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The problem with trying to label Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal — the woman who recently resigned from the NAACP after revelations that she was white and not black as many believed — told Matt Lauer Tuesday on “The Today Show,” “I identify as black.”

On NBC News, Dolezal told Savannah Guthrie, “Nothing about being white describes who I am.”

She’s also talked about how Caitlyn Jenner’s story has resonated with her, leading some to ask if Dolezal could be considered “transracial.”

The problem with that is transracial is a specific term used to describe the process of adoption across race lines, according to Heather Dalmage, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University. If anything, she said, Dolezal is “passing” — a term used to describe someone who is classified as one race, and accepted as another. Dalmage says that’s different from “blackface“ — a term used to describe someone who’s parodying black culture, something Dolezal has denied.

Society is quick to seek out labels for people. And when an identity isn’t so clear-cut, perhaps because the facts aren’t all in place, further questions arise.

“On a personal level, we’re supposed to know who’s an ‘us’ and who’s a ‘them’,” Dalmage said.

But according to Gayle Wald, an American Studies professor at The George Washington University, speculation in this instance is a distraction from the larger conversation about race in America that emerged following events in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. These are discussions that have erupted over racial disparities between collective groups of people that are tied to ongoing tensions rooted in history.

Race has never been about individuals, Wald said. “Race is a collective assignment of people.”

Historically, she said, there have been other instances of white people claiming to be black. But it’s harder for a black person to make claims of whiteness. Wald referenced the saying that race is fiction and racism is fact.

“Race is a social construction that had to be invented. When we just focus on an individual, we lose the sense of how race has worked.”

In doing so, we deconstruct race to a definition tied only to a person’s skin.

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