But what what set me off today was a link that a significant number of my friends have posted on Facebook: This White Feminist Loved Her Dreadlocks – Here’s Why She Cut Them Off. Many of the folks who posted this link did so in celebration of this young woman’s choice. It’s hers to make, but I VIOLENTLY disagree with the logic behind it. As I have said before, the A-word is quickly becoming the reddest of flags for me. I will say it in no uncertain terms, “CULTURAL APPROPRIATION” is one of the most self-destructive ideas in progressive thought. It is reductive, essentialist, and a-historical–all hallmarks of the kind of inflexible fundamentalist thinking we on the “left” so frequently deride.
Don’t get me wrong, to understand the cultural histories behind our symbolic choices is important, to be critical consumers is…well, critical. This is what I teach, day in and day out. But to conclude that these histories draw hard boundaries around symbols that can only be “authentically” accessed by people with certain physiological characteristics is one of the most dangerous progressions of thought out there…this is the thinking behind eugenics. This IS the logic of racism.
Furthermore, the rabid effort to diagnose “appropriation” fails to grasp that THIS IS HOW CULTURE WORKS. The number of “stories” in the news over the past months that accuse folks of appropriating black and/or hip-hop culture is truly astonishing. And all seem to act as if these cultural formations are autopoetic, formed in their own divinely already-authentic bubble. Hip-hop is one of the most beautiful acts of cultural appropriation known to humankind, so is American blackness for that matter. Symbol use, misuse, combination and reformation, this is the engine of culture. This does not mean I condone ignorant deployment. This does not mean that some (mis)uses of symbols does not hurt me at times. It means I am willing to see these cultural processes for what they are in the big picture.
So friends, I will implore you directly, continue to educate and to learn about the contexts and histories that produce our symbolic environments and make educated choices based on that knowledge. But please do not misuse these histories to secure the walls of boxes we have been fighting to get out of for generations and do not use them to form arbitrary boundaries. Because it is all too easy to get caught up in policing those boundaries and mistaking that police-work for social change. I think history bears out the claim that coalition building makes for some of the most effective activist work, but this cannot happen if we spend all our time fixating on our differences and patrolling the boundaries between ourselves and our allies.
At 7:30AM my alarm went off. I was already awake, but lingering. The alarm hadn’t made it through a full cycle of the melody before I swiped it silent and opened my email. My morning changed as soon as I saw the top subject line:
NYTimes.com News Alert – Breaking News: White Gunman Sought in Killing of 9 at Black Church in Charleston, S.C.
This is how it changed:
My heart started beating…really beating, hammering, no fluttering. I felt the swell of panic before I really understood what it was. I said, “no” out loud. I got out of bed, and thought, I have to pee. I should not check my email first thing in the morning. I have to teach today. This one feels like a declaration of war. I was underwater. The feeling of being underwater–that dissociation that is born, not of distance, but of the intolerable closeness of your surroundings. I peed. I held my dog. I thought, this wont make a dent in most people’s days. To them it will be just another shooting. I echoed myself out loud, “just another shooting,” because I live in a time and place where “just” can come before “another shooting.” Then I cried. Then I felt embarrassed that I allow myself to take national news so personally. Then I felt ashamed that I would be embarrassed by my emotions. Then I felt angry that I have to go through this so often, because I am tired of tears, embarrassment, shame, and anger.
Most of all I am tired of the fear.
I managed to swim to the office. I am still in my office, practicing “unruffled,” because I am about to go into a classroom and teach for three hours. I am going to teach my students about logical reasoning and this makes me laugh a little because there is not much logic to the world right now. I called my father. Because everything and everyone else just sounded strange and muffled and I felt alone. And deep down, I knew he would hear me…that he was underwater too.
He was born and raised in rural Alabama, the son of a migrant worker who attended school in a segregated one-room school house. An engineer who made his way through college at Tuskegee with a young wife and two infant sons by working at the morgue at night. He has joked that it was a quiet place to study. Because of him, I have always had a quiet place to study–I have always wanted to study.
His anger made me cry all over again. My father, who is almost 70, and finally looking “old” to me, sounded like balled fist. He said, “I hate this. The people like this are the same as they have always been. I hate remembering having to call them ‘sir’ and…” He trailed off. He does not self-disclose often and he is not an emotional man. I tried to capture what came after those ellipses, before he changed the subject, the hurts and humiliations that he must walk around with. Perhaps he has let most of them go. I asked him what I have been asking myself all morning. “What can we do?”
Earlier today, I concluded (because I could not come up with any other answer) that I could continue to love in the face of hate. That I could choose radical compassion, because it is also, in its own way, an illogic (ill-logic) and perhaps that is the only way we can confront things that have never made sense. My father offered another solution.
There is no sensation that matches the breaking of a heart that is already broken. There is no irrationality that is more terrifying than those that come to make perfect sense. I don’t remember how I responded. I am still trying to understand the fact that I will never be given any perspective or nugget of truth that will provide understanding of what is gripping this country…what has always gripped us. I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that my father wants me to carry a machine of war because he loves me, with…well, with anything.
My class will be starting soon. The class is Principles of Public Speaking. I am teaching a class full of bright and funny and talented people, many of them young white men just like Dylann Roof (nothing like Dylann Roof?), about logical reasoning. I am unarmed and black and afraid and, practically speaking, I can realistically only change one of those conditions. And so maybe I have answered my question, what do I do? I change the condition of helplessness that I actually have the power to–I will work on dispelling fear…because that shit will kill us all.
The fear is a result of seeing (and I acknowledge how hyperbolized the visions Facebook presents can be) the shear volume of people who hold views I find to be terrifying. There are not a lot of these, relatively speaking. I like to think of myself as the type of person who confronts even the most repugnant opinions with courage in the name of open dialogue. But when I see/hear people enthusiastically posting, commenting, liking and sharing ideas that underlie some the most dangerous expressions of power and privilege…well, I get scared.
So it was with fear yesterday morning that I first encountered the Rachel Dolezal story and the disconcerting fact that most people, no matter what their politics, seem to be raging biological determinists when it comes to understanding race.
Before I go on, let me say that this post is not intended to be a defense of Rachel Dolezal. I don’t know this woman, but from what has been reported about her, she appears to have some honesty, integrity, and emotional problems that extend FAR beyond “misrepresenting” her racial identity. So, I don’t intend to comment here on the rightness or the wrongness of her actions or motivations. What I will comment upon is what public reaction to this story reveals about our beliefs about race and why Dolezal’s lie isn’t the deception we should be worried about.
Race is a Social Construction
To be honest, I thought we were all on board with this one. But as this story continues to break, over and over again I see the words “biological” and “genetic” popping up. And I continue to see people (known and unknown to me) talking about the categories “black” and “white” as if they were absolute certainties that anyone with basic command of three of their five senses could discern with utmost accuracy. Perhaps this is the reality of lived experience for most people, but it is far from anything the scientific community has believed for a good while.
We presume “races” to be groups of people that are distinctfromothergroupsbecause of physical or genetictraits that are shared by thegroup–in particular, we focus on skin color. However most biologistsandanthropologists have stopped recognizing “race” as a scientificallyvalidclassification. This classification only has use in sociocultural contexts (and many of the uses are of a particularly nefarious ilk). With the scientific community having demonstrated that there is moregeneticvariationwithin the groups we call races than are differences betweenthem, and with many of the physical traits we associate with race being traceable to environmental influence (skin color, stature, and musculature among some of the most significant), the term “race” has no testable biological basis. That is to say, there are no “sub-species” among homo sapiens.
That does not mean that race is not “real” or that physical traits are not passed from parents to offspring generation after generation. It simply means that race is only real in that we continue to assign social significance to specific physical similarities and differences–again, most significantly skin color–because they happen to line up well with political and cultural differences (though these alignments are rapidly degrading). To say that something is socially significant, means it serves as the basis of differential interpretation and action–roughly speaking, we find it a reasonable reason to treat and act toward people differently. And so as a result, cultures and subcultures have and continue to develop around the constructs of race as people suffer or benefit from these differential social interactions, generation after generation .
So what? Everyone’s got it wrong on race. What’s the big deal? Why is that terrifying? The popular misunderstanding of race is prevalent and lots of people manage not to be racist bumholes without “getting” all that science and social theory.
The so what is this…we need to “get it,” because if we don’t we (and by we, I am especially talking to progressive-minded individuals who are invested in ridding the world of racial injustice) end up reinforcing the very ideas and justificatory logic that makes racism possible.
Biological Definitions of Race are the Basis for Structural and Institutional Racism
By most historical accounts, efforts to find and make concrete a scientific basis for race–often referred to as “scientific racism“–began to crop up and flourish right around the time European colonialism and Western capitalism hit their stride. It doesn’t take much consideration to see how scientific “proof” that Africans were biologically different (less human and therefore inferior) greased the wheels of the transatlantic slave trade. And it takes just as little thought to see why such an idea would have tremendous sticking power in the start-up U.S. Slave labor formed the basis of American Agro-capitalism, it formed the basis of American wealth, and (ironically) the basis of American independence.
But even has we move forward in history and arrive at a time when most people agree that black people are actually people too, the biologism of race has remained the logical justification for some of our ugliest moments. The eugenics moment, which was active and state sponsored in the U.S. until the 1970s (and continues to afflict our incarcerated population), was and is an institutional reification of Social Darwinism. And it was the belief that black men were genetically programmed with insatiable and “animalistic” sexual appetites that underwrote the widespread fear that white woman were at risk of rape simply by being in proximity to black men–the fear that motivated any number of public lynchings and dehumanized lynching victims to the point that people regularly attend these events in Sunday dress, replete with picnic baskets and smiles.
Though we have cultivated a more civilized appearance for such beliefs, they continue to form the fabric of institutional racism. The belief that black bodies are biologically more athletic (and subsequently less intelligent), fuels everything from differential education (unwittingly steering children toward certain activities and not others) to differential hiring practices–this study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research demonstrates that employers respond less favorably to a resumé when the name attached to the top is “black sounding”. The researchers, who circulated resumés in response to job advertisements that were identical except for the names at the top (Emily and Greg vs. Lakisha and Jamal), found that a white sounding name yielded as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience.
Biological conceptions of race have justified every white supremacist ideology in modern history and you only have to spend a few seconds reading the comments on any given story on race relations in America to see that those who practice racism go back to these “genetic differences” every time they need to justify their repugnant views.
So you are Saying I should be Cool with Rachel Dolezal?
Hell no, I am not saying that.
As I mentioned above, I think the story of Rachel Dolezal is more convoluted than the splashy headlines could possibly communicate–and, if I were a betting woman, I would put money on the chance that this story includes some sad and unfortunate trama, possibly emotional abuse, and mental illness. As I said before, I don’t feel qualified to comment upon her situation, I just don’t know enough.
But I am commenting on what our collective responses to her situation reveal about our thinking about race and, from what I have seen so far, I think we should be far more worried about the fact that so many of us, so uncritically, buy into the lie that race has an essential biological foundation than about any of the lies that Rachel Dolezal told.
That does not mean I or anyone else has to like it. I quite literally bristle when I see photos of Ms. Dolezal. I am appalled and angered and offended when I think about someone who has not had to live life in a black body, someone who has not had to endure the daily micro- and macro-aggressions that are the social fabric of a nation that was (fairly recently) forged in the fires of racist domination, trying on “blackness” like a blouse–putting it on and taking it off when she feels like it, because her privilege enables such a performance.
This makes me sick.
However, the reason I am appalled is because she seems to take lightly the enormously fluid, complex, and weighty condition that is American blackness. The condition of American blackness is something I recognize to be one of the most brilliant accomplishments of humanity, because American blackness is not some instinct-driven expression of dark-skinned genetics, nor it is it simply a heritage passed down from ancestors, American blackness is a beautifully creative contextual response to generations of violently differential treatment, founded on the myth that the accident of our skin color is socially significant. Black culture is a culture of resilience, it is a culture of creativity, it is a culture of empowerment, and it is a culture that responds with complexity to the great lie that nurtured colonialism, capitalism, and Western modernity when they were embryonic forces in the world. And I am proud as fuck of the black culture that, unlike Ms. Dolezal, I do not have a choice to take on and off, because my membership in it is written all over my body.
But at the same time that I love and celebrate American blackness in all the shapes and forms it takes, part of my black identity is formed by the fight to eradicate the lie that was so central in producing this cultural identity in the first place–the lie of biologically-determined race. I define my blackness in tandem with my anti-racism and both are rooted in the truth of the constructedness of racial identity (and what beautiful constructions they are!). But if biology does not produce black culture, then biology does not legitimize my membership in it. It is a compulsory membership and if I am to believe in the constructed nature of race, because this belief in no small way defines anti-racism, then I must also accept that I cannot police the boundaries of this construct–I cannot deny access to others based solely on their physiological traits…no matter how hard that is.
I made essentially the same argument about Caitlyn Jenner earlier this week. Jenner has deployed some of the most irksome and problematic interpretations of “womanhood” we have seen in media headlines in a while. She seems to show an almost arrogant ignorance of the oppressive gender politics that have shaped the condition of contemporary American womanhood that she has chosen to make her own. Dolezal’s claiming of blackness is similar in this, in its ignorance, in its presumption. But, I will not erect definitional walls or draw the boundaries up around womanhood or blackness in order to exclude those who express or appropriate these identities in ways I don’t like (or even find dangerous) if it means using the building blocks of racism or sexism to do so. We cannot hang our hats as activists and purveyors of social justice on ridding the world of reductive, essentialist, and biologically deterministic notions of race, gender, and/or sexuality and then turn around and pick up the VERY SAME ideas we have recognized oppress us when someone wields the social constructions of race and gender and sexuality in ways we do not like.