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Dolezal and the Defense of the Community

Reflections on the unique difficulties of passing from white to black in America

It strikes me that an incredible amount of media attention and denunciation has focused on a poor, perhaps deluded woman in Spokane, Washington. Rachel Dolezal’s crime was to lie and try and pass as black. While the media have seen fit to celebrate Caitlyn Jenner and her exceedingly forthright bursting of the boundaries dividing male from female, in the Dolezal case, commentators seem intent on reinforcing the walls dividing black from white, creating an effective DMZ one cannot pass. Perhaps Dolezal failed to pay the adequate dues and penance in trespassing the racial boundaries — unlike Jenner she didn’t lay under the bright lights of the surgery chamber and submit to the cuts of the surgeon’s scalpel nor withstand the prolonged glare of prior media dissection.

Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how much media commentary seems to revolve around reinforcing the racial boundary. All the more strange since every commentator at the same time is obliged to note that race has no biological underpinnings but is culturally constructed, as evidenced by the uniquely American rule of racial classification of “one drop.” Unlike the seemingly more biologically based binary of gender, indeed, we should recognize that America’s bizarre rule, where even slightest trace of “African” blood confines you in the black camp, is what allowed the very white Dolezal to pass as a very light-skinned black.

Of course, “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (W.I. Thomas, 1928), even if based on nothing more than complex symbolism gyrating through our heads. And indeed, America’s racial classification schema has long been entangled and indeed founded on the distinct power, status and riches to be reaped from one’s place in the racial hierarchy with its complex economic, cultural, geographical, social and even penal articulation.

But let’s note too, just like gender, that race is “performative,” as the current jargon phrases it. After all, it isn’t quite enough to be born physically a man to avoid being denounced as a “sissy,” “pussy,” “gay” or “fag,” and that in fact you need to “act like a man” and re-enact your maleness every day to gain the respect and recognition and rewards that society bestows upon men. In other words, on top of biology there go remarkably complex sets of norms, beliefs and performances that are largely unconscious but are beat into the brains of every male. So too among the black community or at least some members, there have long been distinctive traditions of expressive display through which they acknowledge each other as members of the tribe, for example, a whole repertoire of gestures and expressions and intonations that involve in some sense a reflexive enactment of blackness, a celebration of self in the community or identification as it were. And this includes too some degree of self-policing.

This identity and social experience is part of what Dolezal is denounced for having inauthentically appropriated. Unfortunately, it’s a darn sight messier and more complicated than that. For after all, blackness, responding to the dominant society’s definition and control of boundaries was in part defined by its opposition to the cultural construct of whiteness, and vice versa, whiteness was created in opposition and on the basis of the privileges generated by dividing our country into dominant and subordinate races.

More strongly, American society achieved part of its distinctive identity and cultural richness by appropriating a version of the black identity — think blackface, but beyond this actual process of theatrical appropriation, think of the richly expressive arts of music, dance, comedy (but really much more) that depended on being inspired by, stealing from, stereotyping of, and fantasizing about African Americans. To be white depended, then, on a cultural mélange, a mixing, stealing and interchange between two impure fantasized, evolving categories, which of course determine unfairly and harshly people’s life chances. So amidst all the borrowing, transfusions and confusion and the ever-newly created performances of race, does it really make sense to talk about authenticity and theft?

So I’m wondering what this fervent defense is all about. In his memoir, Colored People, Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls watching as a child in the segregated South that famous film of racial passing that is of course told as a tragedy: Imitation of Life. His whole family, he says, would get caught up in the melodrama, their cheeks stained wet with tears. By film’s end, they would be hugging their mother, vowing that they, unlike the film’s protagonist, would never turn their backs on their mother, never break the bounds of solidarity with the black community.

If passing from black to white threatened those bounds, would passing in the opposite direction as attempted by Dolezal also threaten the community in its purity and authenticity, in the dues paid and the identity achieved?

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Richard Kaplan

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