Fifty Shades of Black (conference version)

Continuing the slow march through the archives that I promised/threatened to engage in a few weeks ago, here’s a conference paper that I wrote, but never delivered. This was supposed to be part of a panel at the 2018 “Crossroads in Cultural Studies” conference in Shanghai . . . but Air Canada decided (wrongly!) that I couldn’t board my scheduled flight to China because my itinerary wasn’t eligible (even though it was) for the “transit visa” that would have allowed me to attend the conference without a regular visa. That’s an ugly story for some other time and place. But it’s why this paper has not previously seen the light of day anywhere, even in the tiny way that conference presentations might count as “light.” There are traces of this argument to be found in a pair of posts I made on this site back in 2015, but there’s still (I think) a bit more in the Shanghai paper than just a recycling of those old posts.

Fifty Shades of Black: Learning the Wrong Lessons From Rachel Dolezal

It’s always awkward to talk about race to an international audience. On the one hand, it seems like an easy enough thing to do, since we all come from places where “race” is a common way to identify and categorize people. So it’s not as if I’m trying to talk to you about a phenomenon that is so incredibly parochial that I need to use up most of my time simply filling in the backstory. On the other hand, race — for all its global commonality — actually is very parochial. Put simply, there is little — if anything — of any importance that is truly universal about “race” as it is practiced around the globe. Systems of racial classification, categorization, and identification differ sharply from one part of the world to another, and even across historical moments within specific national and regional contexts. Part of what this means is that there are all sorts of things about race that I, as a lifelong resident of the US, have been socialized to see as natural and normal and ordinary and obvious . . . but which will strike at least some of you as weird or unusual or wrong. And while I like to think that I’ve spent enough time in international settings such as this to not be completely parochial about these things, it’s still possible that something I’ll say in the next 20 minutes or so that strikes me as “obvious” will need explanation for more than one person in the room. Please forgive me in advance for that, and feel free to ask for clarification during the Q&A. You should also assume that there are “scare quotes” around every other word or so for the rest of my talk, since almost all the terms we use to deal with race are fraught and contested in one way or another.

In June 2015, a national scandal erupted in the US around Rachel Dolezal (then the head of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP (a civil rights organization founded in 1909 to promote justice and equality for black Americans) and an instructor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University) when her parents claimed she was a white woman falsely misrepresenting herself as black. Many left-leaning commentators derided Dolezal for her minstrel-like appropriation of black identity, and the negative publicity surrounding her apparent masquerade led to her leaving both of the positions I just mentioned.

A few things need to be said here for an international audience. Spokane is a relatively small city with a fairly low national profile in the US. It’s very rarely a site for national news of any sort. Similarly, in the ugly-but-real pecking order of US universities, Eastern Washington is not a prestigious or highly visible institution, and Dolezal’s position there was further marginalized, insofar as she was a contract instructor rather than a tenure-track professor. So there was no “natural” or “organic” reason why what was otherwise arguably a very small local story should have become national news.

Dolezal’s alleged racial masquerade was made possible by at least three things:

  1. The fact that, by US racial standards, some “real” black people are light-skinned enough to potentially “pass” for white. Dolezal’s physical appearance is consistent enough with that of “real” light-skinned blacks to make her claims to blackness plausible.
  2. Dolezal wears her hair in ways that are typically (if imperfectly) coded as “black” styles. Braids, extensions, and (sometimes) a kinky/curly/frizzy mane that looks like an Afro.
  3. There are very few — if any — contexts in the US where it would actually be to the advantage of an ostensibly white person to pretend to be black. Which means that it’s almost unthinkable for someone who openly identifies as black to do so falsely.

What I want to argue in the time remaining is that, even given Dolezal’s eventual admission that her claims to blackness were tenuous — she was “born white” and adopted blackness for herself later in life — the anti-racist left has largely learned the wrong lessons from her story. The “outing” of Dolezal — and the subsequent public shaming of her by both mainstream media commentators and social media denizens — depended heavily on the (re)embrace of problematic forms of racial essentialism. Identity does matter — especially when it comes to racial politics — but it’s rarely as simple as the “what you see is what you get” logic that dominated the Dolezal brouhaha. More crucially, I want to suggest that the persistent focus on the question of Dolezal’s “real” identity was a red herring: one that has substituted relatively unimportant questions of racial identity for the more vital questions of racial justice.

This particular diversion was built into the coverage of Dolezal from the start. As noted before, Spokane lies well off the beaten track of mainstream US news coverage, and Dolezal was not a nationally recognized figure before she was publicly “outed” as white by her even less well-known parents. What made any of these people worthy of journalistic attention — at any level — was that the Spokane office of the NAACP had reported being the target of racially motivated threats, and there was some question about whether these were real attacks by white supremacist groups, or if they had been staged by Dolezal for some unspecified reason.

Regardless of whether those hate crimes were real or fake, that was a potentially important news story. Less than a year after the police murder of Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson, MO propelled the Black Lives Matter movement to high visibility, the possibility that a branch of a leading civil rights organization was on the receiving end of racist hate mail and threats — or, alternately and more scandalously, that a leading officer of that organization had faked those threats — would have been a story well worth covering by national news outlets.

But this is not the way the Dolezal story played out. Instead, what we got — from mainstream media pundits, the blogosphere, and hordes of social media commentators — was an endless stream of hot takes about how outrageous it was that a white woman was claiming to be black. Those alleged hate crimes — i.e., the reason that anyone outside of Spokane might reasonably have cared about Dolezal in the first place — disappeared almost completely from the discourse.

This shift in focus might not have been so bad, were it not for the fact that the dominant version of the identity-centered story was not very well thought out at all. And, as Larry Grossberg likes to say, bad stories make for bad politics. The question of Dolezal’s “real” identity is far more complicated than most commentators have been willing to acknowledge.

Partially, this is a problem rooted in the bad science that lies at the core of the US racial formation: i.e., that race is a natural, biological, genetic trait passed on from parents to their children. White parents produce white babies, black parents produce black babies, and — thanks to the extra bad science of the One Drop rule — “mixed” couples produce babies who may be any number of things, racially speaking, except for white. So once Dolezal’s parents made public claims that they were white, the supposedly inescapable conclusion is that Rachel had to be white too, and thus her claims to blackness were fraudulent.

What this logic overlooks, though, is that — for a variety of reasons related to how racism and white supremacy work in the US — there’s a very long, very ugly history of “white” folks lying about the black ancestors that they know are in their family tree. The odds are good that enough of those lies have stuck over the years for entire “white” families to be completely unaware of how black they “really” are. [Side note: One of the more visible examples of this these days is the flurry of news stories about white people using mail-in DNA testing services to discover the “truth” about their ethnic roots who are shocked to learn that they have black ancestors.] The Dolezals can be completely sincere in their belief that they (and thus their daughter) are entirely white, while still being completely wrong about how white they really are.

A slightly more nuanced approach to the “what is Rachel really?” question recognized that racial identity is at least as much a cultural phenomenon as it is biological (and probably even more so). And so one of the “popular” running jokes on Twitter when the Dolezal story first broke was the #AskRachel hashtag: tweets that involved hypothetical questions people wanted to ask Dolezal to test whether her cultural knowledge and/or life experience qualified her to be black — with the presumption being that she would fail all these tests badly. As funny as some of these tweets were, the logic underlying this game was deeply flawed. There are, for instance, millions of twenty- and thirty-something white hip-hop fans who would have passed the musical bits of the #AskRachel test with flying colors, while comparable numbers of fifty- and sixty-something black folks who never got into rap (or, perhaps, who last paid attention to it in the ’90s) would have failed.

Perhaps the most sophisticated version of the cultural/experiential approach to the issue involved people questioning whether Dolezal has taken on the burden of being black in the US fully enough to legitimately claim the label. Put most bluntly, the question at stake here is whether she’s embraced blackness as a self-identity only when it allows her to be seen as hip or cool or progressive, but still claims to be white when that identity works to her advantage. On the positive tip, this is a question that foregrounds some crucial facts:

  • that blackness is a marginalized, oppressed identity in the US;
  • that being visibly black is to be perpetually at risk in significant ways; and
  • that millions of people can’t simply choose to be black when it’s convenient for them to do so.

There’s nothing progressive or desirable, after all, about Norman-Mailer-esque white folks who want to adopt the “coolness” associated with certain visions of blackness — the style, the grace, the fashion, the music, the slang — without ever having to confront the pain of black life. In this way, some of Dolezal’s critics are pointing to real material differences between her apparent way of inhabiting the world and that of brown-skinned folks.

And yet this is also a “test” that lots of “real” light-skinned black folks would fail — at least by the usual standards of the test-givers. If one is light-skinned enough, after all, one will pass as white on a regular basis, without ever necessarily wanting or trying to do so. This is true even if one’s interior sense of self is all about being black. As Stuart Hall reminds us, our racial identities are never solely based on what we know (or think) we are: they’re also very much rooted in what other people think we are.

More than that, though, it seems to me that, on some very important fronts, Dolezal has taken on the burden her critics wonder about, and she’s done so in ways that clearly reject the safety and comfort that she could enjoy if she claimed to be white. She adopted blackness, after all, not simply for the style or the hair or the “cool” factor, but so that she could play an active, vocal role in the struggle against racism and white supremacy. She taught black literature, history, and politics. She ran an activist, anti-racist organization. She showed up in the streets, and at city council meetings, and made loud noises about the ways that the city of Spokane was failing its communities of color. And these are definitely not the actions of someone who is only looking to take up the “easy” facets of black life and identity in the US.

Part of where I think much of the left has stumbled when it comes to the Dolezal story is that it’s focused too much on the past (“where did Dolezal’s ancestors come from?”) and failed to think strategically about the future (“what was Dolezal trying to do to change the world?”). To be clear, this is not to say that the left should forget about history — far from it — but that can’t be all that we think about. In the US, if we’re ever truly going to make progress when it comes to racism, it will only be because a significant number of white folks put some serious skin in the game of trying to dismantle white supremacy. People of color cannot singlehandedly change a system of power that they are largely excluded from. That system can only be altered (or, better yet, destroyed) if the people who benefit the most from it stop trying to protect those benefits for themselves. Whatever Dolezal may have done poorly, she was clearly not standing on the sidelines or cheering the real activists on from the safety of her couch. She tried her damnedest to talk the talk and walk the walk.

To be sure, there’s a tricky balancing act here — and I’ll admit that I’m not convinced that Dolezal gets it entirely right — insofar as white people need to be willing to play second (or third, or fourth) fiddle in the struggle, lest they simply repeat the old problem of appropriating bits of culture, fashion, style, politics, etc. created by people of color and then taking credit for having invented it (or perfected it) themselves. But the main pushback against Dolezal from the left has not been that she tried to be a leader when she should have settled for being a follower. And I haven’t seen any of Dolezal’s critics take her to task because (for example) they thought she made problematic policy decisions when she was running the NAACP, or that she taught African-American literature in depoliticized or reactionary ways. If anything, to the extent that anyone has addressed these questions — and a handful of people have — the evidence suggests that Dolezal was doing good, valuable work in the name of racial justice in Spokane. Her most vocal critics have largely been upset that she’s wanted to participate in the struggle so badly that she would abandon her whiteness to do so . . . but the irony here is that abandoning all the privileges and comforts of whiteness is precisely what those same critics have been struggling to get most of the country to do.

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