Sunday, June 14, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and Race

Race is a pretty complex issue. Race in the United States is both complicated and contentious. Race in the United States today is complicated, contentious and tied up with deep running issues of personal identity.

The Rachel Dolezal case is more or less tailor-made to bring out the bitterness surrounding race in the United States. Coming so soon after all the righteous chest-beating on the left in the post Bruce>Caitlyn Jenner excitement, it was bound to get a lot of attention from those on the right eager to show how hypocritical those on the left can be.

And when it comes to morals and moralism, the left can indeed by quite hypocritical, self-righteous and self-contradictory. If Caitlyn Jenner MUST be accepted as a woman, the right asked, Why MUST Rachel Dolezal's claim to be black be mocked and condemned?

And it is not a bad question.

Mind, there are loads of differences in the two cases. For one thing, Dolezal has not been open at all about her "transition." Jenner has come out, announced his longstanding feelings about his gender identity and very publicly announced his transition to Caitlyn. All well and good, no one was deceived any more than Jenner was confused by his struggles with his gender identity.

Dolezal has hidden her true background, lied about it, actually. And she's been able to take advantage of the ignorance & confusion she's created.

So, there's a big difference between someone essentially hoodwinking everyone and someone struggling with their identity.

But let us imagine if Dolezal had, at some point long previous to 2015, come out and said she identified as black and intended to assume that as her racial/ethnic/cultural identity. It is clear from the comments of many on the left that they would be no more accepting of a straightforward Dolezal becoming black as they would of Dolezal the fraud. Why is this?

One notion that's been bouncing around, initially put forward by Dolezal's brother, is that Dolezal's personification is "blackface." Dolezal's adopted brother is black, and I'm sure he was under a lot of pressure to come up with some kind of reaction to Rachel's outing, but calling what Rachel has done "blackface" is dumb. Blackface performers were KNOWN TO BE WHITE by their audiences--that was the whole point. And they enacted a vision of blackness which was humiliating and degrading to blacks.

The whole point of Dolezal's performance is that no one should know who she really is. And rather than seeking to humiliate and degrade black people, she seems to honestly identify with them and has sought to advance their causes. Fraud is not nice, but it isn't anything remotely like blackface.

The whole Dolezal fiasco has many on the left, many far more experienced in the public sphere than young Ezra Dolezal, writhing about trying to square the circle of their contradictory positions on race and identity.

How is it, we must wonder, if race is a social construction that it is "absolutely impossible" for a white woman to assume the identity of a black woman? Or, if you've suddenly become a racial essentialist in the face of Dolezal, given that it is "absolutely impossible" for a white woman to assume the identity of a black woman, how come no one noticed Dolezal's ruse until her father outed her?

Her fraud aside, Dolezal has done us a service. She's thrown a light on to the fact that for all the self-righteousness, false displays of ritualized guilt, and venomous attacks on those who stray even a whisker from the orthodoxy, the left's identity politics is just a contradictory rag bag of ad-hoc theorizing to justify a large set of left-consensual knee-jerk reactions. All of that moral fulminating has little behind it aside from "because we say so, damn it! And we may have said the opposite thing a few days ago, but so fucking what!" Hannity couldn't have said it better himself.