'Sister Outside': Rachel Dolezal and the Ideology of Race

06/15/2015 04:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016
KREM 2 News

In response to Rachel Dolezal "lying" about who she was, Rachel performed a certain racial and gender identity to the extreme, but we all perform racial and gender identities all the time.

As a college history professor, I see my male college students who come in as first years awkward and unconfident and by the end of the term, they morphed into frat boys; that too is a performance. Are they not being themselves? Are they wearing baseball caps and lying about their athletic prowess? I understand the stakes are higher and more charged here when it comes to race, but to separate Rachel as the only person on the planet who is engaged in some kind of racial or gender performance is not fair.

Another example: how many white women dye their hair blonde and claim they are blonde on their driver's license application? It's a lie. It is not their true self, and it is not the hair color that their mommy and daddy made for them. In all other kinds of ways, people everyday manipulate and change their appearance from the way their parents made them, so in that way Rachel is no different from the fat kid who goes to the gym and doesn't correct anyone from saying he is athletic. Now again race doesn't play out like hair color or body type, in part because we have set up a different definition for it.

Further, just because certain people have a more legitimate access to racial and gendered performances does not invalidate that it is a performance. And why do we want to live in a world where we return to policing identity? And who appoints themselves as the identity cops?

We are saying that Rachel is lying. Race is a lie. The lie of race espoused that there are notable human differences between Africans and their white, poor English counterparts, and consequently left over 6 million Africans unburied in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as part of the international slave trade, enslaved millions more in the Americas, and eventually put an end to indentured white servitude -- but Rachel is the liar? Rachel is unethical? I say "don't hate the player, hate the game." Race is the game. We want to believe in its realness; its authenticity; its power as a marker. That's ideology.

Ideology is what makes a man dressed in a police uniform believe that a young girl no more 90 lbs wet is a fatal threat. It is not race as identity or race as a biomedical reality or the race of her parents that made him behave that way; its race as ideology, a belief that she was a threat, that made him behave that way. And its ideology that explains how millions of people can see such an image and still move on with their day without realizing that the girl is someone's daughter or sister, because they too believe on some level that she is a threat even when and if they shrug their shoulders in mild disapproval. Ideology is the reason why many don't revolt against this action.

Ideology has power and force -- it can drive men to treat a child like a hardened criminal or it can lull others into submission. People reify race because they see this force at work, so they believe in it. But it's an ideology, a set of beliefs; its not a real medical category buttressed by scientific truths. As historian Barbara Fields has eloquently explained, "Race is not an element of human biology (like breathing oxygen or reproducing sexually); nor is it even an idea (like the speed of light or the value of *pi*) that can be plausibly imagined to live an eternal life of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology. It came into existence at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons and is subject to change for similar reasons."

Because race is ideological and not biological we can then replace it with another set of beliefs--another way of thinking that can mobilize people or quiet them. Rachel is not black only because we believe that she is not, not because it is real in the same way that 1 + 1 = 2.

We as a culture believe in an idea about race connected to heredity and we mobilize against anyone who doesn't continue to see it that way. And when we do that, we follow the logic of slaveholders -- we are doing exactly what they want. We are organizing society by the rules that they established. If anyone does not play according to how the rules of race have been set up, then they become vilified and pathologized. Many people, for instance, argued that Rachel is a pathological liar, she is mentally ill. Why? Because she did not play along with the societal rules regarding race. Btw, they said the same thing about runaway slaves who refused to believe that their skin color made them enslaved for life and decided to bolt instead. (I am not saying Rachel is like a fugitive slave -- I am more interested in tracking how someone is framed as mentally ill when they reject a racial script.)

Slaveholders have been dead for over a century but when we say Rachel isn't really black or Rachel is lying, we are doing their work. We are separating white from black. We are keeping their game going. I am not listening to them anymore. I am not following the rules of their logic. I am done.

Jim Downs is the author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.