy, she resigned as head of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. 

“You’ve got a white woman coming in, that got a full-ride scholarship to the black Harvard (i.e. Howard University in Washington DC), which took her for a black woman and gave her a full scholarship” Lawrence Dolezal said.  “And ever since then she’s been involved in social justice advocacy for African Americans. She assimilated into that culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.”  He added: “But unfortunately, she is not ethnically by birth African-American. She is our daughter by birth. And that’s the way it is.”

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So what principles should apply to determine a person's racial or ethnic classification?  (An issue also very relevant to the multicultural Australian context.)  These matters can be better understood, if we are aware of the distinction between "race" and "ethnicity", used by demographers and statisticians (who are required to consider and carefully apply such definitions) in Census and other collections. 

A global study of ethnic and racial classification, funded by the US Census Bureau and published by the UN, found that populations are generally accounted under a broad heading such as "origin", "ancestry", "race", or "ethnicity".  Each concept is recognised as legitimate in its own way and relies on a slightly different manifestation of shared roots.  Ethnicity is said to discern itself in cultural practices or beliefs directly about oneself.   Ancestry involves beliefs about one’s forebears, while race places emphasis on physical traits. 

Many censuses are said to emphasise the personal, self-selected aspect of "ethnicity".  A person’s ethnicity is what the individual says it is, and is not the product of an objective external measurement.  In contrast, "Raceis your biologically engineered features.  .....It is not something that can be learned or disguised".   The difference between the two concepts comes into sharpest contrast in the case of inter-racial adoptions.  An adopted child of a given race can take on the ethnicity of their adoptive parents but it is not possible for them to change their race.   A person, however, can be of mixed racial descent, and, in terms of ethnicity, can identify with more than one ethnic group.

In cases of identity, firstly there is the matter of official recognition, and then a further issue of social recognition, which may not necessarily follow.

The US (in common with many countries in North and Central America, and the Caribbean) uses a race-based definition of African-American.  In the US Censusand other official statistics, "Black or African American refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa".  (The word "Negro", the polite term used for Black before the introduction of "African-American", means "black" in Spanish and Portuguese.)

Thus, even though Rachel Dolezal married a black American with whom she had a son, and identifies as African-American, she is not an African-American for the purposes of the US Census.  Identifying as Black, however, could have provided her with official classification as African-American, had the US used an ethnicity-based definition (which it does not).  Both approaches are legitimate but (based on opinions expressed in the US media), there seems little public support in America for regarding her as African-American, and officially she is European by race.

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Australia and New Zealand apply their own definitions in this general area. 

Up until the 1966 Census Australia collected population data under the category of race.  From the 1971 Census an Indigenous question based on "origin" was introduced, while there was also a more general question on "ancestry" from 1986.  (A person must be at least partly of Indigenous origin to be classified as such in Australia.)

New Zealand, however, does use a concept of ethnicity.  In their Census it is defined as "the ethnic group or groups a person identifies with or has a sense of belonging to.  It is a measure of cultural affiliation (in contrast to race, ancestry, nationality, or citizenship).  Such ethnicity is self-perceived and a person can belong to more than one ethnic group".  New Zealand also has a separate Indigenous Census question whereby anybody stating descent from a Māori ancestor is included in their Indigenous population count.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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