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If only I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I’m white. It’s a question that’s followed me since my teen years—when my fair shade of skin, eyes the color of honey, low-cut hair, and my use of standard, grammar-conscious English elicited nagging questions: What are you? Do you have a white parent? You just speak so well and seem so smart—you’re not completely black, right?
Last summer, when some of my first dispatches on cultural appropriation and everyday racism went viral, one of the top Google searches leading to my personal website was the phrase “Is Derrick Clifton white?” My response, one I only shared among friends and loved ones: Why is this even a question?
There’s a way to inquire about someone’s heritage in an authentic way without communicating in a condescending manner, as if non-black folks get to be the authority on what constitutes blackness in America. That’s what makes the latest social media flap over the alleged appropriation of black identity not only invasive, but also damaging—removing much-needed humanity and important context from conversations about race.
Shaun King, an activist and journalist who has been extensively covering developments related to the Black Lives Matter movement, has been subjected to intense social media scrutiny (and racist attacks) for a while, especially given the volume and reach of his work. King, who tweets voraciously to an audience of more than 173,000 followers, now faces claims that he’s the “second coming of Rachel Dolezal” following a Breitbart blog report that alleges he’s actually a white man.
As Veronica Wells summarizes at Madame Noire, the team at Breitbart (which broke the story) claims that King lied about his lineage, as well as claiming “he lied about his ethnicity to get a scholarship to Morehouse from Oprah Winfrey.” Even further, Wells notes, “They also claim he lied about being in a car accident and being attacked by racists during his high school years in rural Kentucky. Breitbart claims to have obtained a copy of his birth certificate that seems to list a white man as his father.”
But as BuzzFeed’s Stephanie McNeal and Claudia Koerner report, King identifies as biracial. He has a white mother and a black father, with whom he didn’t have a relationship. It’s a distinction he’s made in previous interviews. That, however, wasn’t enough for the speculation to die down, making King’s name into a national trending topic on Twitter, in the midst of news about more racial justice protests in St. Louis.
Part of white supremacy is idea that white people get to define who is black. It’s a form of power.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) August 19, 2015
Y’all wanna talk about Shaun’s race and not liking who’s meeting w candidates.
We’re still dying and being gassed in St. Louis.
— Brittany Packnett (@MsPackyetti) August 20, 2015
The commentary about King’s race, and speculation based upon his physical appearance, made the Dolezal comparisons an easy go-to jab for the media and racist trolls alike. But there should be no direct comparisons between King and Dolezal whatsoever, because their stories just aren’t the same.
Dolezal, who was born to white parents, says she wouldn’t call herself African-American—but identifies as black. The disgraced NAACP leader also took deliberate steps to conceal her true physical appearance, altering it with traditionally black hairstyles and spray tans. That’s different from being biracial and referring to oneself as either black or biracial: Racial identity is not a game of pick-and-choose.
Aside from a stream of 30 tweets King sent in clarification, BuzzFeed spoke with childhood friends to corroborate his life story and others who have known him for years have also taken to social media in his defense. And in a lengthy post on Facebook, King’s wife, Rai, wrote in no uncertain terms to deny claims made about her husband.
“His story is beautifully difficult, and painful,” she wrote. “And I’ve actually encouraged him to tell it publicly because it is a unique expression of this country’s sordid and ridiculous history with race. But it’s his story to tell.”
Whatever you think you know about him, you don’t. Whatever you think has been uncovered, hasn’t. There is no part of his life that surprises me, his children, nor our closest family and friends. He has no secrets, but he does have a private life. And no amount of ignorance will force him to disclose the details of that private life until he’s ready. He doesn’t belong to you. And he owes nothing to anyone.
In its crusade against King, Breitbart resorted to doxing, pulling up his birth certificate and speaking with people in King’s family to not only corroborate their claims—but also to diminish his legitimacy as an outspoken critic of racism and white supremacy. In the process, the conservative publication spun what made Dolezal’s story a viral phenomenon, using it to bait the mainstream media into having the wrong conversation about race all over again.
Aided by the likes of CNN, the Daily Beast and the New York Daily News, the overwhelming debate about King’s identity has even overshadowed ongoing racial justice items still being pressed by Black Lives Matter activists. And the resulting speculation about King’s race actually underscores the reductive manner in which discussions about racial identity often evolve. Discussions about black, biracial, and multiethnic identities often negate the varying circumstances, family histories, and political battles that have muddied or erased their identities.
As feminist writer Mikki Kendall noted on Twitter, some people may be regarded as white in the mainstream based on physical appearance—such as actor Wentworth Miller—but they’re biracial. For example, take the Aylmer twins from the United Kingdom. One sister has red, straight hair and white skin, the other sister has dark skin and curly black hair. Many observers on the Internet and real-life onlookers refused to believe that they’re blood relatives. However, one parent is white and the other is half-Jamaican.
“No one ever believes we are twins,” Lucy Aylmer told the Daily Mail. “Even when we dress alike, we still don’t look like sisters, let alone twins. Friends have even made us produce our birth certificates to prove it.”
As I’ve written previously, the increasing visibility of multiethnic people has unearthed looming misconceptions about these individuals and how they experience their racial or ethnic identities. It includes invasive questions and demeaning monikers—such as “half-breed” and “mutt”—in addition to “frequent indignities and microaggressions simply because their physical features keep them from easy categorization.”
Regardless of government records, or the lack thereof, white people have no business legislating what constitutes black identity in America.
King’s circumstance, however, may very well prove that it takes more than a birth certificate to make a determination about one’s racial identity. In fact, race isn’t even mentioned on a birth certificate for many people, myself included. Government documents and record-taking methods have also historically reflected racial norms that stem from white supremacist ideologies, such as the “one-drop rule.” The conventional wisdom, back in the day, was one about purity—that if there was even a small ounce of African lineage for any individual, regardless of what they looked like, they had to be categorized as black.
Even so, for black people in America—many of whose ancestors arrived to this country’s shores as slaves—it’s often next to impossible to locate any records of our predecessors. Given that black people were originally regarded by the Constitution as three-fifths of a person, they weren’t deemed important enough to document. As a result, some black family histories were recorded, while others have been passed down verbally. Because it’s not on paper and protected in some manner, the verbal method often means some black histories are lost to history, moreso than for their white counterparts in America.
Regardless of government records, or the lack thereof, white people have no business regulating black identity in America. By the logic of Breitbart’s attack on King, every black or biracial person could easily become another Rachel Dolezal case—even when we, as people who know our heritage, know better than that.
Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice.
Screengrab via New York Daily News/YouTube
Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.