If you understand that race is a social construct and not a genetic distinction, you will also understand and agree with Jelani Cobb’s trenchant distillation of the Rachel Dolezal controversy in this week’s New Yorker. If you do not understand that, you might want to take a look at Jacqueline Jones’ A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America. Or consider that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of the African-American Studies Department at Harvard University, recently discovered through his popular DNA experiments on PBS that he has more white ancestry than black. In fact, as Gates told Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, the police officer who arrested him some years ago for breaking into his own home has the same distinctive Y-chromosome as Gates himself, which heralds from a particular region of Ireland, thereby making them cousins so many times removed as to place them on different sides of America’s wide racial divide.
America is in the midst of an identity crisis. We are transitioning along racial, demographic, and gender-identity lines that will impact the political landscape—and our personal lives—forever. There is also the long-running issue of class at the back of all this. As Ambassador Andrew Young remarked during his 83rd birthday celebration in Atlanta last month, the issue is not black or white but green. The root cause of all our problems is economic. He argued that underpaid white police officers are shooting unemployed black citizens. Adding that until we correct economic injustices, the racial ones will continue to exist as a distraction.
His comments echo sentiments that go back to the short-lived Populist movement championed in 1892 by Georgia orator and politician, Tom Watson. Before he became a staunch white supremacist, Watson argued that America’s political and economic systems were rigged to serve the interests of the rich. His Populist platform sought changes that would empower black and white farmers by forging an alliance of sorts between them. Among other things, it called for an end to the state’s convict lease system—a kind of neo-slavery that provided free labor on the backs of anyone unlucky enough to be convicted of just about anything. He lost badly at the ballot box, saw that he needed to harness the power of racial animosity in order to win future elections, and became a segregationist icon.
But before he “wised up” and became practical about winning elections, his view was the same as Ambassador Young’s 123 years later. The problem is not black or white—but green.
Which is to say, then, that the hue-and-cry over the racial identification of Rachel Dolezal is a distraction. There is a smoke-and-mirrors game here, which obscures the deeper issues.
Deeper issues? Yes. Here is James Baldwin from Notes of a Native Son, published in 1961:
"[T]he question of color, especially in this country, operates to hide the graver question of the self. That is precisely why what we like to call "the Negro problem" is so tenacious in American life, and so dangerous. But my own experience proves to me that the connection between American whites and blacks is far deeper and more passionate than any of us like to think.... The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one's key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours."
When the sound and fury evoked by the need to fill our 24-hour news cycle reaches a certain level, almost nothing can be heard beyond the deafening din. However, Jelani Cobb’s salient refutation of those who “diss Dolezal” for telling a lie is worth considering. She has not only told a lie--she has told a lie about a lie. That other lie is the myth of race, which people cling to despite long-standing calls from the scientific community to do away with the term and replace it altogether with something like “people groups.”
Before that, in 1948, another white man, Pulitzer-prize-winning writer Ray Sprigle, disguised himself as black to write a series of articles entitled, “I Was a Black Man for 30 Days.”
Also worth noting is Grace Halsell’s Soul Sister, her 1969 book about changing the color of her skin in order to discover what it was like to be a black woman in the United States.
Of course, this kind of blackness is temporary. Whites pretending to be black can always make it back to the safety of the white world. Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott did not have this option. So it's no wonder Rachel Dolezal is viewed with a certain degree of suspicion and distrust.
Some have compared her to Chet Haze, Iggy Azalea, M&M, and John Meyer. But she is different from any of these pop starts. Different too from the authors who donned black skin temporarily to write books.
Dolezal did not attempt to co-opt black experience for financial gain. Hers is not the historical insult of "black face" as some claim. As Jelani Cobb points out, she went to work shouldering the burden of African-American causes at the NAACP of all places. Her “outing” has now become the story. And not the work that remains to be done.
We are in a peculiar moment of our evolution. The endless chatter around the specious and confining category of race is an effort to come to terms with our shifting identity. It is an opportunity for society to say what it will and will not allow. People are taking sides and mounting arguments. The NAACP is disappointed. The Today Show interview begins amiably enough but Matt Lauer eventually grills Dolezal as if she were a Nazi war criminal. ("When did you begin to deceive people?") Jon Stewart responds with a simple“Whaaat?” In the end, it is Rachel Dolezal -- and only Rachel Dolezal -- who must decide who and what she is.
A famous literary critic was once asked to define tragedy and came up with this response: “A tragedy is when society wins.” Look at King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, or Othello, and you will see the truth in this. What’s at stake for people like Dolezal is the same as what’s at stake for everyone: How to be your authentic self in a world full of people who would have you become otherwise—some fiction they are willing to accept and tolerate.
All of this is playing out within a few days of the sixth anniversary of Michael Jackson's death (June 25, 2009). Jackson’s reconstructive surgeries were criticized as far away as Pravda as a pathetic attempt to become white. When asked about all this during their brief marriage, Lisa Marie Presley once answered that Jackson was simply exercising his prerogative to redefine himself. America may be in the midst of an identity crisis, but this desire for self-redefinition is as old as the Pilgrims and as mythic as Jay Gatsby. It’s a stony road. Not everybody makes it. But Jackson said it best: In the end, it won’t matter if you’re black or white.