Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Passing Craze

As many cheer on Caitlyn Jenner's transition and welcome any "coming out," is the furor over Rachel Dolezal's allegiance as a black woman justified? According to a statement issued by the organization's head office: "One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership." If we acclaim gender transition and cheer "coming out," why not trans-racial self-identification? After all, the left tells us race is a social construct, created in our clannish minds.

After I wrote that paragraph, I read Frederik de Boer, an academic: "In the end, perhaps Dolezal simply believed the convictions of her academic culture a little too much. After all, we on the left have insisted for years that the various demographic categories we are placed into are merely social constructs, the creation of human assumption and human prejudice. That race is a social construct is a stance that brooks no disagreement in left-wing spaces." Hiring urges that the under-represented gain parity. Those marginalized are urged to gain equality. We institutionalize these incentives; we got her re-invention as a member of "her race".

Marcia Dawkins finds that technology accelerated such re-inventions, same as it does for Jenner. And she thinks the media dismissal of Dolezal as "crazy" blocks us from asking tougher questions. "Why is identity considered an editable 'profile' anyway? Do you have to be a person of color to care and advocate for people of color? Does passing make you a coward, a minstrel or a winner? Are there benefits to being perceived as black? Is anyone’s identity, racial or otherwise, 100 percent authentic 100 percent of the time? And the real doozy: Why do we try to get beyond race by clinging to the idea that race is real?" This contradiction sticks. Ideologues and bureaucrats act as if they are trying to advance people based on their diversity, but this does not dismiss race but affirms it as a label.

Unfortunately since I wrote this original entry, the sinister side of racial identity again surfaces. The deaths in Charleston at a Baptist church recall those of the Civil Rights struggle, which is not a period we have closed our books on after all. Such outbreaks occur more frequently, mass ones every 64 days as opposed to every 200 days a few decades ago. Ironically, blacks and whites are "represented equally" in such attacks. Hatred against the Other, technology enabling murder, increases mayhem.

Nell Irvin Painter adds how an "essential problem here is the inadequacy of white identity. Everyone loves to talk about blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between 'bland nothingness' and 'racist hatred.'”

Meanwhile, voices of harmony and liberation seek to counter the domination of such pain in the headlines. Some deny race as a social construct but as with our sexual preferences, others stereotype each of us by it. We try to escape categories even as both the left and the right seek to keep us all marked or slotted. I wonder if this unease we face will harden or loosen "racial" categories in the U.S.

Alysson Hobbs notes: "As a historian who has spent the last 12 years studying 'passing,' I am disheartened that there is so little sympathy for Ms. Dolezal or understanding of her life circumstances. The harsh criticism of her sounds frighteningly similar to the way African-Americans were treated when it was discovered that they had passed as white. They were vilified, accused of deception and condemned for trying to gain membership to a group to which they did not and could never belong." I had thought of this immediately when I heard the story emerge, and I like Hobbs wondered why so much vitriol and ridicule was heaped Dolezal's way, mocking her for "blackface."

In the late 70s, the multiracial singer of X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene, took the mike. She did not look like any other front person, even as a punk icon. One of their best songs has her wailing: "When you look in the mirror/Do you see yourself" and then asks: "When you see yourself/Does it make you scream"? The singer's image, her stage name, her own redefinition came to mind the past two weeks.

Image: Ebony magazine, April 1952. At Polygrafi. "The Delicacy of Racial Appearance."

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