In the past two weeks the US media has been in a frenzy over allegations that civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal is really ‘white’. Dolezal has gone on the defensive, claiming that she identifies as ‘black’ – but these claims have in turn been met with criticism from all quarters of American society.
So what does this debate really hinge on? In an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, Pulitzer-prize winning report Amy Ellis Nutt claims that cultural identity has a strong biological substrate in different areas of the brain. This somehow should inform the way we view the Dolezal controversy.
“Individuals contain different selves, often contradictory selves, according to neuroscientists. There is no clump of grey matter or nexus of electrical activity in the brain that we can point to and say, “this is me, this is where my self is located.” Instead, we are spread out over our brain, with different areas of cortex controlling different aspects of who we are, from what we see and hear to how we think and feel.”
Ellis Nutt quotes Carolyn Yoon, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Yoon says she doesn’t “see what the big controversy is” regarding Dolezal’s claim to identify as a black person.
“Identity is highly malleable and is a function of what she comes in contact with, what she spends her time doing, is interested in and motivated by. Over time that will change your brain.”
Another Washington Post journalist, Jonathan Capehart, had no time for Dolezal’s antics:
“A white person identifying strongly with African Americans and African American culture is not a problem at all. The more the merrier in understanding who we are and our place in this nation’s history. A white person running a chapter of the NAACP is not a problem, either. That’s someone so down with the cause that they are putting their time, energy and clout into public activism on behalf of fellow Americans. But a white person pretending to be black and running a chapter of the NAACP is a big problem…
Blackface remains highly racist, no matter how down with the cause a white person is…”
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