Rachel Dolezal’s Deception isn’t the Lie We Should Be Worried About

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

subhumanBy 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.

Lynching, in Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930. Published in TIME MAGAZINE

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.

Playing the “Race Card:” The New “Ni**er” – PART 2

On December 1, 2014, I wrote Part 1 of this post.  Shortly after I wrote it, I reduced my communication footprint considerably.  I cancelled my cell phone contract and started using a combination of iMessage, my office phone, and Google Voice for my day to day communication needs.  I deactivated my Facebook accounts, the personal account AND the professional account that I used to interact with students, colleagues, and maintain a social media presence for the service-learning program I administer at my college.  I stopped using Instagram, Tumblr, and the soon to be defunct Google+.  All that remained of what used to be a rather active and connected digital life was this blog, my LinkedIn profile and my Twitter account.

My experiences over the last few months have measured up to what is starting to become a well-worn cliche of “unplugging.”  The changes have been wonderful for my life and well being in general.  But, I will have to save those details for another entry.  The important thing here is the big picture.  And the big picture is this: I nearly allowed Facebook to break me–mentally and emotionally.  Stepping away was an important health decision for me.

Now some of you (presuming that I actually have readers) are probably snickering, rolling your eyes, writing me off as one more excuse for a human being who didn’t have the self-control to curb their social media addiction.  Judge if you must, but also know that my circumstances were significantly different.  The majority of my Facebook use before I decided to leave was not blithely social.  I did not just hang out, message friends, or gossip about trivia…though of course I did a fair amount of this.  I used my Facebook accounts to engage with my students in class discussion groups, to engage members of the professional associations to which I belong, and to build professional relationships with other scholars and academics.  I used my Facebook accounts to gather news, to get a sense of what people were talking about, and to add my voice to that cacophony.  I used my Facebook account to nurture relationships that I will admit I have all but lost now that I no longer use “the Book.”  I used my Facebook accounts to feel a part of a broader community of like-minded individuals and to engage with friends on a level that can be considered nothing short of ambitious for someone as introverted I as I am.  But most often, I used my Facebook accounts very actively as platforms for social and political activism.  I often spent hours at a time composing research-supported, article length (many of which became posts on this blog) missives on the issues about which I am passionate.  And of course, I engaged in countless comment thread conversations, hoping that I could further the end of social justices through dialogue.

Ultimately, it was the strain of these last efforts that led to my decision to leave.  Ironically enough, the same reasons are making it difficult to stay off.

I wrote Part 1 of this post shortly after it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be prosecuted for the murder of Michael Brown.  I chose to engage in a conversation on the comment thread of post by a friend has an enormously diverse range of political perspectives represented among her connections–some that, I am ashamed to admit, make me feel insecure about the authenticity of her liking of me.  In that conversation, I tried to articulate some of my thoughts on the ruling, not with vitriol, hyperbole, or emotional outrage (I was just about out of all three of those), but with a measured appeal to look at the big picture.  I conceded up front that I did not believe that Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown because he harbors a personal hatred of blacks.  But I asked those I was engaged in a conversation with to consider that the Ferguson Police force, embedding within the larger cultural history of deplorable Saint Louis area race relations, might represent a culture of largely unintentional, seemingly justifiable, and therefore incredibly dangerous racial bias.  And within that culture of bias, black men are assumed to necessitate a level of policing that is inhumane and fundamentally racist.  I said then, and I still believe now, that I that Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot Michael Brown.  And I will say again, that the question we should be asking isn’t whether or not Wilson or any other officer’s fear is real; it is how do we keep our young black men alive if walking down the street, carrying Skittles, holding a toy in a department store, playing loud music, reaching for just about anything, or asking for roadside assistance are the kinds of activities that the majority of white America will perceive as authentic threats to their lives?

For making these statements and asking these questions, I was mocked by a friend of my friend and accused of playing the “race card.”  I made light of it at the time, but it hurt me more than I can articulate.  I don’t know the woman who made this comment and she certainly did not know me.  She probably forgot about the interaction minutes after it happened and went on to blame Obama for something.  But her comment still hurts, because it distilled the enormity of challenge I have taken up, because it made me feel powerless…which is of course the tactical brilliance of racism, its ability to erode the foundation of those who would challenge its position in the status quo.

I find myself wrestling with this pain again this morning as the details of last week’s Justice Department report on the Ferguson Police Force continue to make the rounds.  I suppose I should feel vindicated that the report puts to paper what many of us already knew, the Ferguson Police has shown a consistent pattern of racial bias against blacks.  And this culture of bias existed well before Michael Brown.  Of course, we didn’t need the Justice Department to tell us this.  It was already in the data about Ferguson traffic stops.  It was already part of the historical record about this region. It was already part of local consciousness and experience.  And it was the reason this police department was already under investigation BEFORE Michael Brown was killed.  And it was the reason the community reacted so passionately to Brown’s killing, to the alarmingly militaristic stance the police took after the shooting, and to the atrocious and unconscionable treatment of media attempting to cover the event.  Contrary to the incomprehensibly clueless stance that the Ferguson community “overacted for no reason” or worse, because they were “animals, ” collective unrest–riots–don’t materialize out of nowhere.  They are generally the result of a tipping point reached only after years, decades, even century of provocation.

So the news that officers in this department engaged in overtly racist “water cooler talk” via state owned email addresses over the years isn’t terribly surprising.  And the news that these emails were not reported, that no one was disciplined, that no one was told to stop, rather “the emails were usually forwarded along to others,” simply adds another layer of detail to the already well formed picture of police department whose culture was defined by what I call Racism 2.0.

dojreportI suppose I should feel encouraged that this news is out there.  But, I wonder if people are even talking about it on Facebook.  Certainly not as much as they talked about the riots.  I have the feeling that those who justified Mike Brown’s murder by citing stereotypical violence amount young black urban males, will not find the Ferguson community’s fear and anger about the state of policing (a state that legitimately threatens their lives) justifiable though it has been conclusively proven they have much reason for anger and fear, even outside of the Brown debacle.  Even in the limited social media interactions I still maintain, I have already seen a kind of self-deluded insistence that the history of racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department and the shooting of Michael Brown are totally unrelated–which is something like saying that falling snow has nothing to do with the prevailing winds.  But this is the nature of American exceptionalism, right?  Our willingness to believe in the exception as rule, and to relegate the role of history, context, and material reality such that a norm, like racism, is perceived as an exception.

Playing the “Race Card:” The New “Ni**er”

I knew that the night our legal system exonerated Darren Wilson of any wrongdoing in the killing of Mike Brown would be bad one.  Earlier in the day, wrote:

For the last 45 minutes, I have been bracing, preemptively licking wounds, buttressing my walls, detaching from emotions, and desensitizing myself. I have been fearful and angry and allowing myself to imagine everything and anything awful…all in the name of preparing for the announcement from the Grand Jury out of #Ferguson. In my gut, I sense the coming of a storm and a backlash and time of tumult that I’ve not seen the equal of in my lifetime. So for 45 minutes my thoughts have been jumping, twitching, rolling through the darkest corners of human potential and even when I tried to stop this, when I tried to tell myself this is not helpful, I could not find a place to ground my thoughts, my “self.”

I wasn’t wrong to prepare and the preparation did not help.  It felt ten times more awful than I expected it to, and though I tried…HARD…to stop myself from getting involved in any social media debates on the matter, I couldn’t help myself.  The part of me that hopes, the part of me that was raw, is simply too hard-wired to the belief that giving, teaching, listening, and allowing myself to be vulnerable, are valuable ends in and of themselves; that they will make a difference in the long run; and that it is my responsibility to do these things as long as I have the fortitude.

And so I engaged…

Of all the awful things that I read that night, I realize that it was the accusation of playing the infamous “RACE CARD” that injured me most.  The term race card has skyrocketed to the top of my list of “most insulting things that can be said,” so much so that I am personally calling it “the new ‘ni**er’.”

The accusation of “playing the race card” seems to come from an assumption that anyone who makes mention of felt, observed, and/or widely-documented racial dynamics are “making things about race” when I don’t have to in order to gain an advantage.

To this…I angry laugh…and perhaps even snort.

Perhaps I will follow up with second part to this blog post and make the case for why this is perhaps the most remarkable collective delusions we Americans commit to.  But for now, I am keeping this personal.  The people who threw this accusation in my face, who do not know me and had no desire to listen or dialogue.  They don’t and probably will never understand the profound irony of their put down.

The fact is, I have worked HARD.  I have worked CONSISTENTLY.  I have worked DOGGEDLY.  I have worked ALL OF MY LIFE to MAKE THINGS ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE BUT RACE.

If they only knew:

  • How as I child I rationalized bullying and exclusion by convincing myself other kids were just jealous.
  • How throughout my schooling, I listened to friends tell “black jokes” or instruct me not to “ni**er lip” (leaving the filter moist) their cigarettes when I took a drag, I made the excuse that they didn’t “mean anything by this” and the fact that they would even say these things near me meant “we were just that cool.”
  • ‘How when, less than an hour before a school dance a boy called to tell me his parents would not be picking up me–that he was not allowed to go with me because I was black, I told myself it was just loving parents who didn’t want their kid to experience any difficulty.
  • How when countless strangers, just minutes into a conversation say, “wow, you are articulate,” I convinced myself that this was because I was just that great at introductions.
  • How when people met all my friends out of high school they asked “so are you in college?” but always asked me “do you have kids?,” I told myself it is because was because I looked old for my age.
  • How, “REALLY?” is always the response to me telling people about my job or my education, I tell myself it’s because I look young for my age.
  • How after the first boy I slept with at VA Tech told me he “hated ni**ers”, but that I “wasn’t like the rest of them,” I told myself he just didn’t have the right words to express his feelings.
  • How two years into my job, when I still get waved down for “illegally” parking in the faculty parking lot, I tell myself that my coworkers just don’t know me yet and somehow repeated miss the decal hanging in the window of the car I park in that lot every single day.
  • How when I was/am followed and watched in stores, I told/tell myself that store owners were/are just being vigilant about loss prevention.
  • How the times I have been mistaken for a sex worker while waiting for people outside of bar, I told myself the men who approached me were just drunk.
  • How the times when total strangers asked me where they might find some weed, I told myself it was because I just “look cool.”
  • How I have worked to slot the realities that we are nation built by the institution of plantation slavery, that we are nation that fought a war for the right to keep slavery, that schools and other public places had to be forcibly desegregated in my parents’ lifetime, that I know people who saw MLK speak, that the KKK still boasts thousands of members, and that every indicator of “success” that we measure shows marked racial disparities, into some impossibly neat “past” that somehow has had no baring on the present.

If they knew that I have spent most of my lifetime engaged in the most ARDENT, SELF-DEPRECATING, EGO ANNIHILATING, REALITY DENYING ACTS OF SELF-DELUSION in an effort to render myself willfully ignorant, to NOT accept the totalizing reality that I live in a nation in which EVERYTHING is about race, would it make a difference?

Probably not… And now that I am tired of this absurd effort, not that I have come into self-respect, not that I have worked my ass off for everything I have an everything I know; now that I dare to “see” things for what they are, to name them, to know them, to assess them so I can devote my life to making them better. Now I AM THE ONE making things about race.

Now everything I am, everything I have experienced and accomplished, everything I work tirelessly for so that this country can be better for EVERYONE, is reduced, belittled, characterized as a cheep, opportunistic, fiction…

a “race card.”


Read Part 2 of Playing the “Race Card” – the New “Ni**er”