June 16, 2016
Suddenly, there is lot of discussion about the social construction of race in the mainstream media. We can thank Rachel Dolezal for that. She’s the “white” woman who has posing as the “black” head of the Spokane NAACP and was recently outed by her parents as a honky. I put white and black in quotation marks because once you realize how much of our reality is socially constructed, you will quickly use up your quotation mark quota. Queer theorists don’t talk about men and women, only “men” and “women.”
Everybody has an opinion about it. Conservatives want to know why she is a villain while Caitlyn Jenner is a hero. (For starters, Jenner never misrepresented who her parents were or took a scholarship for women.) Those folks don’t understand how race and gender are both socially constructed, but they are constructed very differently. Feminists have chimed in as well. I’ve been following Naomi Wolf’s Facebook insightful posts about the complexity of cultural identity.
I got a call from a a friend wondering where my voice has been on this matter. Why would I be silent about something that is firmly in my wheelhouse? Well, that’s because I’ve been observing the very public conversation. I can see merit on the roughly 20 positions on the matter, including some of the Conservatives who are flummoxed at the Dolenzal/Jenner nexus. This week I was going to write a bit about Cozy’s gender performance (which, as you might guess in this house, is not very “girly.” (See, there’s those quotation marks again.)) I did a brief interview with KGW-TV on the topic yesterday. So I thought I’d expound on my comments here.
First of all, if you didn’t know, race doesn’t exist. There are no people who are the color white or black. That would be weird. We’re all just varying shades of flesh color from different places. What race are people from Afghanistan? At the dawn of the colonial era in the 16th Century, Europeans decided they were “white” (because, you know, heaven is very white) and Africans were “black” (the color of evil and heavy metal t-shirts) so they could enslave the evil blacks. And this over-simple social construction of reality has been accepted ever since. These are the same people who told us the sun, planets, and stars revolved around the Earth.
The only truth is that you inherit physical characteristics from your biological parents. The rest is made up bullshit by people on a power trip. When the human genome was finally mapped in 2001, they found more genetic diversity WITHIN so-called races than between them. A lot of white people have some black ancestors and even more black folks have a white lineage. It’s all made up. Is Barrack Obama white or black? Flip a coin and you’re right.
That’s Point Number 1 – race is a bullshit made-up idea. Point Number 2 is that bullshit made-up idea has real world consequences. For example, slavery. Or institutional discrimination. Or being shot by the cops. Or being called a thug by Fox News. Or being told that the whiter you are, the prettier you are. And on and on to the break of dawn. You don’t actually have to worry about what Jesus/Allah/Vishnu thinks of you, but you certainly have to deal with the people who do.
But Point 3 is that while race is defined for us by society, it also can be defined by us. If you don’t believe me, next St. Patrick’s Day, see how may non-Irish people claim to be Irish. I claim to be Czech but that’s just my father’s father’s father, Michael Blazak, who emigrated from Prague in 1891. For a while, I thought I was Mohican because my father’s mother had a Mohican ancestor. As a boy, I incorporated that into my self-identity. I loved heights because I was part Indian! Then my grandmother found out she was adopted. Psych!
White people have romanticized black culture for a good century. African-Americans are more sensual, mystical, soulful and sexual we are told. Just read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, where he yearns to be as “free as the negro.” Or Lou Reed sing “I wanna be black. Have natural rhythm, shoot a hundred feet of jism, too!” In 1990, I went to go see Public Enemy perform at the Omni in Atlanta with Malcolm X identity patch around my neck. I got called “cracker” by the actual black kids. Repeatedly. It was just a version of what Justin Bieber and Iggy Azalea are doing now.
This is cultural appropriation. Justin and I can put on our black face and act out the latest version of Birth of a Nation, and then scrub it off and go back to the protection afforded by our white privilege. People of color cannot do that. Sure, there is a long history of black people “passing” as white. (Check out the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Wow.) But the punishment of being outed is a lot more severe than what’s now happening to Rachel Dolezal. Often it was death by the noose.
There is also the issue that as a “light-skinned black woman,” she will be valued in a racist patriarchy in a way that a dark-skinned black woman who doesn’t have European features won’t. The bell hooks (fan) Facebook page asked, “Why waste time being at the bottom of a lengthy hierarchy of white women, when you can be fast tracked to the top of the hierarchy of black women?”
So there are two things to say about Rachel Dolezal. Which one I put first may cause you to determine whether I support her or am somehow offended by her choices. I’d put them side by side, but I’m not that sophisticated a blogger, so.
POINT A – She lied. She lied about who her father was. She got a scholarship to Howard University (the “black Harvard”) that should have gone to an actual person of color. She’s guilty of cultural theft. At the end of the day, she can go back to her white parents in the suburbs and enjoy all the deep, deep perks that insures, and talk about back in the day when she snuck into the black clubhouse.
POINT 1 – Rachel Dolezal is a person committed to human rights. She could have used her whiteness to make mad stacks on Wall Street. But, like Twain’s Prince and the Pauper, chose to abandon her whiteness to walk a few thousand mile in the shoes of the (still) oppressed. People who know her testify to her commitment to issues of social justice and racial equality and who cares if she did it in a weave and ton of bronzer on her face.
Just to loop this back to gender (I’m still going to write that piece on Cozy’s gender performativity), there is a big difference between transsexual and transracial. Transgender people feel they are born in the wrong sexed body. I have a friend in NYC who having his breasts removed this summer so he can feel closer to the male body he always felt he was. We are both biologically male and female in utero. Then something happens in the process and our little bodies divide into male or female (and a lot of inter-sexed kids as well). Nobody, even Rachel, is “white” in the womb but comes out “black.” Transracial is a choice. Transgender is not.
But I’m glad this whole thing has sparked this conversation. Dolezal has resigned her position at the small chapter of the NAACP she voluntarily held and I can post the link to this blog on anybody’s Facebook page who wants to know what I think about this week’s scuttlebutt. Everybody wins!