Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal in the Amazing Race!

This is a strange and fascinating case regarding Rachel Dolezal. But it is not easy to untangle what she has done, given the social developments of the past 60 years. It is "reverse-passing" as I see it. To this point I commend (3) fundamental assumptions with this case that Ms. Dolezal either challenges or reinforces.

The SOCIAL & INSTITUTIONAL Assumption - Race is a social construct and therefore can be socially deconstructed. Or, is the "One-Drop" Rule still in effect?

1. Premise A: The "one-drop" rule defining blackness legally was based upon obviously racist and therefore unsound reasoning. If this is true, then "Blackness" cannot be essentially measured, but can only be socially measured - unless we as a society are intending to perpetuate Jim Crow assumptions of "essential" Black-ness. Ms. Dolezal was testing how far she could go with her SOCIAL "Blackness", i.e., graduating from an HBCU, teaching courses on African Studies, seeking leadership positions in a traditionally Black institution - NONE of this was illegal. Rather, how she defined herself went against the institutional assumption of the Black institutions, i.e., the NAACP and against the social assumptions of who we ARE allowed to say we are. In her case, she committed a social crime in not identifying to society at large - and continuing to identify, if not live out the privileges of her race at birth. In other words, how dare she live beneath her her privilege!

2. Premise B: In a major irony, Black society and institutions have staked much of their existence on the "one-drop" rule. Groups like the NAACP and others assume and perpetuate racial classifications for institutional purposes but are inadvertently continuing the Jim Crow classifications of "essential" blackness. Of course, these institutions do not do this for the active perpetuation of Jim Crow, but in an attempt to REVERSE the modern effects of Jim Crow (affirmative action, minority set asides, and "minority" positions, for example). However, in an attempt to destroy evil - evil must live on as a frame of reference. In other words, we are thus forced - for the time being and for some time in the future - to accept and recognize the evil of Jim Crow. Jim Crow society insisted that blackness go back to at least 1/16th of a person's heritage. Further than that, race becomes socially benign and unimportant. Thus the "essentialness" of race (one-drop rule) has its limits even in Jim Crow. What's more amazing is that Rachel Dolezal sought to challenge the affirmative action policies of Howard University as a White woman! And I guess she figured if you can't beat 'em, join 'em - and thus today has challenged the social side of institutional race classification with the NAACP. She seemed dead-serious, too.

The IDENTITY Assumption - Identity Theory says you are who and what YOU say you are - not what society or anyone else may say you are.

1. Premise A: If the transgendered can have a gender identity change even before surgery, then why can't race identity be changed? (Bruce Jenner are you with me?) This is a rock-solid claim emerging from modern psychology and the reparative mental therapy movement within that discipline. The theory is simple enough: by affirming the good, the mind can replace the mental state which has trended towards that which is harmful. Psychology and social theory later enmeshed to use these techniques to project idealistic states onto social evils, including race. For example, by asking "aren't we all from the same race?" the adherents seek to minimize and neutralize differences and promote human union and social harmony. By allowing people to affirm whatever gender or race they choose to call themselves, the belief is that we'll all begin to see how flimsy and unimportant those "evil" classifications truly are. After all, how can Michael Jackson bleach his skin and not be challenged by the Black community, yet a White woman darkens her skin and has to defend her actions from critics charging her with resurrecting a type of modern Amos and Andy-like "Birth of a Nation" minstrelsy?

2. Premise B: Before we get too smug about it, Christianity is also awash in Identity Theory. We Christians make claims about ourselves all the time that are not true from evidence. Indeed, the Bible tells us to do this. The belief that Christians are a "chosen people and a royal priesthood" for example is based upon Identity Theory found in the Old Testament. We call those things that are not as though they were is based upon New Testament biblical grounds. And if so, then why can't Identity Theory be expanded to include race classifications? Ms. Dolezal staked her social and professional life upon the deep truth found in Identity Theory.

The LEGAL Assumption - the laws of the U.S. have been affected to adhere to racial classifications, i.e. the government wants to know your racial classification.

1. PREMISE A: Any time you fill out a legal document and a classification of race is asked, if you were to misrepresent yourself you would be subject to perjury charges. The reason, as stated above, is that the law of the land is still fighting the effects of Jim Crow, but in order to fight the good fight - the memory of the evil system must be invoked. Now, the perpetrators of the Jim Crow system, i.e., White males, have grudgingly accepted the fact that a system is needed to fix the inequality which emerged from Jim Crow. U.S. law courts have affirmed this repeatedly in some key decisions in our day. The challenge is that the systems which have emerged legally are not perfectly spelled out. And why is this? Because the legal counter-challenges to them use the language that racial classifications are essentially racist in theory. Thus for practical reasons, the Justice Department has construed its federal laws to say "non-disciminatory" not favoring a one race over another - while simultaneously acknowledging that society has an interest in certain racial outcomes to fix Jim Crow. The legal defense of race law is not a good one, but it's a necessary evil. Thus you will continue to see forms in which race and race classifications are asked, but there will be a disclaimer stating non-discrimination based upon race, gender, creed, national origin, etc. These forms become your racial documentation, so to speak. The cynics among the White males, the losers in all this racial redress, will insist upon a fixed definition of race so as to get a clear picture of how far and how long their social and legal status as an "oppressor" will be. 

2. The legal assumption that being Black must have some kind of documented or socially affirmed status is what enrages Black people when Whites try to assume Black personage. As someone said, Ms. Dolezal can CHANGE her status, but Blacks cannot. But I'd argue even that SOME Blacks cannot, but SOME Blacks CAN. As long as there have been light-skinned Black people "passing" for White, SOME Blacks can get away with being White. While we all have known Blacks who are socially White and are "lost" inside and into the White social class, they cannot escape their birth certificates nor their appearances. But some light-skinned Blacks have (in New Orleans for example) lived in quiet secrecy all their lives to such a degree that it would take a close family member to "out" them. That's just who they have become, but if race were included on their Drivers Licenses we would know the truth. Ms. Dolezal was "outed" on national TV, which brought us to this discussion.

My take is that while Ms. Dolezal went as far as she could to live the life of Black experience, this case ironically suggests a certain positive status for minority person-hood in that a White woman would sacrifice her White privilege - in the U.S. no less - to be Black and be thus of a diminished social status as a U.S. citizen. But really and truly: I blame her parents in not explaining to her the rash of Black child adoptions they did perhaps while Rachel was a little girl. It is obvious to me that she took all of the Black adoptions as a rejection of her White-ness and sought to win her parents' affection and affirmation for who she was not, rather than for who she was. This is a classic case of "reverse-passing".

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