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Black by choice?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | July 14, 2015

A couple of weeks back, we witnessed two quite different but intriguing cases of people laying claim to an African-American identity without having the lineage that we generally assume provides that identity – biological descent from African slaves in the United States. These two people were, in effect, asserting that they could choose to be African-American.

One was the media-circus case of Rachel Dolezal, who had become a leader in Spokane’s African-American community despite, it was eventually revealed, no apparent African-American ancestors. She, in effect, chose to be black.

The other was the somber and uplifting address by President Obama on the occasion of the murders in Charleston. He delivered a sermon in the style and cadences of the African-American church, from the start – “Giving all praise and honor to God”– to the end – breaking out in “Amazing Grace” – and in the middle – explaining the obligations of receiving undeserved grace. This from a man with no ancestral claims on African-American culture, a man with a white mother and a Kenyan father who was raised by white grandparents. Along the way Barack Obama nonetheless chose to be African-American and act as if he, too, came from a family that endured slavery, sharecropped cotton, and sang gospel.

Barack Obama singing at memorial service

President Obama sings “Amazing Grace” during services honoring Rev. Clementa Pinckney, on June 26, 2015. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Choosing who one wants to be is a powerful American cultural theme. It would be amazing if we are glimpsing – though still far from entering – an era when even American blackness is a choice.


Among America’s attractions to immigrants over the centuries has been the opportunity to make and remake oneself as one chooses. Change names, change clothes, work on losing the accent, and even a Kowalski or a Ferrari can pass as a Mr. Smith – or at least, the children can. Such transformations were not easy, but shedding ethnic identities was far more possible here than in the old country. Conversely, then, staying Polish or Italian in America also became more a matter of purposeful decision.

Probably the most researched case of how fated ethnicity became chosen ethnicity is that of Jews. For millennia, individual Jews in the old world were as marked by and confined by their birth identities as any people. Even converting to Christianity, either to avoid immediate death or to open new doors, was no guarantee of acceptance, as the would-be ex-Jews of Spain in the era of the Inquisition and of Germany in the era of the Nazis painfully learned.

Shucking a Jewish identity was a lot easier in America, especially if one did not “look Jewish,” avoided Jewish neighborhoods, and explained one’s accent as being German or Czech. Even easier for the children. U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright learned of her Jewish ancestry only when she was an adult. Her Czech-born parents converted while living in exile in Britain in 1941 and never told her. Current Secretary of State John Kerry had a similar revelation in 2004: “Both his father’s parents … converted to Christianity because of antisemitism, and they changed their name from Cohen to Kerry when they immigrated to the United States.”

The increasing ease of dropping a Jewish identity has become matched by the increasing ease of adopting one. Not only is conversion into Judaism relatively simple in modern America, so is less formal identification as a Jew. Even without rabbinical conversion, many spouses in interfaith marriages participate in Jewish family, community, and synagogue life as if they had been born Jewish. Sociologist Bruce Phillips, analyzing a large Pew survey of self-identified American Jews, points to a growing number of people who seem to be “Jews by affinity.” With no apparent formal religious or family connection, they declare themselves Jewish because they feel Jewish. Going or coming, being a Jew in America is increasingly a matter of individual choice.

Black is different

Being African-American is different, way different. The “markings” of black identity in America are much sharper and the consequences over the centuries of being so marked in America have been far more damaging. As a light-skinned biracial writer recently put it, “Sometimes identifying as black feels like a choice; other times it is a choice made for me.” And her darker-hued siblings have no choice.

Of course, blacks “passing” as whites has been a common practice for centuries, but one that required alienation from kin (described recently by another black journalist) and was freighted with severe risk if revealed (or simply charged, as in a 1955 case). There have also been occasional cases of whites posing as blacks (examples here), especially when interracial marriage was illegal. There may be more cases today than just the curious one of Rachel Dolezal, as blackness has gained cachet in some circles and the penalties it carries have declined. (Declined but still remain high, as discussed in earlier blog posts here, here, and here.) As to the case of Barack Obama, despite his complexion and hair, he still had choices. He could have decided that he was…. oh…, a Muslim of East-African or Indonesian heritage rather than a Christian of African-American heritage.

Twenty-first-century Americans cannot be whatever they want to be, but the constraints are loosening. (Even gender has become more voluntary and self-constructed.) The most dramatic change may come some day when Americans exercise as much choice about being or not being African-American as they exercise about being or not being Catholic or Irish-American.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

Comments to “Black by choice?

  1. What about self identity based on environment?

    If a Latino or a person of Dominican descendant with a darker completion is assumed to be African American and is treated as so, he or she could experience the same racism as a person of actual African American descent. But is that individual’s experience with racism valued at less, because they are not actually African-American? Even though that person might not be able to control people’s assumptions on his or her race?

    What if a person of Japanese ethnicity is raised in a Chinese dominate community and becomes accustomed to Chinese culture. Is it wrong for them to identify as Chinese even if they can not identify with their actual culture? What if that person was white?

    It seems that minorities who fit certain stereotypes are not as able to choose their own identity as those whose appearance is more general. Yet it is interesting that some of those who can choose their own identity have chosen to identify as a minority. It seems as if the minority struggle nowadays is idealized and romanticized, which takes away from the harshness of its reality.

  2. With all due respect Claude Fischer: the two intriguing examples I’ve seen recently that both throw a wrench into evidently the New Millennium’s understanding of what is Gender and Race Identity is Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal.

    Quoting Jenner when asked by Diane Sawyer “Are you a woman?” he replies “for all ‘practical’ purposes” yes, “he” is. Ditto in the case of Rachel: For all “practical” purposes yes, “I am Black.”

    As for your take on President Barack Obama you fall way off the mark (truth) -to put him side by side w/ Rachel is, to be kind, ignorant at best. The racial issue in USA is NOT “African American” it’s about being COLORED. (Red) Native American, (Yellow) Oriental (Brown) Hispanic. I lived as an Italian-American in the 40s we were called “greaseballs” then (we were olive-skinned & ate a lot of olives!) Racism is all about a color other than LILY WHITE.

    Re: Obama Tsk Tsk…

  3. Bisexuals (half gay, half hetero) seem to usually choose one or the other sexuality mode…and probably choose the mode that is easier, less confusing, and offers greater opportunities.

    Similarly, Barack Obama (half white, half black) probably chose to identify as black when he left his white mom/grandparents and diverse Hawaii for the mainland for college and career because he figured that identifying as black offered him more opportunities and perhaps was easier and less confusing.

    However, mixed race people are a rapidly expanding demographic and hopefully one day Barack Obama will provide important validation to this somewhat in-the-shadows demographic by clearly and publicly identifying himself as mixed race.

    The media has been a big part of the obfuscation, particularly the thought leader New York Times, by only referring to Mr. Obama as black.

    Alas, there is an element of GENDER DISRESPECT in totally ignoring the race of the female (mother, white) as if the female and her identity does not matter just as in old patriarchal times.

    Applause for Professor Fischer for applying clear observations, solid research, critical thinking, and a bit of gentle humor to the important sociological-psychological topic of identity.

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