By the left's standards, Rachel Dolezal is black. She can choose her race, just as Bruce Jenner can choose his sex. And she didn't choose. She always felt that way. After all, no one would choose to be black, just as no one would choose to be gay -- blacks are so put upon in American society that no one would fake being black for, say, the benefits of employment or mainstream leftist celebration.That position is not uncontested. I borrowed my title from a Dan Quayle campaign line, in which he stood his ground in the Culture Wars in part by defining precisely who he stood in opposition to. And bearing opprobrium might be a strategy, perhaps as a way of encouraging progress, perhaps as a way of expressing your opposition. Remember how political long hair on men used to be? Perhaps there's still that element of encouraging the opprobrium in getting a tattoo. What, then, about a white girl choosing to pass as black?
On one hand, “black” is a statement of identity. It describes a certain culture and a certain history, tied to the lives and experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants. It’s a fluid culture, with room for a huge variety of people, from whites, to blacks, to people of Latin American and Caribbean descent.Fluid indeed, as the descendants of the slave-traders have also emigrated. And contested: witness the continued tussle over what being authentic is about, and whether authentic is something other than urban contemporary. But columnist Jamelle Bouie spells out her premises carefully.
I am a descendent of slaves with strong African features. This makes me culturally black—I identify with the American national group—and racially black; I’m more likely to face overt discrimination than my white friends. And in all likelihood, this would also be true if my mother (or father) were white. I would still have African features, I would still have a connection to black American history, and I would still occupy the bottom rung of the racial hierarchy. But if I were born with lighter skin and more European features, I might be able to escape the stigma of blackness. I would still have the cultural connection, but I wouldn’t occupy the same place in the hierarchy.Under those circumstances, she might have an easier time passing, something that used to be more fraught than it currently is. But passing as a member of a culture is a different thing than passing as a member of a race. For all the talk about race being a construct, it's still a construct with consequences.
The political designation of race is a function of power—or, put differently, you are whatever the dominant group says you are. A Nigerian immigrant might not identify with black Americans, but she’s still “black,” regardless of what she says, and if she gets pulled over by the police, that identity will matter most. And on the other end, a black American with dark skin and African features could identify as white with her friends, but in society, she’s black, regardless of how she feels.Dangerous territory alert ... if this hypothetical immigrant speaks the Queen's English and shows up for work dependably and hangs out with expats from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, would black Americans reject her for "acting white." But I digress.
Ms Bouie has no problems with Ms Dolezal qua ally.
In her favor are key parts of her life. Dolezal has identified as black for almost 10 years. She’s been heavily involved in the local black community, and a leader on issues important to black people. She has no apparent black ancestry—a real difference from blacks who pass—but she’s adopted a kind of black culture almost wholesale.But it's possible to be an ally without inventing a background.
Then again, her story involves lies and misrepresentations. She passed off a darker-skinned stranger as her father, and an adopted sibling as her son. There’s a chance she faked a hate crime against her, and she falsely claimed she was born in a tepee with a family that hunted for its food. She says she’s black, but we don’t know if she’s alwaysblack. Is she black when she’s purchasing a home? Talking to the police? Or is she black only when vying for a role where lived experience would help her odds?Privilege-checking at work.
To belong to the black community is to inherit a rich and important culture; to be racially black is to face discrimination and violence. And that has often gone for whites who identify with blacks, or for blacks who appear to be white.Thus, more privilege-checking.
We don’t know the entirety of Dolezal’s story, and we will likely learn more. If it’s troubling, it’s at least partly because it feels like Dolezal is adopting the culture without carrying the burdens. And with the fake father and the fake children, it seems like she’s deceiving people for the sake of an à la carte blackness, in which you take the best parts, and leave the pain aside.We can go beyond Salon's musings. Inside Higher Ed called for deeper thinking. (The comment section is less than edifying.) Daily Nous carries the deeper thinking. Start here.
If ‘passing as privileged’ involves a member of an oppressed group passing as a member of a privileged group for the sake of some personal advantage, then a fit for this sort of alleged case might be ‘passing as disadvantaged’, where a member of a privileged group passes as a member of an oppressed group for the sake of some personal advantage. There are many such examples. A politician with a wealthy background might present himself as “a man of the people” in order to sway voters in a low-income district. Cultural appropriation in the music industry or within artistic communities is another example, such as when a person passes in order to sell “authentic” indigenous pieces or narratives. Someone might pass as a member of a marginalized group in order to obtain a scholarship or other diversity opportunity, or in order to feel somehow special in virtue of having suffered, overcome adversity, or challenged the status quo. Some simply fetishize otherness.Fetishize otherness? I guess that's how the Highly Intellectual describe scorn-as-badge-of-honor. There's a lot of serious thinking in the post, take your time, read, understand. But there's quite the scrap for position developing (revealing itself, perhaps) among the Perpetually Aggrieved. Can a man declare himself a woman? How is that different from a woman with Czech grandparents declaring herself black? (Oh, and the culture-warriors of the right are having fun with cats coming out as dogs.)
We agree to accept transgender people’s expression of belief in their authenticity. It’s fine for [Meredith] Talusan or others to say that they are convinced that the identities they embrace are their real ones in some way that is not limited by their biology at birth. However, the logic of the pluralism and open-endedness of identity they assert would require that they also accept the self-reports of claims to authenticity regarding identities that may diverge in other ways from convention. Certainly, not doing so necessitates some justification more persuasive—and less Archie Bunkerish—than simply asserting "Mine is genuine, theirs is not." The voluntary/involuntary criterion isn’t even sophistry; it’s just bullshit.I don't want to go into the rabbit hole of mainstream society issuing a retrospective apology to all the people clapped in the Cuckoo's Nest over the years for claiming to be Napoleon, and yet I sometimes get the sense that the aggrieved intellectuals are certifiable.
[Zeba] Blay expresses this position most clearly. She objects that Dolezal "occupied positions of power specifically designated for members of a marginalized group."There's that fetishized otherness again. But if the Perpetually Aggrieved get over their authenticity hang-ups (which, I submit, contribute more to the continued lack of progress of supposedly oppressed people than they help) that might be a desirable outcome.
It may be that one of Rachel Dolezal’s most important contributions to the struggle for social justice may turn out to be having catalyzed, not intentionally to be sure, a discussion that may help us move beyond the identitarian dead end.I'll give the last word to Daniel Payne, who appears to be of the view that the aggrieved intellectuals are certifiable.
As my colleague Robert Tracinski recently pointed out, the growing normalization of insanity has resulted in the concurrent stigmatization of normalcy itself.But the sectarianism among the Perpetually Aggrieved and their authenticity fetishes will be worth a little insanity.