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‘Choosing’ to be black

Source: Matthew Henry (via Unsplash)

by Sarah Harris

The University and College Union has recently stated that students should be allowed to ‘identify’ as black regardless of the colour of their skin or their background. Unsurprisingly, this decision sparked a controversial debate amongst the public and brought into question whether this would fall into cultural appropriation. Stating in their ruling, ‘our rules commit us to ending all forms of discrimination, bigotry and stereotyping.’ 

Image result for Rachel Dolezal
Rachel Dolezal maintains ‘I identify as black’. Source: Aaron Robert Kathman (via Wikimedia Commons)

This isn’t the first time this topic has been under scrutiny. In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was called out by her own parents for falsely passing as a black woman when she had been born to white parents. Dolezal resigned from her role and was dismissed from her position as a lecturer in Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. Although Dolezal acknowledged that she had no black ancestry, she maintained that she identified as black. She went on to release a memoir in 2017 based on her journey of racial identity titled Full Colour: Finding My Place in a Black and White World.

At what point are we supposed to call out blatant racism?

Dolezal claims race is a social construction as do many of her supporters, but to what extent does this allow us to engage in acts deemed as cultural appropriation. If we’re allowed to ‘identify’ as black, should we also be allowed to darken our skin, wear bindis to festivals or have braids? At what point are we supposed to call out blatant racism? 

In 2017, a paper was published by feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia, that suggested there were similarities between transracial and transgender identities. This subject, explored by many a sociologist, suggests that if individuals are allowed to identify with a gender they were not born with, surely, they should be allowed to do the same with race. Exploring this topic in his book, UCLA professor, Rogers Brubaker argues that although this phenomenon is offensive to many, it is psychologically real to many people. 

Praise Lubangu, Master’s student at the School of Chemistry said, ‘I’m not against people getting braids and locks. Really, I quite like that; I appreciate people asking me stupid questions about my hair because how else are they supposed to learn? But saying you’re black when you’re not? Please stop.’ 

“It’s important to know where to draw the line”

Skin lightening cream and bleaches are so easily accessible and even promoted in some cultures. Ironically, recent ‘trends’ in Western society includes lip fillers, butt enhancers and deep tanning. Isn’t it strange how each ethnicity idealises the other without thinking about to what extent they’re engaging in the appropriation of a culture?

It’s true, we live in a rapidly advancing society where gender and race are both as fluid as ever, but it’s important to know where to draw the line. The UCU clearly didn’t mean any offence by the alteration of their rulings, but truly, this somewhat encourages cultural appropriation which is just as much an issue as discrimination, bigotry and stereotyping.

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