Free to Choose

Dolezal’s case is fascinating. At first blush, it seems counterintuitive: why would a white person ever want to identify as black in a country where actually being black is mortally dangerous, from sleeping to playing to sitting to standing to driving, not to mention waiting for a trial while in prison for years on end.

Hottentot Venus

           Hottentot Venus

But I think immediately of talking to people about culture, and how often those who are white say they don’t have one, as if there’s a kind of blank space where their culture ought to be. I then think of how rap music was partially built on the allowances of white suburban boys, and how those boys still so desperately want to say the ‘n-word’, because it’s ok without the ‘er’, and because if black people can do it, why can’t they. After all, all things are equally small when seen from far enough above. I also think of Stuart Hall’s analysis of the Hottentot Venus, that exotic object of white European desire, or Franz Fanon’s realization that he was being turned into an object of spiritual and sexual animus, an epidermal schematization whose spell even his fellow black victims fell under. But in each case, these forms of ‘blackness’ are reflections, necessarily inverted, of those white cultures who invade, brutalize, and colonize them, not, as the white fantasy would have it, objects of nature or curiosities of the wild.

And here is where we can locate Dolezal: if white people control the rules of legitimacy, people of color must live in the wilds of authenticity.  And through the logic of inversion, because legitimacy is an orchestrated thing, authenticity is a natural thing.  Legitimacy requires laws, lineages, and regulations: authenticity, because legally illegitimate, is naturally legitimate, somehow closer to or even magically of nature, and therefore it just ‘is’.  As such, white people, never sure of their status within the realm, will always want those brute beings, the ones whose passions are so wild, whose beauty is so uninhibited, whose bodies are so free, and whose genitals are so engorged. And therein lies the rub: those in power can have a black mistress, they can put on black face, they can go slumming and engage in poverty tourism, and now, apparently, they can even be black. But then, if they want, they can go home, be white, and forget that any of it ever happened.

slummingRace doesn’t exist, at least not scientifically.  Race is a social fact, one put into play in the 18th and 19th centuries by such luminaries as Immanuel Kant and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (who invented our use of the word Caucasian, the actual origin of which is worth reading about).  It is, as Stuart Hall points out, a slippery customer, and thus a shifting signifier that is often utilized to support the current needs of those in power.  Think of how The Irish were not originally considered to be white in America or Britain, but now clearly are.  But if race can shift and alter, it does not follow that it is a matter of equal choice.  Dolezal can choose to identify as black, and that, up until now, has been her privilege as a white person.  For her, the world really is black and white.  But an essential aspect of the definition of blackness is that one doesn’t have such a choice: the decision is imposed, such as when W. E. B. Du Bois, as a little child exchanging cards with other students, realizes that he is not a person, but rather a black person: “The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”


                        Rachel Dolezal

That veil, that color line, still divides and defines our world.  In a recent PEW survey outlining the growing multiracial reality of America, one fact seems painfully relevant here: people with a black multiracial background experience discrimination at about the same level as people with only a black background. So what is the point here?  To find oneself identified as black is not the same thing as choosing to identify oneself as black, for the latter truly is a choice, while the former is something that is violently imposed.  Dolezal can put on a black face and achieve a kind of cultural authenticity that white culture can never provide.  She can even sue her college for not allowing her to represent black culture because she is white. But a black person, even when passing, is forever stuck on the other side of the veil, imprisoned in her seemingly natural body, always an object of curiosity, and always in danger, no matter how much ‘white blood’ flows through her veins. That person is black in a white world, which means that poverty, low wages, prison, and an early death are all a part of daily reality, even at home.

As such, Dolezal is doing something very normal for a white person: she is exercising her power of choice, and within the white American imaginary, there is nothing more natural than doing precisely that.  Indeed, I can imagine that she is feeling angry and indignant right now, if vaguely guilty. Because she identifies as black. Because she had a black husband. Because she adopted a black boy. Because she did nothing wrong. Because she helped those poor, beautiful people out.