Featured Philosopher: Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Race Talk, Justice, and Self-Respect: A Brief Analysis of Rachel Dolezal

Meena Krishnamurthy

Rachel Dolezal was president of her local NAACP and chair of a municipal police oversight commission. She went to Howard University, a historically black University, and was given a scholarship to do an MFA in fine arts based on her portraits of African Americans. She is also married to an African-American man and has an African-American son. She has adopted “black” cultural practices such as wearing her hair in box braids. As a college instructor, she also educated people about African-American history and contemporary political matters. Dolezal has long referred to herself as “black”. However, according to her family, she should be referred to as “white”. Dolezal’s parents told local media outlets that their daughter’s ancestry was, largely, Czech, Swedish, and German. Their revelation came soon after Dolezal reported a racially motivated hate crime.

Dolezal’s case is philosophically fascinating. It raises questions about the racial terms that we should use to talk about Dolezal; in particular, should we refer to her as “black”? As the current popular discussion of her case and philosophical discussions of race illustrate, ordinary language makes use of a variety of concepts of race. Some are based on objective (mind-independent) facts and others are based on subjective (mind-dependent) facts.

One objective concept of race that is implicitly appealed to in many of the current discussions is ancestral. To be black Dolezal must have (recent) sub-Saharan African ancestry. On this view, Dolezal ought not be referred to as “black” because her recent ancestors are not from sub-Saharan Africa.[1]

Another objective concept of race is behavioural. On this view, an individual’s race depends on whether she engages in certain behavior, behavior that is typically associated with a specific ancestry. Some, including Dolezal herself, have suggested that Dolezal is “black” because she engages in “black” behavior. For example, she wears certain hairstyles and clothing, behaviour that is typically associated with people who have sub-Saharan African ancestry. She is also an instructor of African American studies and has shown a deep commitment to promoting “black” causes through her teaching and participation in the NAACP. On this view, Dolezal ought to be referred to as “black”.

On a first-person subjective concept of race, race depends on first-person mind dependent facts. This concept depends on facts about an individual’s feelings and views about her own race. On this view, self-identification is what matters. Dolezal states explicitly that she perceives herself as being “black” (largely because of the cultural practices that she engages in) so she ought to be referred to as “black”.

There is also the third-person subjective concept of race. On this concept, an individuals’ race depends on facts about whether other individuals perceive or identify her as being of a particular race. We can refer to Dolezal as “black” so long as she is “perceived” by others as having sub-Saharan African ancestry, “perceived” as having the visible features of black individuals, and/or as engaging in the relevant behaviour. What matters most is the perceptions of “insiders”, that is, the perceptions of those who are already perceived as being members of the “black” community. Initially, many people in the black community – including members of the NAACP – perceived Dolezal as being black. This changed, however, after her parents’ revelation. She is no longer perceived as being black by many members of the black community, including members of the NAACP. She ought not be referred to as “black”, on this view.

As this brief overview demonstrates, there are many concepts of race that are available to us and that have been appealed to in current discussions of Dolezal. This raises the question, which, if any, of these concepts of race should we use or appeal to when we refer to Dolezal? I will argue that, in contexts where such considerations are relevant, such as the public sphere, political considerations of justice ought to be given priority. They trump, so to speak, when it comes to concept selection in the public realm. Dolezal, as the president of her local NAACP, chairwoman of a municipal police oversight committee, and now celebrity of the moment, is a public figure and political factors are of central importance. So, in asking whether we ought to refer to Dolezal as “black”, we have to ask ourselves, would doing so be consistent with and express a commitment to justice in the United States?

As John Rawls argues, a just society is one that ensures that each individual, black or white, can participate in that society while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect, that is, a secure sense of her equal worth. Referring to Dolezal as “black” is not consistent with the demands of self-respect or a just society.

If society broadly accepts the practice of referring to Dolezal as “black,” this would work to socially erase or make invisible the racial privilege that Dolezal experiences as someone who does not suffer from the downstream and long lasting effects of slavery. It would express the shared public sentiment that the national political history of racial oppression and the resulting differences in power can simply be cast away whenever a person of racial privilege desires to do so, for personal benefit or otherwise. Referring to Dolezal as “black”, would fail to publicly express respect for properly “black” people by failing to express an equal valuing and acknowledgment of the lived experiences and realities that properly “black” people experience. It would suggest that they and their experiences do not matter. Because of this, it is difficult for other properly “black” individuals to participate in a society that refers to Dolezal as “black” while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect. In short, referring to Dolezal as “black” is inconsistent with political values of self-respect and, in turn, is inconsistent with the demands of justice. We ought not refer to Professor Dolezal as “black”.

On what basis should we refer to people as “black”? When political considerations of self-respect and justice are taken into consideration, the ancestral concept of race ought to take linguistic priority in the public sphere. People who have sub-Saharan African ancestry are properly referred to as “black”. Ancestry is the appropriate basis for referring to people as “black” because it tracks politically relevant considerations such as oppression and slavery (historical political injustices), which are considerations that ought to be given weight to and taken into consideration when interacting with others in the public sphere. This is what self-respect and a just society require.

However, a just society requires that we respect not only black people, but white people too. If Dolezal self-identifies as “black” isn’t that at least some reason to refer to her as “black”? Wouldn’t not referring her to as “black” suggest that her own views and feelings about herself are unimportant, that they lack value? Wouldn’t it suggest that her own views about her history and participation in black culture and social movements, over the last ten years, are insignificant? Wouldn’t it, in turn, be difficult for Dolezal to participate in a society that refers to her as “white” while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect? The potentially surprising answer is that yes, it would be difficult for Dolezal and those like her to participate in such a society.

This suggests that, for reasons of justice, we may need to accommodate, in ordinary language, concepts of race that place emphasis on self-identification. For reasons of self-respect, the term “black” ought to be reserved for those who have sub-Saharan African ancestry. However, a new or different set of terms could be used to refer to those who merely self-identify as black. For example, some of have suggested the use of the term “trans-black.” Indeed, Dolezal herself uses this term to describe herself. Use of these types of terms would express that even those, who lack the relevant ancestry, but still self-identify as “black” are “black” in some sense. This would allow people such as Dolezal to participate in society while also maintaining a sense of self-respect.

There is some precedent for the use of these types of terms in regards to race. In India, the term “anglo-Indian” was historically used to refer to people who were not ancestrally Indian. They were typically of British ancestry, but were born in India, lived in and worked in India for many years (during the time of the British Raj), and often engaged in Indian cultural practices, such as language, dress, and food habits, among other things. We could similarly use a new and different set of terms to describe those who are not ancestrally black but self-identify as black. [2]

However, in order for “black” individuals to maintain a secure sense of self-respect, it must also be the case that similar terms exist for “black” individuals who self-identify as “white.” Historical precedence does exist. Consider the terms “oreo” and “coconut.” It is important to note that these are pejorative terms. They are insults that are used to refer to people who are, respectively, perceived as being black or brown in appearance and as having the relevant ancestral heritage but as acting in ways that are typically attributed to white people. The fact that there are terms to describe black and brown people who are identified as “white” or who self-identify as “white” but are used as insults is telling. It suggests that, even if black and brown people (in the ancestral sense) are identified – by themselves or others – as “white”, it is not considered morally acceptable to be identified in such a way.

In short, if white people like Dolezal are the only ones who can have access to morally neutral terms (or morally estimable terms) to talk about their chosen racial identity, then justice would not be served. The practice would be undermining of the self-respect of those who are excluded, namely, of black and brown individuals. Ultimately, as the episode “B.A.N.” from the FX show Atlanta highlights (see below), racial equity on this matter is simply not possible now and may never be. And, until it is possible, the Rachel Dolezals of the world may be stuck with the term “white” to talk about them themselves.


[1] Note that one this view race is also a third-person subjective concept. The fact that certain phenomena (physical, biological, and geographical) are conceived of as being of significance is a matter of social practice – it is a social fact – which, in turn, depends on the collective mental states or intentions of those who participate in the practice.

[2] In a similar, vein, Nell Irvin Painter has recently suggested that we need new terms for white allies, that is, ancestrally white people who wish to abolish white privilege. He suggested that we use the term “abolitionists” for such individuals, referencing “black” and “white” individuals “who joined together as ‘abolitionists’ to bring down American slavery in the 19th century.” See Nell Irwin Painter, “What is Whitness?”, New York Times, June 21, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/opinion/sunday/what-is-whiteness.html?_r=0

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