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The Shaun King controversy, explained

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Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King is currently at the center of a controversy that has nothing to do with a police shooting or brutality — it's, instead, about his personal life and racial identity.

Over the past several weeks, conservative media outlets have published multiple pieces disputing different claims King has made about his life over the years. And the latest accusations — which caused the story to trend on Twitter — have called into question whether King is biracial, forcing the activist to disclose personal details about his life in hopes of disproving the accusations.

There's a bit of history to this conflict. But the fact that a self-identified biracial man is being chastised by conservative media outlets as part of an attempt to discredit him shows just how fluid the entire concept of race can be, and that makes it difficult to know who's right and wrong when questions about race come up.

Conservative media outlets have questioned Shaun King's background

Black Lives Matter march

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

King, who's a blogger on the liberal Daily Kos, has been a very prominent face of the Black Lives Matter movement since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. So any accusations leveled against him are a big deal to the cause, which aims to end racial disparities in the criminal justice system and police use of force.

In the latest accusations, Milo Yiannopoulos on Wednesday wrote in Breitbart, a conservative website, that King is not black or biracial. King, who grew up in Versailles, Kentucky, previously said his mom was white, and suggested he's biracial. But the report cited a birth certificate obtained from the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics that lists King's father as Jeffery Wayne King, who is purportedly also white, according to Breitbart (although Kentucky birth certificates don't always name the biological father).

After the accusations went viral, CNN's Don Lemon reported that a "family member" told CNN that King's parents are both white.

At first, King fired back at the accusations on Twitter, saying that he is biracial and has a complicated family history. He also claimed that he didn't lie about his race to obtain an Oprah Scholarship to attend Morehouse College, a historically black school. (Breitbart reported that the scholarship is only awarded to black men, but the college stated that it "does not grant admissions or scholarships based on race.")

But, on Thursday night, King went into further detail in a blog post, disclosing deeply personal details about his life to fight off the accusations:

I refuse to speak in detail about the nature of my mother's past, or her sexual partners, and I am gravely embarrassed to even be saying this now, but I have been told for most of my life that the white man on my birth certificate is not my biological father and that my actual biological father is a light-skinned black man. My mother and I have discussed her affair. She was a young woman in a bad relationship and I have no judgment. This has been my lived reality for nearly 30 of my 35 years on earth. I am not ashamed of it, or of who I am — never that — but I was advised by my pastor nearly 20 years ago that this was not a mess of my doing and it was not my responsibility to fix it. All of my siblings and I have different parents. I'm actually not even sure how many siblings I have. It is horrifying to me that my most personal information, for the most nefarious reasons, has been forced out into the open and that my private past and pain have been used as jokes and fodder to discredit me and the greater movement for justice in America. I resent that lies have been reported as truth and that the obviously racist intentions of these attacks have been consistently downplayed at my expense and that of my family.

King goes on in the post to detail the many ways his racial identity impacted his life, including his friends, girlfriends, conflicts in high school, college, and even religion. "Until this past week, never has anyone asked me who my father was during these 35 years of mine," King wrote. "It occurs to me now that I've never asked anyone that question either. It's an odd question, and, in my case, has a complicated, deeply personal answer, but one that I have actually seen lived out many other times."

Conservative media outlets said King exaggerated about a high school attack, but family, friends, and peers came to King's defense

Shaun King as a sophomore in high school.

Shaun King as a sophomore in high school.

Shaun King

But questions of King's race were only one part of the conservative outlets' reports. Previously, two other conservative media outlets — the Blaze and the Daily Caller — also accused King of dishonesty about his past, reporting that King had exaggerated the details of a fight he was in during high school. According to King's retelling, he was "brutally assaulted by a racist mob of rednecks at my school," resulting in spinal injuries that give King trouble to this day. The Blaze and the Daily Caller, citing the detective and police reports on the case, reported that the fight was instead a one-on-one between King and another boy over a girl, and that the injuries were minor.

The conservative outlets also weren't able to find records of the attack being reported as a hate crime, even though King reportedly characterized the assault as a hate crime in the past.

CNN's Lemon reported that a "family member" told CNN that the altercation was not a hate crime, and the cause was King "being a white guy dating a black girl."

But King pointed to accounts from two other people, both of whom said they witnessed the attack.

Shea Gold, one of King's high school peers, described the attack on Facebook:

I was a senior in high school and had just walked out of the band room when I saw Shaun walking towards me in the hall. For my entire high school career, I cannot recall saying anything more than 'hello' to him. However, this day no such exchange took place. Before it could happen, Shaun was quite literally ambushed by a large group of large people.

He never saw what hit him. He never had a chance. I didn't stop to count how many attacked him, but the number was easily in the neighborhood of a dozen. They were big white farm boys, all members of the FFA. Immediately a crowd formed while they stomped the life right out of Shaun, who couldn't have weighed much more than 100 pounds, if at all.

And Willis Polk, one of King's lifelong friends, wrote on Facebook that King is biracial and was attacked by a mob:

I've known Shaun since I was in the third grade. We both grew up in Versailles, KY. We both graduated from Woodford County High School. We were roommates while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA and we remain close friends to this day. Not only was Shaun beaten to a bloody pulp by a mob of students while we were in high school, my city of Versailles did everything it could to cover up and down play the event from the moment that it happened, as evidenced by half-assed police report and lack of news coverage at the time of the event…

And to question his race? Since the third grade, Shaun has had to deal with whispers as to his racial make-up. Whispers that no adult helped him deal with or process. Yes, that includes his mother.

Shaun got called "Nigger" just as much, if not more, than myself or any of my black friends and family while growing up in Versailles. Do you think an 8 year old would volunteer for that type of treatment? A funny colored, wavy haired child just trying to navigate life? To have anything from racial slurs to cups full of dip-spit (chewing tobacco) hurled at you from confederate flag covered pick-up trucks? And then 20 years later have some right wing assholes question whether it ever happened and go as far as to call you a fraud and try to de-bunk years of social justice work that you've put under your belt?

A former neighbor also claimed on Facebook that he had to "scare a truck full of rednecks away one night after this attack":

I lived across the street from Shaun King when the attack happened, I can't say anything about his race, but I personally had to scare a truck full of rednecks away one night after this attack. They pulled up in his driveway when I was coming home from work. I jumped out with my mag light and scared them away. The story of the severe beating by multiple people was VERY TRUE. These rednecks beat him because he is or came off to be BLACK. It was very much a racial incident.

King's wife also commented on all of the accusations on Facebook:

I've been there for the back surgeries, and pain treatment procedures all stemming from the mob attack he experienced in high school. I was in the car with him during the car accident. I've raised the children that have caused our family to fluctuate between 4 to 6 kids in any given year…

Shaun is a flawed and imperfect man. He has made many mistakes. Just like me and just like you. But regarding his race, he has never lied. Not once. His story is beautifully difficult, and painful. 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. On his own terms. When he's ready to tell it. Out of respect for his mother, and all involved, I hope he continues to let the talking heads talk while he does the real work of holding judicial systems accountable for the 742 women and men they've gunned down this year alone.

King, for his part, argued that the efforts to paint him as a liar are meant to discredit both him and the Black Lives Matter movement that he widely represents. Conservative media outlets like Breitbart, the Blaze, and the Daily Caller have generally come to the defense of police in the year since the Brown shooting, so the suggested motive is plausible.

"Not one person behind these reports has remotely good intentions — quite the opposite, in fact," King wrote. "Since these articles have been released, my family and I have received constant death threats and nonstop racist harassment. Multiple members of my family have been harassed and we now have been forced to take extra security measures for our safety."

But is there any way to conclusively figure out who's right, and whether King is black or biracial? Unfortunately, no — because the entire concept of race is arbitrary to begin with.

The story highlights the slipperiness of race

A person's race isn't derived by biology; it is instead set by society and a person's own identity. As Jenée Desmond-Harris previously explained for Vox, Americans embraced the concept of race to justify treating some people better than others. And since race is arbitrary, different people can genuinely disagree over who counts as white, black, brown, or any other racial identity.

The case of Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP chapter, captured this issue. Both of Dolezal's parents were white, but she self-identified as black. And people around her believed she was black or biracial — until her parents told reporters that Dolezal was white, leading to a media frenzy.

Dolezal accomplished this supposed fraud by changing her hair to a curly Afro and sporting what appeared to be a fake tan. That this is all Dolezal had to do to get people around her to believe she's multiracial speaks to how flimsy perceptions of race can be — a hairstyle and tan are all it takes to convince most people.

Little White Lie, a film about a woman with a black father and white mother who grew up believing she was white despite her brown skin and curly hair, also demonstrated these issues. In the trailer for the film, a childhood friend tells her, "I always looked at you like you looked black … but not that you were." In this case, even the woman's skin color wasn't enough to convince others that she's biracial, simply because she didn't identify as such.

Even DNA, ancestry, and family history can't sufficiently pin down what someone's race is. A previous study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics found there are many Americans — particularly in the South — who have "hidden African ancestry" but identify as white. And although the researchers found that Americans tend to claim they're African American after they hit 28 percent African ancestry, there was still a significant amount of disagreement.

A chart comparing the chance someone identifies as African American versus the proportion of their African ancestry.

American Journal of Human Genetics

People can even disagree with their parents and siblings about what race they belong to. For example, there's the story of Lucy and Maria Aylmer, 18-year-olds whose father identifies as white and whose mother is "half-Jamaican" (and, we're to assume, thinks of herself as black): As Desmond-Harris explained, Lucy and Maria are twins who see themselves as members of different racial groups — one black and one white.

Obviously, Lucy and Maria's story is rare. But it shows that how people identify can vary even within their own families. So even if King's family members identify as white, black, or something else, it's entirely plausible for King to identify as black or biracial — and he wouldn't be the first person to disagree with his family on these issues.

None of this is to suggest that race doesn't matter, or that King's identity is irrelevant. Although race may have no biological basis, social perceptions of race play a huge role in people's lives — and could impact King's place in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Race still matters

Race may have no biological or hereditary basis, but it's a real aspect of US society and culture that can weigh on minority Americans everyday. Black people are, for example, more likely to be shot by police, more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be victimized by the war on drugs, less likely to get a call back from employers, and more likely to be disciplined in schools, among many other disparities.

In some ways, what we know about King's life may demonstrate this. Even though he has dealt with questions about his race his entire life, according to his friend, he was still allegedly assaulted by a "racist mob." If the attack happened as King described, the mob didn't care about whether King's racial identity was genuine — they perceived him as black or biracial because he identified as such, and purportedly attacked him because of it.

There's also little doubt that King's race matters to the Black Lives Matter movement: If King isn't black or biracial, the movement may have a harder time accepting him as a leader of a cause that is inherently about how black people are treated.

So race may not be biologically real. But for many Americans — including King — it has a real impact on their lives.