When it first emerged that Spokane, Washington’s white NAACP chapter president, Rachel Dolezal, had for years presented herself as a black woman, I assumed that the story would be around for a very short news cycle. Naturally, the right would use the story to try to score cheap shots, though you can’t really blame them. The Dolezal story is essentially about deception at one of the organizations that most conspicuously represents a favorite bogeymen of the right: identity politics.
But I didn’t think that the story would have legs, for the simple reason that I didn’t think that anyone would defend Rachel Dolezal. The right would condemn her and ridicule her, but the left would essentially do the same thing – and you can’t sustain a one-sided argument for very long.
I was wrong.
I didn’t anticipate two things. First, I didn’t think that people would make a connection between Rachel Dolezal’s racial confusion, and the still-fresh emergence of the former Bruce Jenner as Caitlyn Jenner. Second, I didn’t imagine that some people would take that comparison seriously.
But, apparently, they have. (And it isn’t just the likes of favorite Fox News commentator Dr. Keith Ablow warning that transgenderism and “transracialism” open the door for the destruction of Medicare. Celebrities like Raven-Symoné and Whoopi Goldberg have come out in support of Rachel Dolezal. The former Disney star, who could be accurately described as ‘gay’ and ‘African-American’ but who affirmatively disowns those labels, had this to say to Us Weekly about Ms. Dolezal:
I love her…Listen, we can’t judge anybody. We don’t know that person’s life. We’re only getting bits and pieces…It’s reminiscent of Caitlyn Jenner and many other transgender people…Hey, do it. I know a lot of people in other cultures want to be in other cultures… straighten their hair… fill in their lips. Everyone’s trying to find their way to fit in.
And it isn’t just celebrities who have come out in favor of Ms. Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity. CNN ran a piece by Camille Gear Rich, a professor of law and sociology at USC’s Gould School of Law, entitled “Rachel Dolezal has a right to be black.” (I feel compelled to point out that Professor Rich doesn’t actually hold a degree in sociology, and all of her research seems to be published in law journals.) Rich makes her point forcefully:
Like it or not, we have entered into an era of elective race – a time when people expect that one has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice.
From a descriptive standpoint, Professor Rich is wrong: most people do not expect that people have carte blanche to select their social identity. But Rich is also making a normative statement: that people should have “the right and dignity” to choose their own identity, whether that identity is grounded in race or gender, or what have you.
I’ll admit that I dismissed Rachel Dolezal’s claim to blackness out of hand, and I’m actually grateful for some of the conversation that has surrounded her claim. In her piece, Rich correctly points out that
…sociologists and psychologists know that decisions about racial and ethnic identity are typically not merely expressive, strategic, or apolitical, but are driven by social conditions.
That’s a very good point. Some of the conversation around Ms. Dolezal’s claims that she identifies as black seems to come back to a pretty basic binary: either race is biologically determined or it isn’t. Some people are eager to dismiss Ms. Dolezal’s presentation as black because she lacks the biological bonafides, which is similar to some people’s dismissal of Caitlyn Jenner as a ‘real woman’. Rich is right to point out that it isn’t quite so simple.
A great part of how race operates as a social institution is that it is imbued with an aura of obviousness. But a lot of non-obvious work is being done below the surface. Today it might seem obvious that New England’s freak-of-nature tight end Rob Gronkowski is white. A hundred years ago, that would have been dramatically less obvious; as a man with Polish heritage, Gronkowski would have been understood as racially distinct from ‘white America’.
In his book, Working Toward Whiteness – How America’s Immigrants Became White, David Roediger discusses the complicated process through which successive waves of ‘white ethnics’ became incorporated into the dominant white identity of the United States, largely as a product of the labor movement and an effort to exclude black workers from the benefits of unions.
And it isn’t just that race operates in ways that are more subtle and more open to change over time than we imagine; it’s also the case that people negotiate their racial identities in ways that are both active and important.
As a society, we imagine race as dividing people into neat boxes, and I would imagine that if you’re born into one of those boxes, then it might be difficult for you to see how race provides people with the opportunity to make affirmative choices. But people who are born on the margins of those boxes don’t have the luxury not to make affirmative choices about their racial identity. A dark-skinned Hispanic man, like Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, has to negotiate his identity as (potentially) a black man and (potentially) a Hispanic man.
Marco Rubio is also Hispanic, but he faces a different set of choices. I won’t pretend to know how Marco Rubio or David Ortiz go through the world, but we do have some research pointing us to how people like them might negotiate the choices they face.
In a 2002 paper, researchers reported that Puerto Ricans living in the United States were likelier to self-identify as ‘white’ if they had light skin and high levels of education, whereas Puerto Ricans with dark skin were much likelier to identify as ‘Latino’ or ‘Puerto Rican’. The researchers concluded that dark-skinned Puerto Ricans were trying to avoid being labeled as ‘black’, a term that they associated with lower social standing – and a behavior that Puerto Ricans living on the island didn’t exhibit.
The point is that race is a complicated idea, with fuzzy boundaries. It’s an area of contestation and constant reproduction. As sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant have pointed out, race is based on differences in bodies, but it isn’t in and of itself those differences in bodies.
With all of that as a background, I shouldn’t have found it so surprising that people would give Rachel Dolezal’s claim to be black such serious attention. The conclusion that if race is a social construct, then it’s legitimate for any of us to reappropriate it is a seemingly logical one. It’s also wrong. Very, very wrong.
To explain why, I first want to set aside the comparison to Caitlyn Jenner and transgender issues. My knowledge about transgenderism is very limited, but I feel qualified to say that the comparison to Jenner is based on a misunderstanding. Caitlyn Jenner’s explanation mirrors those of many transgender individuals: she says that she is inherently female, and that her body is mismatched to her self-identity. That argument doesn’t actually take on the question of whether or not gender is biologically based; it just moves the relevant biological markers from the realm of physiology to brain function or psychology. I know that many researchers don’t support that model of transgenderism, but it is the model that Jenner herself has articulated and it’s the model that most people have in mind when they talk about this issue. It’s a model that doesn’t question the notion that, at its root, gender is about biology – so it’s difficult for me to see what it might actually have to say about Ms. Dolezal’s claims.
Second, I want to point out that the binary between race being socially constructed (and therefore ‘not real’), or biologically premised (and therefore ‘real’) is a false choice. I’ve already mentioned Omi and Winant’s formula that sees race as biologically premised, but socially mediated. Another way to think about this is that race is relational – that is, it isn’t a self-identity, it’s a social identity.
It means that a person’s racial identity is not found in their bodies, but neither is it found in their heads; rather, it is found in their relationships with other people and society. This is true about all social identity markers. I can call myself black, white, or President of the United States – none of it means anything if those labels aren’t embedded in social ties. We have a word for people who label themselves with labels that no one else accepts: delusional.
I want to be clear about what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that people’s racial self-identity shouldn’t be given deference. But that deference is, by necessity, contingent. What is it contingent on? Social reality. When a biracial man like Barack Obama chooses to identify as black, rather than biracial, we should defer to that choice. But if he had instead chosen to identify as white, we should wonder about whether we could in fact honor his choice while also using the English language in ways that refers to social institutions that we know and understand. If he had chosen to present himself as Japanese-American, no one would have been compelled to take his claim seriously.
It’s okay – and can even be beneficial – to nudge the way we use language in order to shift the way we understand our social world, but if our language use is too untethered from reality, we run the risk of decoupling the relationship altogether. Some people refer to such use of language as ‘Orwellian’.
Professor Rich’s piece had a provocative title: “Rachel Dolezal has a right to be black.” Well, she certainly has a right to call herself black, but whether or not that claim will be accepted by society has nothing to do with how she sees herself and everything to do with the way we understand what race is. As I said, race is not a self-identity, it’s a social identity.
And despite the fact that countless people engage day in and day out in minor and significant negotiations of their racial selves, the truth remains that choice is not the overwhelming way in which people experience race. People do not, as a rule, have a say in how society defines their race. Rachel Dolezal has pulled off a tremendous slight-of-hand and has managed to get us asking the question, but you need only turn a few knobs on this particular thought experiment to see how ludicrous the notion of racial self-identity is.
Can you imagine a black man having an easier time hailing a cab because he thinks of himself as white? For crying out loud, white men with black-sounding names can’t even get callbacks for job interviews!
Racial identity as self-identity amounts to little more than a rejection of the reality of race as a social institution. Her defenders seem to be confusing what they wish race was, and what race actually is. For the millions of people whose lives are marked by the burden of racial prejudice, Rachel Dolezal’s claims are an insult.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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