What's your race?
Most of the discussion around the revelation that Rachel Dolezal, who resigned this week under pressure as head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP, isn't black, as she had claimed, and grew up as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl, seems to assume that this question is objective, uncomplicated and neutral. Come on, which is it? You're either African-American, Caucasian or other. Check the box.
And when a question is objective, uncomplicated and neutral, the answer you give is either the truth or a lie. And Dolezal . . . gasp . . . lied. She darkened her skin. She braided her hair. She passed herself off as belonging to a race she did not, in fact, belong to. And because she passed in the "other" direction -- from white to black -- it's national news. And she's somewhere on the spectrum that runs from strange to crazy.
Actually, it's also national news for another reason. Race is a national, indeed, human paradox of shocking volatility. Its reality is far more sociopolitical than it is scientific and objective -- "in the blood" -- and to disturb this paradox, as Dolezal did, is to activate a national fault line that sets everything shaking.
She failed to correct a local news report that identified her as a black woman, the Washington Post reported, "because," she said, "it's more complex than being true or false."
And, as Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker noted, the determiners of racial identity "are as arbitrary as they are damaging. This doesn't mean that Dolezal wasn't lying about who she is. It means that she was lying about a lie."
The lie is the one imposed from above, by the conqueror upon the conquered: Race means something. It's more fundamental than humanity itself.
You can't talk about race without talking about racism.
And my reaction to the Rachel Dolezal story is intensely personal. While I agree with Cobb and others that it's a little too easy, for someone whose skin is light and whose ancestry is European, to proclaim status as an African-American when she can disavow it "the moment it becomes disadvantageous, cumbersome, or dangerous," I applaud her decision not to honor the racial identity imposed on her at birth. I applaud her decision not to be "white."
A year ago, during a three-day conference on race held at Chicago's Roosevelt University, I concluded that there was no value in self-identifying as white, and continuing to do so would only muddy my relationship with life. Since the conference, the only racial identity I choose to claim is human. That doesn't mean I disavow my German-American heritage, or that I know how to relinquish the benefits of "white privilege" (generally invisible to its recipients). It's just that I refuse, any longer, to internalize the prejudices that unavoidably accompany an acknowledgement of whiteness.
A year ago I wrote: "I grew up in the then-all white suburb of Dearborn, Mich., where whiteness was disguised, simply, as 'normalcy.' Race was an abstraction. We were far from its raw edge, unless we crossed Wyoming Avenue into Detroit. We said things like 'That's very white of you.' And much, much worse. The city fathers and the real estate industry were aligned in their commitment to keep Dearborn white. The schools taught a version of history that included such phrases as 'the first white man to explore . . .' I grew up in fortified ignorance."
The ignorance implicit in "whiteness" is hard to see and painful to acknowledge in the present moment, but is generally obvious in retrospect. Think "whites only" restrooms. Think, for God's sake, slavery and Manifest Destiny and Indian boarding schools. Uh, sorry about all that. But Rachel Dolezal has no right, the media coverage seems to be saying, to flee from this heritage and self-identify as some other color. You can attain citizenship in a different country, but not a different race.
Well, I for one am tired of propping up the sanctity of racial distinction by acknowledging membership in the politically and emotionally charged identity of whiteness.
As I read about Rachel Dolezal's adventure in white flight, I began thinking about the various instances of hysterical white convergence I've had to separate myself from over the years. A little over three decades ago, for instance, when Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago, the majority-white City Council, led by Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, couldn't handle the idea of an African-American at the helm of their city and created a ridiculous schism in city government known as the Vrdolyak 29. This was sheer racism in action: self-identifying white people attempting to hold tight to their city. They failed; Washington and the city's non-racist majority managed to govern around them.
In 1963, when I was in high school, Dearborn experienced a race riot when black movers helped a white man and his Japanese wife move into the second floor of a house on the city's east side. The neighbors' assumption was that the blacks were moving in: that the home had been sold to black people. Several hundred people gathered around the house, cursing and throwing rocks. The police stood by, doing nothing to break it up or stop the damage. The hysteria continued for two days.
For me, the absurdity and fortified ignorance of being white were summed up by the headline that ran in a local paper, the Dearborn Press (which I came across many years later, when I was researching the incident): "Crowds Damage Home and Car in False Negro Scare."
The "scare" is alive and well today. Identifying as white means keeping it alive.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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