THE BLOG

In the Afterglow of Racial Passing

06/17/2015 11:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

I have been extremely wary about weighing in with regard to the Rachel Dolezal matter. It has been written about extensively -- no, exhaustively -- from so many angles that it makes one's head start to explode.

On the one hand, I was for awhile willing to delve into all the knotty issues of passing, trans-raciality, class, meritocracy, family psychodrama, white privilege, that pundits and just regular folk have put out there for us to contemplate. The Dolezal case has the distinct feature of being trumpeted via a plethora of online media, globally. Nearly everything that has been said has been provocative and meaningful, even if in ways that were not intended. It was rather like falling down the rabbit hole of race, class, gender, sexuality, all at once.

On the other hand, I was tempted to ask, why all this bother about one very messed up person (and now, it appears, her entire family, biological and otherwise)? Why not get let this be a simple, very isolated incident, and not try to extrapolate from it some diagnosis of the State of Race in America?

But one thing has driven me to compose this very simple blog, that has one very simple, but hopefully useful thing to say. And what prompted me to write was the now swelling chorus that is saying, "well, isn't race just a construct? Why can't we just accept its fiction, its fluidity and celebrate -- let's have a completely laissez-faire attitude toward racial identification." That's when I have to put on the brakes.

For even if we go along with the "fiction" part, race is certainly not fluid. Rachel Dolezal was able to do what she did because she passed as a light-skinned person -- people of all races could see a little bit of themselves, or what they were comfortable with in terms of the proper admixture of race, in her. The slogan for a radically libertarian endorsement of racial identification -- just be all you can be -- is as problematic now as it was when the Army used it for its recruiting campaign. One has to read those words for the silent question embedded within. After an initial wave of enthusiasm, you need to ask, "well, in actual point of fact, what can I be?"

Here is all I want to say, or rather, to ask. And I am addressing mostly liberal whites but also all of those who take this liberal point of view. For those who are saying that Rachel Dolezal has given us not only the opportunity to rethink race, but the incitement to explode the notion that racial categories should be seen as having any reality to them at all, and that we would be better served to just identify in whatever way we wish, and if we are too shy to do so we should get out of the way of people who do, then how would you feel if people of color, of all classes, backgrounds, persuasions, decided to "identify" as white? And not just in the ways whites like to think of themselves?

What if tomorrow morning you woke up to see hundreds of your formerly "colored" neighbors and friends, as well as total strangers, in whiteface, applying for jobs, scholarships, promotions, seats on your corporate boards. Would you stick by your guns and say, well, as long as they are qualified, they seem pretty white to me?

Those who see in the Dolezal matter a kind of Utopian opening onto a world without racism can be commended for their optimism -- they sigh, "if only people did not care about racial difference." But they are to be faulted for sweeping past the fact that it is more acceptable for mainstream America to endorse the right of a white woman to pass for black than it is for blacks to pass for white if they do not accept the white supremacist ideology, but still wish to enjoy the privileges whites possess. Therein lies the contradiction in liberal thought. If you endorse the right to identify with whatever race one wishes, then you cannot put qualifications on it ("but only if they accept that white is right"). They should be able to "perform" race in any way they want -- to make it theirs.

Or, let me ask another question -- let's say they did not go through all the trouble of donning the phenotypical costume -- let's say they just appeared before you and said they were just as deserving to be admitted to college, gain jobs and promotions and live anywhere they wanted, by dint of their common humanity, and not because of the color of their skin? How would that work? I believe we have some evidence with which to figure that one out.