Sunday, June 14, 2015

As long as you think you're white, there's no hope for you.

There is no point in me joining in the endless attacks on Rachel Dolezal.  I'm tempted to say that I have no moral basis for criticising her when, like millions of people worldwide, I have been fronting as a white man all these years.  The accent, the hairstyle, the appalling diet, the sumptuary choices, the music, the terrible, terrible clothing.  I've bought into every racial stereotype of back-woods Northern Irish redneck scum you could possibly invent.  You wouldn't believe the lengths that some people will go to in order to uphold some specious 'identity'.

And actually, what's striking about Dolezal is precisely how powerfully invested she is in the logic of race.  The 'hot takes', the Buzzfeed disses, and so on all take due note of her stories about her genealogy, and the lengths to which she went to get the hair right - even presenting lectures on the history of African American hair.  She is alleged to have excluded a Hispanic student from class activities on the grounds that he appeared 'too white'.  And reportedly, she even invented racist attacks on her person in order to sustain the decoy.  Even allowing for some embellished and sensationalist reporting, and allowing that many complexities are being omitted, it seems fair enough to say that her whole strategy for being 'black' depended upon investing in, and to a degree reinforcing and policing, the colour line.  But there are two very peculiar reactions to this story.

The first is that of critics who are perhaps even more invested in race than Dolezal herself.  She is white.  She is whitewhitewhite.  Her parents, look, they're white.  She is, what, Czech, German, Swedish, and that all adds up to white with a capital white.  With all this expertise on pedigree, it's like listening to a dog breeder describe his mutt.  Without trying to decide whether Rachel Dolezal is white or black - trust me, you don't want me to be the authority on this, because I am a massive stirrer (she's both, she's neither, it's undecidable, Schroedinger's cat race theory, ahahahaha) - the introduction of a genealogical logic, the logic of racial pedigree, displays incredible fidelity to what we had hoped were antiquated and discredited notions of race.  Anyway, how do we know this logic wouldn't fail according to the 'one drop of blood' creed?  White people get DNA checks which reveal black ancestry all the time (and Christ, they never shut up about it).  Maybe she even has some Cherokee Indian heritage, like no white American ever: wouldn't that be something?  (Answer: no, it wouldn't.  It doesn't matter.  We shouldn't be investing in these specious notions of heritage.)  

Likewise, the deference to visible cues as self-evident markers of race - look, she had pale, freckled skin, and light, straight hair, how much more white do you want? - cannot help but corroborate the logic according to which someone with slightly darker skin and curlier hair would be automatically turned down for a loan, followed around an upmarket shop, or harassed by the police.

The second is that of defenders, who have discovered that 'race is a social construct'.  Well, thank god for that.  And it is true, race is a social construct.  And they add, identities are fictive, there's an element of fantasy in all of them, they're fluid and open-ended.  And that too is correct.  And they go on, why try to police the boundaries of an ossified logic of race?  This is almost irresistible.  And yet, even if it wasn't the case that Dolezal herself bought heavily into the petrified logic of race, and preached it and practiced it every day as seems to be the case, there seems to be something that is not being thought through here.

What do people mean when they say 'race is a social construction'?  What sort of materials is it constructed from, and how robust is the construction?  I think race is oppression, and nothing else.  It has no essential biological or cultural truth outside of the social relationship which constitutes it.  It is power, all the way down.  From the stratification of slave labour following the Bacon Rebellion to the 'whitening' of the Irish, the whole point of race is that it situates you in a particular social location.  And it is the product of collective action - hence the 'social' part of 'social construction'.  As to undoing race, there is the example of Dessalines conferring the status of 'Black' on Polish Legionnaires who had defected to the side of the Haitian revolution.  In the Haitian context, 'Black' was no longer raced - to be 'Black' was just to be a citizen.  Of course, those soldiers had a choice in the matter: they could have returned to Europe, where they would be 'white'.  In the global context, 'Black' still functioned as a racial designation; and given Haiti's situation and the attacks it would weather, identifying as 'Black' meant joining the racially oppressed in an insurgency against race.

So the interesting question is, why is race so resilient despite being so malleable, and despite having no fundamental reality outside of power?  Why are examples of 'undoing' so rare?  Why does it take such giant collective efforts to even change the racial status of a particular group?  It would seem to warn against the tendency to collapse race into identity.  It is primarily, like class, a social relationship.  Identifications will form around that relationship, and signifiers like 'black' or 'bourgeois' can accrue all sorts of differently accented cultural meanings.  But, just as a factory owner does not necessarily become working class by dropping aitches, wearing scruffy clothes, reading the Sunday Sport and calling himself a proper working class diamond geezer, so it would seem that - unless we do want to collapse race into identity - one does not become black by styling one's hair in a particular way, acquiring a new accent and family history, and declaring oneself black.

This is not to deny that 'passing' can have certain retroactive effects.  For example, Dolezal supposedly fabricated racist attacks that happened to her.  Paradoxically, however, by ensuring that she was widely accepted and acknowledged as 'black', she probably did undergo a degree of racialisation, and probably did suffer actual racist aggression as a result.  But the axis on which this question is decided appears to be, not a particular agent's political identifications, but the socially accepted protocols of race.  Since she has been 'exposed' as white, any racialisation achieved through decoy may now be reversed, because the protocols of race, backed up with all the big arsenals of power, say that if you were born white, you stay white; and, likewise, if you were born black, you stay in your place.  

I don't think we should have any loyalty to this state of affairs.  We should, if anything, be in staunch opposition to it.  We shouldn't invest in the categories of white and black as anything more than hierarchical social locations, and as ones which we intend to abolish.  But it is a state of affairs that is not superseded by an individual's will or say-so.