Facebook scares the shit out of me…often.
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 distinct from other groups because of physical or genetic traits that are shared by the group–in particular, we focus on skin color. However most biologists and anthropologists have stopped recognizing “race” as a scientifically valid classification. 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 more genetic variation within the groups we call races than are differences between them, 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.