Shaun King Is Not Rachel Dolezal: What the Media Gets Wrong About Race in America

By Malaika Jabali

As they have in the past, the conservative truth spinners behind the online media outlet Breitbart News Network have initiated an attack against yet another person of color fighting for civil and human rights. The target this time is activist Shaun King, who has been vocal about the police abuse that has permeated our consciousness for over a year. In likening Shaun King to Rachel Dolezal, the network accused King of lying about being half black in order to receive a “Sons of Oprah” scholarship to attend Morehouse College, a historically Black college and university.

There are some obvious logical deficiencies we could point to as to why BNN needs to have a seat. For starters, few Black people could look at Shaun King and identify him as being a completely white man. Race construction involves a composite of man-made ideas, but phenotype is a key feature among them. Plenty of African-Americans and Black people throughout the Diaspora have light-skinned relatives who look like King. While some may have taken a double take, we accepted his identity and let him do him. Even when Rachel Dolezal’s family revealed that she was lying about her race, many Black Americans were more amused than betrayed and took to Twitter to share in a collective laugh.

Secondly, unlike Rachel Dolezal, who has fluctuated between identifying as white or Black when the mood suits her and has played dress up in the corresponding cultural signifiers, King has been consistent in his identity. As he offers in a statement on Daily Kos, which he felt compelled to write to silence the cacophony of accusations that permeated the media, "[n]ot on forms, not for convenience or privilege, and not for fun and games, have I ever identified myself as white. I was never a white guy pretending to be black. Not once, ever, did it occur to me that I was being phony or fraudulent or fake. Quite the opposite—I always believed I was living the truest form of my self.” His wife Rai offered similar sentiments in a personal facebook post, noting that “[t]here’s no spray tan, no fake Black hairstyles, no attempt to make himself appear any more ethnic than he already does.”

Breitbart is also misguided in that it failed to take into account that neither parents nor police officers are beholden to tell the truth on government forms. More than anything, rather than being some whistleblower that nobody in the movement asked for, Breitbart is doing what it’s always done, working to delegitimize those who resist racism and neoliberal policies.

While the site was clearly logically deficient, it is unfortunate that mainstream press took it on with such fervor, and Shaun’s story points to a larger problem with how the media, and our society at large, addresses race construction in America. Primarily, we fail to address either the history of white supremacy that created race to begin with or how white supremacy continues to define race today.

In the wake of these questions on race, some may ask who “gets to Black?” But by framing the issue in this way, we assume that blackness was ever created as a thing to “get.” Blackness was an imposition. It was forced onto the Ashanti and Fulani and Hausa and Yoruba and Igbo people by Europeans to justify African enslavement. It was imposed on enslaved African children so that they would be property with no chance of humanity but for death or risking life and limb to escape from its clutches so that white elites could enhance their wealth.

Blackness was created precisely to be an immutable trait that could not be formed through adoption. According to the likes of European philosophers like Francois Bernier, Albert de Gobineau and Immanuel Kant, you were born with “Negro blood.” This “Negro blood” made you impermeable to pain and made you smell black. It made you all the contradictory stereotypes required for you to bear the burden of capitalist construction in the Western hemisphere. It made you the best laborer but also lazy. It made you lustful and thus capable of producing more children fit for slavery but also undesirable. It made you unintelligent but also clever and dangerous and thus requiring your enslavement in the midst of growing abolitionist movements.

Blackness didn’t originate with my ancestors’ feelings about how they wanted to self-identify. It was created over a period of centuries through very specific, deliberate constructions in European and white American schools of biology, phrenology, philosophy, anthropology, and political and legal systems to uphold the intrinsic superiority of whiteness and corresponding black inferiority.

Because of this imposition, people with any amount of self-identified or perceived African ancestry in the West were forced to make do. So-called Black people didn’t create the rules of race; we just endured them. If we looked “black,” according to the phenotypical descriptions white anthropologists created, we were black and faced all the socio-political consequences with which that came.

Yet, many of us have miraculously thrived in spite of this imposition, and through our resilience and cultural ingenuity, we made blackness a thing to behold. So now, we face a very modern question of who “gets to be black.” But this “opportunity” to more or less “get to be” black only exists today because centuries of struggle, cultural achievements, and philosophical wrestling from our brightest thinkers molded “blackness” from a tool of oppression exclusively brandished by Europeans into a sharp weapon that often organizes us in the face of racism and emboldens us to uphold cultural norms and African traditions that survived our genocide. Thus, it is insulting when so-called transracialists play double dutch with this construction called race, hopping on the backs of our ancestors to claim blackness like a costume while our ancestors lived and died to make it something of value.

Like many of those who believe they have African ancestry and who share the physical traits associated with “blackness,” Shaun King didn’t merely choose to be black. I doubt he had much choice to avoid being teased and violently attacked by whites who perceived his appearance as “black.” Moreover, as he has stated, it was known amongst his family that Shaun was very likely a product of his white mother’s extra-marital affair with a Black man. According to the rules of race in America, having a Black father was enough to impose blackness onto King. For her self-preservation in rural Kentucky, King’s mother probably would have resisted parading this news.

But even if King did not have this Black American history, his appearance was one that prevented him from ever being able to really identify as a white person and that prevents most “Black” people, regardless of their actual ethnic make up, from identifying as white. Our own president, who is in symbolically the most powerful position in the world, cannot escape the racial insults that have been associated with Black Americans since the 1700s merely because of his phenotype despite not having an ounce of known African-American ancestry.

The police forces, courts, media outlets, predominately white employers, and entertainment institutions who primarily use phenotype to impose, or depose, blackness onto or from others to serve their own interests or allay their own fears are following an entrenched system of race construction that cannot be dismantled purely by self-identification. While scientific advancements have demolished the idea that race is some indelible genetic trait, the inequality and racism that has been left in the rubble of racist constructs will not be countered by modern claims on the amorphousness of race.

However fictional race is, our experience with racism based on mythological descriptions of “blackness” is very much real. While I have little choice to be “black,” while Shaun King had little choice but to be “black,” and like my ancestors had little choice to be “black,” I am nevertheless empowered to co-opt the tool that has been used against me to dismantle the white supremacist institutions that led to its creation.

Photo: Scott Wade

Malaika Jabali is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She has a J.D. and M.S. from Columbia University. Her proclivity for advanced degrees does not preclude her from communicating with cleverly placed emojis and on Instagram @missjabali. She also pretends to know about music and culture on her personal blog,

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