Sofia Richie got real about race in an interview with Complex, where she explained that she resents being surrounded by people who make racist remarks because she is black, despite her “light” appearance.
“I’m very light, so some people don’t really know that I’m black,” Richie said, “I’ve been in situations where people will say something kind of racist, and I’ll step in and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, you’re light.’”
On social media, many applauded Richie for standing up to bigots and laying claim to her “blackness.”
— MixedChicks (@mixedchicks) December 9, 2016
While Richie, daughter of music star Lionel Richie, is indeed half-black, the fact of the matter is plain: she is not black. And furthermore, laying claim to that identity while simultaneously being perceived, treated as white and assimilating into whiteness is both problematic and actually harmful to black advancement.
To get to the nitty-gritty of this all, it is important that we have a working definition of “race,” to ensure the conversation is beginning at the same point of understanding. Best explained in this New York Times article by Angela Onwuachi, a professor of law at the University of Iowa, race is foremost a social construct with boundaries that shift both collectively and individually:
“Race is not biological. It is a social construct. There is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites. Were race “real” in the genetic sense, racial classifications for individuals would remain constant across boundaries. Yet, a person who could be categorized as black in the United States might be considered white in Brazil or colored in South Africa.”
Race is not defined by genetic factors and is instead typically assigned by phenotype and reinforced by access (or a lack of access) to whiteness. Thus, a biracial child, who is perceived as “black” or “white” will be treated as such and eventually accept themselves as such, as well. Race may not be biologically real, but it is very rigid and socially practically inescapable.
Further explained by Onwuachi: “Like race, racial identity can be fluid. How one perceives her racial identity can shift with experience and time, and not simply for those who are multiracial. These shifts in racial identity can end in categories that our society, which insists on the rigidity of race, has not even yet defined. That all said, unlike race and racial identity, the social, political and economic meanings of race, or rather belonging to particular racial groups, have not been fluid. Racial meanings for non-European groups have remained stagnant. For no group has this reality been truer than African-Americans.”
In the case of Sofia Richie, she is undoubtedly white. With the understanding that genetics does not decide race, social acceptance of Richie as white and her participation in the world as such means more than her claim to blackness. While it is important that Richie stands up against racism, the idea that her being “black” is the main cause of her concern is plainly problematic, because she has been conferred all the privileges of whiteness. Proximity to a black father does not change her whiteness, her unquestioned participation in white spaces and assimilation into white culture. Her proximity to a black father does not stop her from dating mostly white men and having mostly white friends. And it most assuredly doesn’t make her a certain ally for black people.
While it is important that biracial, high-profile individuals take a stand against racism and also feel free to be upfront about their ethnic background (as Sofia Richie did), it is equally important that white-passing individuals do more to dismantle white supremacy than merely claim to be an “other” while freely assimilating into whiteness and reaping the benefits of that assimilation. Especially because that action of “othering” oneself, while being white-passing, creates an easily exploitable space for whites to use white-passing folks to fill their “diversity” or “other” quota, without actually confronting their disdain of blackness. Though well-intentioned, Richie may be playing into precisely that paradigm which reinforces both white supremacy and “light skin privilege.”
The issue of race in America is quite complex and it should come as no surprise that 18-year-old Sofia Richie finds it difficult to navigate as a white-passing daughter of a black musical legend. Nevertheless, if her intention is to truly dismantle racism, it will require that she do more than merely talk about being black, while protected from its realities by her whiteness.