Rachel Dolezal and Racism

Rachel Dolezal and Racism


Howard Adelman

One note of guidance. I capitalize Black and Blackness, White and Whiteness, when I am making a conceptual reference. When I refer to the term itself, or when I am quoting, I do not capitalize.

Categories carry moral, social and political weight. Black is one of them. When Cecil Foster was my PhD student, he wrote his thesis on Blackness. In 2004, he published, Where Race Does Not Matter: The New Spirit of Modernity (Penguin). In 2007, another instalment of the thesis was published, Blackness and Modernity: The Colour of Humanity and the Quest for Freedom (McGill-Queens University Press). Though I was his faculty supervisor, I learned far more from him about being Black and about racism than I ever knew.

Cecil’s thesis is straightforward. Black is and has been a construction to define Whiteness. While the term white has been associated with goodness and purity, the word black was not. Cases in point: the black arts or giving someone a black (angry) look, or being in a black mood or in someone’s black book (ostracized by that person), or saying that a person is the black sheep (a renegade) in the family, or referring to the black market, that is, the irregular and illegal trade in goods and services, or a black list as was used against artists and writers and film makers in the McCarthy era, or in the term “blackmail,” the effort to extract money through the use of threats. The word black is associated with the intemperate, the outsider, the renegade, illegal or irregular behaviour. In short, if Whiteness is associated with goodness and purity, Blackness is associated with the black witch and evil. Black is not beautiful in the English lexicon. Black i

The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a widespread challenge to these associations. Last week, the slaughter of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Black congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, is but one indication that, for too many, the word black continues to be associated with all that is bad. The Confederate flag still flies from the flagpole in front of the legislature in Columbia, South Carolina. Unlike American and state flags, the Confederate flag was not lowered to half mast in recognition of the slaughter of a popular Black pastor and eight of his parishioners by a white supremacist, Dylann Root.

This, and the terrible incident that provoked it, may be connected with the absence of gun legislation in the U.S. But at a deeper level, I believe that the fact that South Carolina is one of five states that lacks any hate crime legislation is more to the point. South Carolina hosts nineteen different white supremacist organizations, including the Klu Klux Klan. This was not just a mass shooting that occurs so frequently in the U.S. It was a mass shooting that deliberately targeted a pastor of a Black church and his congregants.

Modernity, for Cecil Foster, has been a quest for Whiteness, for purity and perfection. However, our evil, deep, dark and black passions hold us back. This framework for morality has deep philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and mythological roots. In Foster’s analysis, however, Canada stands out as the first country to define itself in terms of multiculturalism, as opposed to ethnic homogeneity, and, therefore, to reject a Black-and-White frame for looking at the world.

There are four primary forms of understanding Blackness. The first is somatic – the genes you inherit that give one’s body a certain shade. This isn’t an absolute category. It is relative. Somalis and Ethiopians in Africa do not consider themselves Black. But they are perceived as Black, neutralized and blackwashed as a visible minority in North America. In 1924, Virginia passed The White Integrity Act, one of many anti-miscegenation laws, that defined a white person as someone with blood that was “entirely white, having no known, demonstrable or ascertainable admixture of the blood of another race.” That law was overturned in the landmark legal case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967. A state law in Louisiana defined anyone as Black who had 1/32nd Negro blood, a law that was overturned in 1983.

A second category for understanding and conceptualizing Blackness is cultural. Blacks have a different culture than whites – speak with a different accent, eat specific “black” foods – gumbo, fried chicken and grits, corn bread, collard greens and watermelon, catfish and black-eyed peas. On a much deeper level, to be Black culturally is to identify with the history of Blacks. The fact that many or even most Blacks may no longer eat these foods does not mean that their association with Black slaves in the American south did not leave an indelible mark to characterize even when contemporary Blacks cannot trace their ancestry back to slaves. The one area where this resonates most strongly is music. Jazz and rock-and-roll both have Black roots. Their universal and global adoption into modern culture is an indication that popular culture has become Black far more than it has become White. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” the theme song of assimilation by a Tin Pan Alley Jew, Irving Berlin, took the dream in the opposite direction of a melting pot.

The third meaning of Black is best epitomized, not by Black Americans from the American south, but by Blacks from the Caribbean who immigrated to Canada and for whom Black stands for status and a way to differentiate Blacks who return home to the Caribbean with money and microwave ovens, fine linens and fluffy towels. They do not opt for integration into their adopted country to become living examples of the highest ideal, as did Harry Belafonte in the U.S. For those who hold Black to be primarily a status consciousness, return with this status is more important than even attaining success in Canada. Cecil Foster himself may have achieved notice as a novelist, essayist and academic scholar in Canada, but this would not compare to the recognition and status he would have enjoyed if he had returned to his birthplace in Barbados.  In the story of Rachel Dolezal, the most inappropriate accusations levelled against her were that she identified as Black for the purpose of status and financial gain.

Finally, there is the category of Black as an ideal rather than White, Black as the essential core of multiculturalism which finally wipes out somatic Blackness and the ethical superiority of Whiteness for a totally opposite ideal vision of a society that not only tolerates but celebrates difference rather than whitewashing the colour out of everyone. In such a perspective, Blackness becomes a dialectical method, not of separating out and dividing in terms of the pure categories of Black and White, but of blending, of conceiving of Black, not in total opposition to White, but as a method that combines what we see and experience with a rational categorical frame for exposing an underlying structure, while always insisting that the categories of Blackness and Whiteness be understood in terms of their historical context and within a specific society, that is. located in time and place. That is how the tale of Rachel Dolezal must be understood, as rooted in time and place and the particular history of another victim of mob hysteria, misrepresentation and metaphorical lynching.

Let me represent it by a table:

Modes of Representation                    Materialist                   Idealist

Social Status Blackness     Black is Beautiful

Somatic Blackness        Cultural Blackness

That is how the case of Rachel Dolezal must be understood if one is not to distort. When the press largely portrays the issue as a white woman posing as a Black, the word black is being used to suggest a quest for privileges, status and financial rewards. Usually Whiteness is privileged for such purposes, but virtually all commentators failed to recognize that there is a trajectory that privileges Black status. This trajectory only became part of the debate as an accusation. However, privileging Whiteness is far more prevalent, hence raising the puzzle of why anyone who was “naturally” and genetically White would want to identify herself as somatically Black. But when you read the details of Rachel’s story, a frame that is restricted to being somatically Black as a method for achieving social status simply distorts and pre-defines her as a fraud, a deceiver, and a peculiar one at that, for it is rare for a somatic White to want to become a somatic Black.The two top categories represent very opposite types of aspiration. The two bottom categories represent very different starting points. In the lower left, society constructs your racial identity. In the lower right category, self-identification becomes supreme. What seems clear is that most people in the media seemed to want to represent Rachel Dolezal as operating on the left hand side of the chart and, unusually, she represented herself and deceived others into thinking she was somatically Black, so these critics of Rachel claim. Further, she did it to achieve social status in the Black community and the benefits of position. In her own story, as opposed to this real misrepresentation, her trajectory rose from identifying as culturally Black at an early age and aspiring to become ideally Black.

However, when Rachel is perceived as someone educated at Howard University, as someone who even took the university to court in 2002 for denying her a position in the university because she was white, a case which she lost, it becomes clear that she has spent her life crusading against somatic Blackness. If she had to engage in that fight by posing as an African-American to gain admission, she might have. But she actually never did. She clearly knew she was somatically White. She was then regarded by her peers and the faculty as White. She wrote her essay for Howard University, not to deceive the university that she was somatically Black – why would she sue them later for denying her a position because she was somatically White – but because she “plunged into black history and novels, feeling the relieving release of understanding and common ground.” She was transitioning into a culturally Black woman even as she remained somatically White.

“My struggles paled as I read of the atrocities many ancestors faced in America.”

But her quest was not simply to remain culturally Black. She clearly wanted to become idealistically Black, to get the world to understand that Black is beautiful and not the denigrated category the term possesses in the English language and especially in the heritage of American society. “At the early age of three I showed an awareness of the richness and beauty of dark skin when I said, ‘Mama, all people are beautiful, but black people are so beautiful.’”

Somatic Blackness was one route to cultural Blackness and ideal Blackness. But it need not be the only route. And it could not be her route. Her path, though she never directly experienced discrimination as a Black, was more challenging, especially since many, and perhaps most, Blacks deny the possibility of such a path. Rachel was also not pursuing Blackness as a status category, as a rich cool cat returning home with all the symbols of a consumer culture, but with special attention to glitz and gold. This stereotype is portrayed as a particular version of a gangster in American movies, such as the excellent one I saw last night, Life of a King, about Blacks who chose to reject the social status conception of Black. Rachel pursued a trajectory by denying her identity in terms of a somatic White person, traveling via a cultural Black person identity to arrive at the ideal of Blackness.

Nor was she doing this through stealth and misrepresentation. Michele Garcia might have concluded that, “It’s pretty clear: Dolezal has lied.” In fact, it is pretty clear that she had not, though she did permit people, and, in some cases, abetted individuals to draw false conclusions about her. When asked specifically about her race, she replied, “If I have to choose to describe yourself and you’re able to give terms like a fraction of whatever but an overall picture, I consider myself to be Caucasian biologically.” As she said in a different way, taking up the challenge of the question about somatic Whiteness, on the NBC Today show (http://www.today.com/news/rachel-dolezal-speaks-today-show-matt-lauer-after-naacp-resignation-t26371), she answered the demand to admit that she was White by saying, “I do take exception to that because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question, are you black or white?”

This is not a case of dodging the issue, but of refusing to get trapped by the categorization built into the question. She insisted on the moral right to identify herself in a way that felt most authentic to her in accordance with that self-determined identity. She definitely did not fabricate her racial identity and engage in blackface as a performance, but, rather, rejected the prison of existing somatic categories in favour of understanding her identity within a more composite, more complicated, and more fluid frame. And she certainly did not do so for financial gain as some have charged. “Dolezal benefited materially from her self-representation as black.”

How does one escape the tyranny of the ideal of the homogeneous Whiteness and purity if you have to answer questions about your race in terms imposed by that racist conception and admit that if you carried even the one drop of ancestral Black blood, and that would make you racially Black, then you are endorsing the ideal of the racially pure White? Laws may be repealed or overturned in judicial decisions, but it is much more difficult to overturn categories embedded deeply in our linguistic and cultural practices. Working within these somatic categories of Black unless pure White is but to accept the racist language, a racist language for which many if not most Blacks have not even freed themselves. To achieve the new ideal of Blackness as the inversion of the old ideal of homogeneity and purity as the highest category symbolized by the colour white, to do so by traveling through the terrain of cultural blackness, has been Rachel Dolezal’s trajectory.

But that is not how it has been perceived by most North Americans caught up in the old categories of somatic Black and White as dictated by the utopian opposite ideal of purity and homogeneity of race versus miscegenation. Rachel became the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP in January of this year. By all accounts, she infused that organization with energy and vitality in the pursuit of the equal rights of African-Americans. She secured new offices in downtown Spokane, solidified the financial base of the NAACP Spokane chapter, brought in many new members, launched a number of new strategic initiatives while, at the same time, she helped individuals fight race-based discrimination.

Why was she induced to resign? (For her resignation letter in full, see the Facebook page of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP or http://www.kxly.com/news/spokane-news/rachel-dolezal-to-resign-as-president-of-spokane-naacp/33586732.) She resigned, not because she was racially White, but because she came to believe that the complex publicity over the issue of her identity would harm the agenda of the NAACP.  The firestorm over her identity had become a distraction from its mission, some understandably believe. I, in contrast, believe the firestorm has offered an excellent opportunity for the NAACP to advance its position and mission.

But that is not how most media outlets interpreted the story. Rachel had engaged in deception. Rachel’s empathy for Blacks had evolved into subterfuge and impersonation. just as in the 1949 movie Pinky directed by Elia Kazan, Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned African American woman had done so in reverse when she passed herself off as white when she fell in love with a white doctor. (See the op-ed by Tamara Winfrey Harris, a Black American woman, in last Thursday’s New York Times, 16 June 2015 headlined, “Rachel Dolezal’s Harmful Masquerade.”) Rachel had misled, claimed Tamara, while people like herself had no choice but to be Black. In fact, as I argue, Tamara did have a choice, to reject somatic Blackness as an imposition by racists and identify oneself as culturally and idealistically Black.

From this perspective of deception and misrepresentation, many demanded Rachel’s resignation from Spokane’s volunteer police oversight board as well. Spokane, a city of 210,000, is 90% White, and about 2% somatic Black, but Rachel actually lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the heartland of the Aryan Nation. The charge has also been made that she violated Spokane’s anti-harassment policy by engaging in conduct that humiliated, insulted or degraded members of the police force. What an outrageous claim in the light of the behaviour of some police officers across North America, even in Toronto where a new Black police chief defended carding when the evidence clearly showed that Blacks were totally and disproportionately targeted by the practice. Further, such a charge seems ludicrous except for how serious it is in revealing how entrenched we are in the old racist categories of Black and White as dictated by the utopian ideal of the purity of Whiteness. It should be no surprise that a law-and-order Republican, who especially favours the police and fire department, Mayor David Condon, is leading the charge to remove Rachel from her voluntary position.

The disgrace of the whole event is not simply that Rachel has resigned from her position with the NAACP, or that she has also been fired from her jobs as a part-time college instructor and freelance journalist. The real disgrace is that some prominent members of the Black community, who are clearly somatic Blacks, have either bought into the portrait of deception or resent a somatic White for achieving such prominence in the Black community, even though the national NAACP initially stood by her and insisted that somatic Blackness was not a qualification for her position. However, some local NAACP members could only understand the issue through somatic black lenses.

By now it should be clear that I am critical of the predominant way this issue has been portrayed, understood and mishandled. The public humiliation and metaphorical lynching of Rachel Dolezal has been a disgrace. The firestorm reveals how deeply the ideology of racial white purity and its complement, the Black/White somatic divide, is embedded in North American history. For when Rachel wrote that her ethnic origins were white, black and American Indian, she was not saying that she was somatically Black, or that she had genetic Black roots – except insofar as all of us can trace our genetic history back 70,000 years to Africa, but that Rachel was ethnically Black and that she identified culturally with Black America.

The matter was not helped when her parents evidently “outed” her when they told a reporter that she did not have a drop of Black blood and said that their daughter had begun to “disguise” herself as Black when the parents adopted four Black children. It seems clear that Ruthanne Dolezal, with all her outreach towards Blacks, was deeply somatically White and could not envision having a biological daughter who identified herself as culturally Black and even adopted some of the hair and dress styles to signal that transition.

What about when Rachel referred to Albert Wilkinson as her dad? Her answer: only her biological dad could be her father, but many older men, for her, were dads. One was Albert Wilkinson. Many who hear this insist that this was a clear deception because others would assume that, if Rachel referred to him as her dad, then she meant that he was her biological father. Even if that wasn’t what was meant, she had to be aware that this would be how others interpreted her relationship to Albert Wilkinson.

What about when she was asked in another TV interview about whether she denied that her real parents were her genetic forbears? Surely one was forced to raise one’s eyebrows when she said there was no proof that they were her biological parents and that her birth certificate was only registered after 6 weeks. Here, she was not asserting that she was not biologically White, but she did suggest she carried some scepticism about her paternity and maternity. Was she just being a nut case, or was she hinting at something else? I do not know, for the interviewer was obsessed with insisting that she had a duty to engage with others if they used the somatic White and Black categories to define her identity. Unfortunately, instead of following this line down wherever it went, the journalist hammered away at the theme of deception rather than asking why there was even an iota of doubt. Rachel’s questionable replies threw more suspicion on her willingness to be transparent even though it was clear that she was not in a position nor had the time nor wanted to take the time to constantly tackle the somatic illusions that some Whites want to impose on others.

This isn’t simply an American problem. In Thursday’s Toronto Star (16 June 2015), Neil Price, who teaches at George Brown College, denounced Toronto’s new police chief for endorsing carding and thereby engaging in “a deliberate denial of race-consciousness typical of blacks who gain important positions and find it necessary to publicly signal a disavowal of any allegiance to black people and their grievances.” Although I disagree with Police Chief Saunder’s stand on carding, there is no evidence that he disavowed his own Black consciousness or his sensitivity to the historical suffering of Blacks. Rather, I saw him as acting as Police Chief for all the people and saw himself as a person who believed that a form of carding that did not target or single out Blacks was an advantage in undertaking police work. I myself am sceptical about the technique in general and doubly sceptical that it can be practiced in isolation from its historical pattern of usage. However, the pursuit of a high professional position does not entail an immediate suspicion that the person is abandoning his identity as Black, but that he may be pursuing a higher ideal of Blackness as a universal marker in a society with a history that gave the highest value to purity and Whiteness.

Anna Leventhal, a writer of fiction like Cecil Foster, in her column on Rachel that was published side-by-side Neil Price’s, asked, “Why can’t Dolezal be African-American? She identifies with the culture, she grew up in a mixed-race family (her biological parents adopted four Black boys), and she has clearly demonstrated a commitment to the struggles of African-American people. Who are we to say she is not who she claims to be? It seems we have reached a high water mark for cultural understanding and acceptance of gender’s socially constructed nature. The next step would be to apply it to race.”

However, it is clear than Anna Levanthal’s understanding has its limits. “While the idea of being ‘transracial’ has some history in describing the identities of adopted children who are of a different race than their parents, it doesn’t mean it can be used casually to describe the feeling that you are not of the race you were born into.” But what if your agenda is NOT to deny the supposed race that you were born into, but the utility and misuse of somatic categories of race, particularly Black and White, altogether? There is little evidence that Rachel denied the race that she was born into, in spite of the efforts of the press to portray her as engaged in deceptive practices, but much evidence to support the position that she denied the alleged race into which she was born was relevant to her identity. As her two sons told her when the whole issue exploded in the media; “Mom, you are culturally Black and racially human.”

Rachel explicitly refused to accept the idea of somatic Whiteness and Blackness that most Americans seemed to want to impose upon her. In recent years, she had not been claiming to be transracial, as such a claim played into the tyranny of somatic Blackness. Rachel claimed to be Black, culturally Black and idealistically Black. Rachel was not taking “on a new race,” but a new culture and a new ideal in the face of a society that refused to budge from its polar oppositional categorization of Black and White. She did not just want to be an ally of Black Americans, for she perceived that as surrendering to the somatic and idealist categorization of Black and White as oppositional categories with the purity of Whiteness being reinforced by the very categorization itself.

Anna Leventhal’s analogy with Grey Owl who presented himself as racially of mixed white and Ojibway stock, is, therefore, not a parallel. For in addition to his identification with the culture of our aboriginal peoples, he actually was a racial poseur. Rachel was not. Anna’s inability or refusal in the end to understand Rachel’s agenda, her insistence that Rachel could and should have remained White and simply openly supported Blacks, indicates that, as tolerant as she tries to be and undoubtedly is, she has missed the point.

For a very interesting parallel, read Avraham Osipov-Gipsh’s account, “Am I Like Rachel Dolezal?” published in Tablet this past week. As he asserted on the same principle of self-sovereignty, “I performed Jewish. I lived Jewish. And nobody owns the right to tell me if I am Jewish or not.” Except, he was not dealing with a somatic category, but with a melange that apply to being a Jew, some of which have implications for religious membership and others implications for membership in a state that are not satisfied by self-sovereignty. What about the commandment of honouring your parents, whether biological or adoptive or foster in the Shulchan Aruch? Was Avraham like Rachel in failing to honour his parents, a failure that cast so much suspicion on Rachel’s self-identity? That, for religious Jews, is a far greater desecration than dissembling; lacking respect in that area is a desecration of G-d’s name.


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