Are we whatever we are or however we identify?

I saw the following video a couple of days ago in The Guardian. It concerns a woman who appears white but, in part due to her mixed-race heritage, identifies as black.

It put me in mind of the inverse point that Dave Chappelle is making in the following two-part sketch (warning: it uses the n-word with frequency):

The joke Chappelle is making is that, despite the belief of the blind white supremacist in the video, he is black. But that belief is pushed to the most ludicrous extreme and it is funny because, despite his personal belief in his whiteness, everyone else sees that he is evidently black.

The video posted by the Guardian is only a little different. The woman in the video evidently has black heritage. But she, herself, is clearly white. And she documents the various ways that people look at her and deem her white despite her deep-seated belief that she is black. At one point, we meet her daughter, whom she tried to raise as a black person despite her being evidently white. The daughter was told repeatedly as a child that she was black, and believed what she was told, until it dawned on her that everybody else viewed her as white. She concluded, to the chagrin of her mother, that she was obviously white.

If we hold the view that there is but one race – the human race – and skin colour is nothing more than an greater or lesser amount of melanin, it is hard to maintain the argument that the lady in the Guardian is making. You either have more melanin, making you appear dark skinned, or you don’t. It’s nothing to do with heritage, or upbringing, or feelings and everything to do with the amount of pigmentation in your skin.

But if we do insist on maintaining racial distinctions, suddenly matters become much more complicated. The question becomes more than one of pigmentation and one that takes into consideration other things. But then, of course, the other things that come into play mean that race is more than just the way you appear. And that leads us to videos of white people trying to argue that they are black or black people joining the white supremacist movement. It is the very fallacy upon which the social construct of race is predicated.

The problem comes in that the lady in the video wants to insist upon her blackness due to her black family lineage. But lots of us will have such in our familial line if we are willing to go back far enough. Just how far back do we need to go in order for us to credibly consider ourselves a different race? At heart, the question revolves around this: does how we feel about our heritage or a biological reality of melanin determine our we define our ethnicity?

Our culture is continually pushing the line that you can be whatever you want to be. The way you feel inside is far more important than either biological realities or the evident perception of others about the way things are in reality. On such views, if your biological sex, or ethnicity, doesn’t match how you feel inside, your feelings are the arbiter of reality. What matters is how you perceive yourself. Whilst our culture is currently insisting that is reasonable when it comes to sex and gender, it was roundly condemned last time it reared its head on the question of race.

But if we really can be whatever we want to be, if we can pick our gender, why not choose to be black, white or any other ethnicity? If we can’t pick our ethnicity because it is rooted in a biological reality, why should we be able to choose to identify as anything at all? At the heart of these questions lies just one: are we what we are or whatever we feel?