Rachel Dolezal and the Slippery Notion of Race

A large part of my study in college was centered on the experience of immigrant communities in the first half of the 20th century. This was sparked by my own background as a descendant of European immigrants and also my work at several archaeological sites that had been home to immigrants. One of my favorite academic pieces on the subject, and one I would encourage people to read, is called Becoming American: The Archaeology of an Italian Immigrant by Robert K. Fitts. It’s an interesting look at the process of shedding ones previous identity to become something else.

Likewise, there are many documented cases of a light-skinned African American being encouraged by family members to move away and pose as white so that they could have a better life. In an age before the internet one could often do this without the risk of being exposed in the national media. The idea that African Americans would want to hide their race is almost unanimously viewed today as a symptom of how bad race relations were during the Jim Crow era.

So it is with great fascination that I have been watching the situation around Rachel Dolezal, head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, unfold. For those unaware, Dolezal’s parents claim she is white by birth and they recently outed her for passing herself off as part-African American for several years. Reactions across the internet have varied from support to outrage, among both blacks and whites. Dolezal’s record of advocacy within the NAACP seems to be beyond refute, but she has also made public statements where she claimed she had been treated unfairly due to her ‘race’ and this seems pretty dishonest when viewed by those who have truly been treated unfairly.

It is a very unusual circumstance in American culture when someone born white claims a racial status that is considered by many to be less-than-advantageous. At this time we can only speculate about Dolezal’s motivations but if we choose to believe the best of her, that she was doing this because she felt it was the best way to help, it begs the question of why? Did she perceive that a white person could not be accepted in the advocacy community, or did simply just feel that it would make people take her more seriously? Or perhaps she just felt drawn to the African American identity and so she changed herself to look like those she felt closest to? This last possibility has been pointed at by conservatives as being similar to the feelings that led Bruce Jenner to embrace life as a transgender woman. The term ‘transracial’ is already being used. Others have been quick to point out these are not the same things.

For me this all points to the slippery nature of personal identity in 2015. I have stated repeatedly, here and elsewhere, that I believe race is more of a cultural construct than a biological one these days. There is so much mixing of races, so much change in the anthropological view of race, that choosing the race one identifies with is starting to feel like an exercise designed just to keep the Census Bureau happy. In this way I think the clumsy analogies made towards transgender individuals is somewhat fitting. Defining someone’s sexuality and/or gender is also becoming very slippery, as new terms seem to be invented weekly to describe people’s preferences. It all begins to feel rather pointless. More and more it would just be nice to put away the labels.

We all accept that people can embrace a culture and leave their own behind. It happens all of the time. If Dolezal had never claimed to be black, never altered her appearance and had simply become part of the black community, I don’t think we would be having this conversation. The problem may be that she couldn’t separate race from culture among African Americans and this is a topic that I feel is at the heart of race relations in the United States. At some point the two should be able to exist independently of each other, or else we will continue to talk about race well beyond the point where it is much more an issue of culture.

When Dolezal eventually speaks out about the truth and her motivations, people will continue to struggle with whether or not it was okay. The fact that some considered her to be ‘downgrading’ her racial status leaves others scratching their heads because it contradicts what many assume about race relations. I remain far more interested in people’s reactions than I do about Dolezal’s actions themselves. Ultimately though, it is one more curious story in the long history of race in America.

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

293 thoughts on “Rachel Dolezal and the Slippery Notion of Race

  1. This is speculation, but according to one account I read (I’ll try to find it again) it seems young Dolezal may have gotten a free college ride because the university thought she was African-American – she may or may not have intended to give that impression, but she apparently submitted an art portfolio that was all African-themed art or portraiture, and they just assumed she was AA, and she never corrected them.

    Whether she started out intending to deceive, or simply took advantage of an opportunity that presented itself, and then got herself in deeper and deeper over time, is a good question. I lean towards the latter myself, because I have a hard time believing that any kid, no matter how much they identify with or are interested in another race/culture, would set out to eventually present themselves as that in such a high-profile way. A series of steps seems more likely.

    Report

      • Yeah, If the story as so-far told is accurate, I think the account we’re looking for is more psychologically driven. Which is why I disagree with Mike D regarding what’s the most interesting part of this story. I could really care less about how people react to this incident. The interesting part is why she did what she (apparently) did.

        Report

    • From what I read, she received a full scholarship to Howard University in D.C. She might have gotten both her undergraduate and graduate education’s at Howard.

      http://www.buzzfeed.com/tamerragriffin/rachel-dolezal-once-told-a-student-she-did-not-look-hispanic#.qjjBaZxow

      The article mentions Dolezal’s time as a graduate student and instructor at Howard:

      Promoted
      Promoted
      Rachel Dolezal Once Told A Student She Did Not Look Hispanic Enough For A Class Activity

      Former students from Eastern Washington and Howard Universities told BuzzFeed News about their classroom encounters with Rachel Dolezal, who taught courses in Africana studies and studio art.
      posted on Jun. 12, 2015, at 4:57 p.m.
      Tamerra Griffin
      Tamerra Griffin
      BuzzFeed News Reporter
      Tasneem Nashrulla
      Tasneem Nashrulla
      BuzzFeed News Reporter
      Tweet

      Facebook / Via Facebook: 885275601539862

      Rachel Dolezal once did not let a student participate in a class activity about race and culture because she did not appear Hispanic enough, the student told BuzzFeed News on Friday.

      Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP, gained notoriety Thursday when her parents disclosed that she has been passing herself off as black for years. The revelation has prompted questions about the other aspects of Dolezal’s life, including claims that she has been the victim of hate crimes and received threatening letters.

      The student — who, like many others interviewed for this article, asked to remain anonymous — told BuzzFeed News that she took two courses with Dolezal during her freshman year to fulfill academic requirements at Eastern Washington University.

      The student said that the incident occurred within the first three weeks of an introductory course on race and culture. Dolezal introduced an activity she called “Fishbowl,” in which one student sat in front of the class as others were invited to ask them questions about their racial and cultural experiences.

      In the first round of Fishbowl, the student said Dolezal sought out a volunteer of Hispanic background to be questioned.

      The student, who told BuzzFeed News that she identifies as Hispanic, grew up in a Spanish-speaking country, speaks the language fluently, and, while she has light skin, believes she has a “pretty solid experience of what it’s like to be Spanish.” She raised her hand to participate.

      “I think we should ask another student,” the student recalled Dolezal saying in class.

      The student asked why she could not participate.

      “Rachel said I didn’t look Hispanic,” she said, and that her instructor “doubted that I could share experiences of racial or ethnic discrimination because I didn’t have the appearance of looking Hispanic.”

      Dolezal instead selected another Hispanic-identified student to sit before the class.

      “I didn’t think much of it at the time,” the student said, “but now I wish I had said something, especially now that her race is the one people are questioning.”

      Slides from a PowerPoint presentation Dolezal gave in her Race and Culture course at Eastern Washington University. Image courtesy of an Eastern Washington University student

      “But not all students had negative experiences with Dolezal as an educator. Before moving to Washington, she taught at Howard University as she worked toward her MFA. Howard’s fine arts program is prestigious, competitive, and globally recognized; it was not uncommon to see students from Europe and Asia walking through the department halls.

      Another of Dolezal’s former students at Howard spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition on anonymity, and said that at the time, nobody questioned her race.

      “She was white,” said the Howard alumnus.

      She enrolled in Dolezal’s foundational studio course in 2001, adding that it was a normal practice for graduate students to teach introductory classes. She admired Dolezal’s painting technique, a topic she said was discussed often in the class.

      While nobody doubted her racial identity, the former student told BuzzFeed News that some faculty members were critical of the motivations behind her work. She noted one professor specifically: Tritobia Benjamin, who was well known in the art world as an authority on black female artists.

      “Dr. Benjamin was very critical of Rachel,” the former told BuzzFeed News, because although she was white, she “captured the black body in her paintings,” particularly black men.”

      Report

    • The “free college scholarship” thing didn’t actually happen, at least not in the way you’re suggesting here.

      Her application to Howard may not have indicated Dolezal’s race, but she wasn’t passing yet–so they definitely knew as soon as she showed up for class. And as far as “free ride scholarship” goes, she taught classes as a grad student. I was under the impression that such an arrangement is pretty typical of grad students at many schools, rather than being the result of some special scholarship she got because someone assumed she was Black.

      The rumor that she only got in to Howard or only got a scholarship at Howard b/c they though she was black seems to have started with her parents. I’m not entirely clear whether they were lying or misinformed.

      Report

        • That’s not something to dismiss. I once watched a press conference and then read the reports after — over a topic and incident I was highly familiar with, and I was deeply surprised at how much was just gotten wrong. Not like “they didn’t ask the right questions” or “they didn’t know this thing I know and no one told them”.

          Like literally they asked a question, got an answer, and what was reported seemed to indicate the reporter didn’t understand either the question he or she asked OR the answer.

          Or forgot the answer. But then, it was a pretty technical subject.

          Report

          • It’s slightly different because it tends to be technical, but I have been in work meetings that lasted an hour or more to discuss a single specific issue, and walked away thinking everybody understood exactly what was discussed and had collectively agreed upon a future direction, only to find later that some parties walked away with a completely different understanding of what the issue was, or how we would deal with it.

            Report

  2. I’ve seen a lot of conservatives wonder how liberals can criticize Dolezal (which my friend Rudo said is a Czech name) but lionize or support Caitlyn Jenner. I think former OTer Bouie put it well:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/06/rachel_dolezal_claims_to_be_black_the_naacp_official_was_part_of_the_african.html

    Key quote:

    “Both phenomena, of blacks who chose to pass and of blacks who could but abstained, illustrate the porous reality of race, and more crucially, how it’s distinct from ethnicity. On one hand, “black” is a statement of identity. It describes a certain culture and a certain history, tied to the lives and experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants. It’s a fluid culture, with room for a huge variety of people, from whites, to blacks, to people of Latin American and Caribbean descent.

    On the other hand, however, it describes the bottom rung in the American racial hierarchy. It’s a construct, but it was built from physical features, as colonial Americans took Africans, made them slaves, and made them “black.” It designates the people who could be enslaved; the people who had to live under Jim Crow; the people who could be denied mortgage loans and crammed into ghettos; the people who can be plundered by petty municipal authorities.”

    Are there ways in which race and also ethnicity are social constructs? Sure. Absolutely. However, we cannot and should not deny that traits (positive and negative) have been attributed and are attributed to people on account of their race (of which Jews can be sometimes counted as a race) and this has caused discrimination and being counted as a second or third-class citizens. So race very well might be a social construct but we are not going to erase histories of discrimination and prejudice by suddenly pretending to be color-blind.

    Or to quote Pulp’s great song Common People about another form of slumming it:

    “But she didn’t understand,
    She just smiled and held my hand.
    Rent a flat above a shop,
    Cut your hair and get a job.
    Smoke some fags and play some pool,
    Pretend you never went to school.
    But still you’ll never get it right,
    ‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
    Watching roaches climb the wall,
    If you called your Dad he could stop it all.”

    Rachel Dolezal could have walked away from anything and at anytime if she choose to. The thing about being transgendered is that the change is permanent because of all the hormone replacement therapy and surgery involved. Dolezal. Dolezal would tweet photos of her allegedly tight curls with sentences like “Going with the natural look as I start my 36th year :)”

    Or she would tweet things like “Don’t 4get #TheHelp is fiction, not fact. Written in 2009 not 1960s. Puts $206mil in a white woman’s pocket.”

    So there is a bit of trying too hard here. I mean really, really trying to hard and in a way that is horrible for people who really are black and have really suffered overt and implied discrimination.

    The sad part is that she could have done so much by just being who she was. She could have talked about how the experiences of her four younger brothers made her aware of the horrors of racism especially with how authority figures treated her in comparison.

    Report

    • I get what you are saying here…

      “However, we cannot and should not deny that traits (positive and negative) have been attributed and are attributed to people on account of their race (of which Jews can be sometimes counted as a race) and this has caused discrimination and being counted as a second or third-class citizens. So race very well might be a social construct but we are not going to erase histories of discrimination and prejudice by suddenly pretending to be color-blind.”

      …however, I think you are stating the obvious. Yes, of course there are lots of positive and negative things associated with races and ignoring color doesn’t make them go away. My point has always been that in 2015 there are very, very few people who believe that certain minorities are biologically inferior. But there are a LOT of people who believes there are cultural flaws. Some of those are based in prejudice, some are based on factual observations (this is true for feelings about whites as well). If we separate race and the completely incorrect biological assumptions that used to go with eugenics, then I believe you can have a more honest conversation. Basically, cries of racism are a crutch for people to avoid talking about cultural friction where both sides have some blame.

      Report

    • Serious question: if we accept that the world treated her as black at some point, didn’t she then “really suffer[] overt and implied discrimination”? Obviously that’s different from growing up in it, but it also doesn’t sound like she had the kind of privileged childhood people point to as one (of many) white privileges.

      Report

      • I concede that she had strict parents. There seems to be a question of whether they were abusive but it is perfectly reasonable for two siblings to have different opinions on whether their backgrounds were abusive or not.

        I was not aware that white privilege only applied to white people with upper-middle class backgrounds though.

        We discussed this a bit below but it looks like she fabricated the hate crimes against her and the NAACP. This indicates a form of privilege.

        Report

      • “Serious question: if we accept that the world treated her as black at some point, didn’t she then “really suffer[] overt and implied discrimination”?”

        That was a question Jamie actually raised in his piece. They data point he noted that he was missing that prevented him from answering is whether or not she passed as white when in certain advantageous situations, and black in others.

        Report

    • Rachel Dolezal could have walked away from anything and at anytime if she choose to.

      This is the key, I think, and a big part of privilege is being able to choose your battles.

      And that’s the thing, a typical black person cannot just choose to be white. Nor could I choose to be cis — not that I would have, and not that (I suspect) most blacks would choose whiteness either. But still, there is a thing about choosing that separates what this woman did from what I did or from the choices blacks have available.

      And look, this woman is not claiming to be “transracial.” In fact, the claim of “transraciality” is pretty flimsy and seems isolated to certain edges of the otherkin community (alongside some Poe’s Law style nonsense among the anti-trans crowd). Is there “race dysphoria” that matches the social and bodily dysphoria of trans people? Or is this in fact an attempt of a boring person to make their life seem interesting? (More on this below.)

      Well, we cannot read anyone’s minds, but race as a social construct seems rather different from gender, insofar as gender exists atop human sexuality, and while many aspects of the human sex system is socially constructed, there is a core material reality.

      Uteruses exist. Testicles exist. Testosterone does something different from estrogen. And note that the “genetic programming” that makes male bodies versus female bodies exists equally in all of us, except for one gene on the Y chromosome that when expressed causes another gene, not on Y, to cause the gonads to drop and develop into testicles, where otherwise they would develop into ovum.

      That’s it. That’s human sex selection. Everything else is triggered by hormones, including the hormones present as the brain develops.

      In other words, males have all the genes needed to make a uterus. Females have all the genes needed to make a penis. It is only the presence or absence of hormones that triggers the development. Is it the same in the brain? (Yes, probably.)

      Does race work this way? Is there a chemical similar to hormones that causes “black brains” to develop differently from “white brains”? Are the genes that construct “blackness” found uniformly in everyone, just waiting from some anomalous condition to be expressed?

      There does seem to be a deep connection between gender and social identity. We don’t understand it, but we cannot ignore it. David Reimer provides the most clear-cut case. (But note that psychologists work on gender did not reach their conclusions only from Reimer. There are reasons that all the major medical organizations support transgender rights.) Something in me needed to express femaleness and femininity and adopt a female social role, alongside my need for a female body. Those things happened together. For trans people, they frequently do.

      Which is weird, and it means gender cannot ever be viewed in a simple way, no matter how much that would make feminist theory easier. But too bad. Truth is truth. And over the last fifty years trans people have made a convincing scientific and political case.

      And while certainly melanin exists, there is no sign that this leads to any kind of fundamental, neurologically-based sense of identity the way gender does. Certainly history produces nothing that looks like this, whereas trans people show up throughout the historic record, long before we had a name for them.

      (Which, it is risky to lay modern concepts onto the lives of historic people. Likewise, we cannot always know their motives, or whether their motives should make sense to us. For example, I have no way of knowing if the Priestesses of Cybele suffered gender dysphoria the way I do, nor if that is what led them to enter the cult. But I know they existed, and I suspect.)

      “Transracialism” is right now being used as an explicitly anti-trans argument, including by people who create bogus Tumblr sites claiming silly and extreme version of such identities. (This is nothing new. These are like amateur versions of those trollish fake news sites.) The right-wing media-sphere is also glomming onto this.

      Look, if “transracialism” is a real thing, rare but present, and associated with dysphoria, then I want to believe in it. If transracial people exist, I want to support them. However, if they are bored kids pretending, or white people trying to hook into a “cool factor” they feel they are missing, or worse for the status and publicity, then we should reject their claim.

      In either case, this is a separate claim from what trans people make. It is a similar claim, but that’s no accident. It should be expected that critics and hangers-on would adopt trans language for their pet theories. But details matter. You cannot just create an analogy, you must answer the challenge: does your analogy really fit?

      Report

      • It’s like how Jews can not stop being Jewish. Jews can attempt to pass as non-Jews for a long time but if a Jew hater wants to do damage than your Jewishness comes back with full force.

        Report

        • I know people who I’m pretty sure have managed to pass as non-Jewish. Interestingly enough, they’ve also managed to pass as Jews.
          (oi! Hitler made this all fucking complicated. Thanks a lot, asshole!).

          Report

        • Right. It’s similar for how some trans folks can pass as cis — which we call “provisional cis privilege.” (At least, we call it that when writing on Tumblr.) But the thing is, it can be removed at any time, and thus the trans person lives with a constant lingering anxiety.

          Julia Serano writes about this. She is usually clocked as a cis woman, and until people learn she is trans, they seem to just accept that without complication. However, when they find out she is trans, she finds they suddenly treat her rather differently, and often quite badly.

          I don’t pass particularly well, being six-feet tall and broad shouldered. Thus I almost never get “provisional cis privilege,” and even when maybe I do — like, sometimes it seems like I’m just getting clocked female in an uncomplicated way — I cannot relax cuz I know it will be obvious as soon as I speak, or if they look closely or whatever.

          I actually kinda prefer when folks clock me out of the gate. Less uncertainty.

          (And then there are the times when I get street harassed. Like, trans women get killed in that situation, as soon as the bro-dude realizes what is happening. I hate that.)

          Report

  3. Chris had this link in Linky Friday which is well worth exploring:

    http://fusion.net/story/149825/rachel-dolezal-and-transethnicity/

    “It’s not clear when, but some time soon after making that first post, yuki-no-monogatari deleted her entire blog and faded back into Tumblr’s ether of GIFs and spirited fandoms. It’s not difficult to understand why, either. Tumblr, a platform known for its concentration of socially-minded, pro-inclusion users, took serious issue with the the way that yuki-no-monogatari co-opted the language of trans experiences in an attempt to conflate liking anime and Japanese candy to actually being a Japanese person. Yuki got laughed off the internet, and Tumblr’s been vigilant about other transethnics ever since. That’s part of what makes Rachel Dolezal’s recent stint in the news cycle so interesting to watch.”

    “The significance of Dolezal’s ruse is difficult to quantify. While we can all easily have a laugh at her expense, the degree to which her fictive kinship-cum-appropriation was taken seriously is troubling. Tumblr managed to chase away the bulk of its transethnics using GIFs, mockery, and heartfelt discussion. But how do we react to someone like Dolezal outside of Tumblr’s self-policing corner of the internet? She’s actively participating in the communities she fetishizes unbeknownst to the people around her. Elle Hearns says that there’s no digging Rachel Dolezal out of the hole she’s dug for herself, but there’s a lesson to be learned from her mistakes.”

    Report

    • People who feel out of place in the group that they were born into often latch onto other groups out of a desire to fit in somewhere because humans are social animals and very few of us are capable of being individuals. A lot of people need more than a group of friends and family, they need a tribe. A tribe is a group that you belong to that allows easily establishing rapport with other members even if you don’t know them that well. Jewishness or the various forms of LGBT identity are good examples of this. Dolezal or Yuki were people looking for a new tribe.

      Report

    • Transethnics and otherkin pose an interesting problem. We know from past experience with transgendered individuals that trying to get inner identity to align without outward appearance causes more problems than it helps. Getting the mind and body aligned for physical appearance for other issues might cause similar problems. At the same time, allowing otherkinism or transethnicity seem to cause more problems for other people than transgenderism does. This makes allowing them to simply be not an optimal solution.

      Report

      • I have heard of transpeople finally transitioning when they hit their senior years (and others in their adult years, and others yet in their young adult years, and others yet in their teen years, and others yet in their child years).

        Is there a single otherkin out there older than 22? Even one?

        Report

              • I think there is a difference between somebody who enjoys dressing as an animal and actually believing you are that animal, in the same way that a man might enjoy dressing in women’s clothing without identifying as a woman.

                I have not seen the pictures you are referring to, but I am not sure that photos could make that distinction.

                Report

              • I know tons of otherkin, many in their forties.

                I know many otherkin who are also transgender. If you ask them, they clearly describe how the “otherkin thing” is rather different from the “trans thing.”

                It’s hard to explain, but the various kin identities seem to be more playful, where as the trans identities seem to be life encompassing. None of which surprises me. It can be fun to be “catlike” or to pretend to be an elf — or have an elf soul or whatever.

                But elves don’t exist, and neither do souls actually, so there is really no way one could have an elf soul.

                And whatever “catness” is, in the sense of “what it’s like to be a cat,” there is no reason to think human brains carry that same structure in just the same way. We have very few cat genes that we do not share with pretty much every other mammal.

                But this is not true for “male human genes” versus “female human genes,” which we all carry pretty much uniformly. (The Y chromosome doesn’t actually do very much, it turns out.) We also all produce both male and female hormones, just in different balances. Likewise we all have both testosterone and estrogen receptors in our brains, distributed with various quantities and topologies. The presence or absence of the various sex hormones during development seems to control this stuff.

                Knowing what we know about how human sex development occurs, transgender people are not really surprising. Cat-kin would be. Elf-kin are not even silly.

                So race-kin? I dunno. It’s actually more plausible than cat-kin, but certainly less than transgender people. Personally I find it unlikely to be true. I think gender “works that way” in the brain. I don’t think that race works that way in the brain.

                Report

                • If you ever want to troll the furries, just suggest that it’s about having massive gay orgies rather than some sense of “belonging”. Oh, the internet rage.

                  (who do I get ridiculous suggestions like these from? one of the guys running Anthrocon. He doesn’t LIKE running it very much, furries are way more hassle than anyone else. The Drama!)

                  Report

                  • I have zero interest in trolling furries. Near as I can tell, they hurt no one. The argument that fur-stuff is the same as trans-stuff is an argument I hear far more from anti-trans non-furries than from furries.

                    It is important to distinguish a clumsy rhetorical weapon from a serious position.

                    Report

                    • The point of trolling isn’t to hurt people, generally. It’s not funny, nor clever to simply hurt someone. Have someone look at the truth, hoist someone on their own petard, confront them with the things that they’re pretending don’t exist? Yes, that’s fun.

                      Report

                        • There’s always a point to trolling. #PanettaBurns
                          To troll effectively is Hard Work, and takes a lot of skill.
                          It may be as simple as proving how bored/credulous people are (The Pokemon Fanbase taking a handdrawn drawing as “the next pokemon!” and being in a tizzy for three days, despite official protestations that this really wasn’t the next pokemon (of course that’s what they’d say!). ) or pretty complicated.

                          The best trolls get paid for what they do, after all. There’s good money in politics for a troll. Is that for fun? I suppose it is sort of fun to show the entire country exactly what a person is made of on national TV. [Joe Biden is made of malarkey.]

                          Report

    • Interesting.

      I am recalling my local history; specifically, the history of early European contact, when the native populations were nearly wiped out by disease. More people, even if they were racially different, were necessary for cultural survival; and it was common for European-descent captives to be treated not as slaves but as family members; and many captives who grew up within tribes resented being repatriated with their European families as adults.

      Fast forward to more recent times, and the changing meme from the brutal savage to the noble people in touch with the land, and the wannabes proliferate. I have met dozens of people who assert tribal dress, traditions, etc.

      Similarly, the yoga-pants moms, who greet each other, “Namaste,” though most have never been to India, and some go through past-life regressions to search out an authentic claim on India.

      The desire to be culturally different is not an uncommon thing in America; I’m reminded of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and the way it portrayed how bland WASP culture is. Or the debates over Obama’s race: he’s not white enough, not black enough, and too Indonesian. Or something.

      Cultural appropriation is a normal part of the human spectrum; and I think what disturbs here is how successful Dolezal was, the presumption that somehow she financially benefitted from that appropriation, and a certain discomfort with her disdaining white privilege.

      Report

      • In terms of Dolezal, I’ve seen people discuss how White-Americans want to latch unto Black culture because White-European culture is largely seen as boring.

        I don’t think this is completely true. Europe gave us some of the best writers, painters, and music ever created but this stuff is all seen as very high brow. Black Culture is more apporachable from the level of the street. It seems more vital.

        You can also discuss whether stuff like indie-rock is white-American culture at this point or still tangentially linked to black culture because Rock n’Roll originated in African-Americans, etc.

        Is Game of Thrones part of White-American culture?

        Report

        • I actually think this has more to do with emotional restraint; the wasps sitting in their pews unless instructed to sing and clapping on 1 & 3 vs. the full-throated gospel sort of difference. But that’s a perspective rooted in my NE upbringing (Yankee stoicism) and long emersion in improvisational jazz, which works best when the players get out of the way of letting their emotions flow.

          Report

          • oh, yup, that’s totally a Yank thing. Back with all that Rev. Wright stuff, folks said white pews and black pews down south act surprisingly similar on a Sunday Morning.

            Report

        • “Europe gave us some of the best writers, painters, and music ever created but this stuff is all seen as very high brow. Black Culture is more apporachable from the level of the street.”

          Dude… how hot are your skates and how thing is that ice? Seriously?

          Report

        • “Europe gave us some of the best writers, painters, and music ever created but this stuff is all seen as very high brow”

          Do you believe in the Decline of Generations? Are we somehow statistically less creative now than then? Because there are a ton more people writing/painting/making music now than then.

          GoT definitely counts as part of White American culture.

          Report

        • I don’t think this is completely true. Europe gave us some of the best writers, painters, and music ever created but this stuff is all seen as very high brow. Black Culture is more apporachable from the level of the street. It seems more vital.

          Could you unpack this a bit?

          For example, do you think most people associate “White-European culture” with high art? Do you think this is the proper level of comparison for “black culture” you evoke and describe as “approachable from the level of the street?” Do you think that people “want to latch unto [sic] Black culture” because they find European high art boring and/or inaccessible? What do you mean by “from the level of the street?” Do you think there is a “Black culture” equivalent of European high art? Do you think people find that boring and/or inaccessible as well? If so, why doesn’t that affect whether they “want to latch unto [sic] Black culture” in the way that “White-European” high art’s accessibility and perceived boringness does? Is there a “White-European” culture that is not so inaccessible, but might still be perceived as boring? And so on.

          Report

          • I’ll try. My anecdotal evidence and observations suggest that when people think of European culture, they generally think of what normally gets considered high culture and avant-garde culture. So it is Bach, Mozart, the Renaissance, David, Shakespeare, Milton, The Romantics, The French New Wave, Joyce, modernism, etc.

            There is absolutely African and Black-American high culture that is probably hard for people to access. Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin are all extremely talented writers. Yet I don’t see them as being considered as inaccessible as Joyce or Proust or Pynchon. Or as boring. At the same time, there are plenty of people who love hip-hop and elements of modern African-American culture that have no desire to read Baldwin or Hughes or Toni Morrison.

            Kenhide Wiley is a brilliant painter who does contemporary portraits of African-American men using traditional European techniques. I don’t know how well he is known in greater popular culture:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kehinde_Wiley

            Part or much of this is the fault of writers and critics who defend the Western Canon. A lot of the damage was done with sneers from the defenders and stuff like “Why listen to Hip-Hop when there is Wagner and Puccini?” or “Why read X when there is Milton or Dante?”

            Naturally this is going to turn a lot of people off. The rest of the world has also produced brilliant culture but I think having it largely ignored by the academy ended up hurting Western culture more. These are the “why should I read dead, white European males” debates.

            Report

            • General american culture, movies mostly, and “black” culture, hip hop and jazz, are popular in Europe. Jazz has long been more popular there then here. In fact jazz would probably be considered high culture now.

              Report

            • Yet I don’t see them as being considered as inaccessible as Joyce or Proust or Pynchon.

              I wonder how many people, white, black, or otherwise, have stopped reading Hurston because they couldn’t understand her, or have tossed away Tutola as unreadable (I believe you can find both in Bloom, by the way). And of course, since Ornette Coleman died last week, it’s probably worth nothing that pretty much no one understood what he was doing.

              That said, I’m still somewhat confused by the comparison you’re making, particularly in light of how often you’ve talked about other white people generally denigrating the sorts of high cultural objects you prefer from the perspective of a largely white American culture. Can you provide some examples of people, that is to say the sort of people who might want to “latch onto Black culture,” equating white culture with its high art?

              Also, “from the level of the streets” remains a curious figurative (I assume, as certainly they have streets outside of symphony halls) flourish, particularly given the context.

              Report

          • I’m not going to endorse everything said, but I think he is identifying a real cultural streak in the US these days, where whites perceive black culture as being somehow more authentic and vibrant. They see white culture as constrained and phony and old-fashioned, decidedly unhip, while they see black culture as new and vital and alive.

            And actually, I think the recent conversation we had regarding gay gentrification touches on a similar point, the desire for an authentic “resistance culture.”

            I’m not going to try to tease out the psychology of this, but I’m reminded of something Scott Aaronson said in his “poor lonely nerds” post, that he had wished he was gay or black.

            I think this is less about the quality of art and more about identity, including how one expresses their gender, their sexuality, and their “coolness.”

            No one likes a basic.

            Report


        • In terms of Dolezal, I’ve seen people discuss how White-Americans want to latch unto Black culture because White-European culture is largely seen as boring.

          White-European culture is only boring because it is the ‘default’, and everyone in American is extremely familiar with it.

          Another aspect is that the *younger* the culture is, the less white it is…and youth culture has always been where exciting things happen. So I’m betting there’s a bit of confusion between ‘youth culture’ and ‘black culture’.

          There are plenty of white kids staying up at raves all night and doing E, or whatever.

          Report

  4. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was some mental illness somewhere in here. But I’ve also known a lot people who have a slippery relationship to the truth. They don’t lie most of the time and are generally honest. But once they start a lie they buy into and run with it. Once you have tossed the lie out there it is easier to just keep riding it, then to admit it was a lie. So they just keep on keeping on. Everybody rationalizes things, some people are just more talented and persistent at it.

    I’ll actually sort of morbidly interested to see what she says about all of it. I’m not betting i’ll buy her story or that it will make a lot of sense, but could be interesting.

    Report

    • Honestly, it doesn’t seem all that different to me from the guy who committed the academic fraud that Chris wrote up. She probably dissembled to gain a little advantage, then as she got in deeper felt she had no choice but to run with it. If that guy hadn’t gotten busted, twenty years later he’d be an ‘authority’ on his study topic.

      He might not even remember clearly anymore that he’d lied to begin with. Tell yourself something for long enough, it becomes “truth”.

      Report

      • I thought this too.

        There is, however, one thing I wonder about here: was she competent at her job? That dude was obviously incompetent.

        Does that matter?

        Report

        • – I scare-quoted “truth” for a reason. Of course falsehood is not magically transformed into truth, but in some instances, after a while, the liar is no longer fully aware of their lie; we each continually construct our memories.

          I don’t say this to excuse lying – if anything, the knowledge of how easily we can deceive ourselves, should impel us to be ever more vigilant about telling even small lies once, since they may grow with time, and we may lose sight of what the truth ever was.

          Report

      • Glyph, not to be overly nitpicky here but upthread you wrote:

        according to one account I read (I’ll try to find it again) it seems young Dolezal may have gotten a free college ride because the university thought she was African-American … and she never corrected them.

        In the above comment you’re comparing her to LaCour, whose infamity resides in apparently deliberately lying about … well … everything for self-serving purposes.

        Those are two very different accounts, no? In one, an otherwise honest person refrains from correcting a mistake for self-serving purposes; in the other a dishonest person constructs a lie for self-serving purposes. I mean, I get the point about letting the lie ride once it’s running cuz there’s too much to lose to correct it. The origins of the “lie” are what matters here. Seems to me anyway. And we just don’t know enough yet to say one way or the other.

        Report

        • In one, an otherwise honest person refrains from correcting a mistake for self-serving purposes; in the other a dishonest person constructs a lie for self-serving purposes. I mean, I get the point about letting the lie ride once it’s running cuz there’s too much to lose to correct it.

          A nice, nuanced distinction here,
          thank you for pointing it out.

          Report

          • Eh, there’s a distinction, but IMO the longer / more you ride it, the less distinct it gets.

            If the bank accidentally deposits a mil in my account, that’s different than if I stole it from them.

            But the longer that goes by without me correcting their mistake, and the more I invest that capital that I know I did not deserve into other things, the less “honest” I get.

            Like I said, I had a roommate who came from a dirt-poor background that kinda scammed a college education in part by falsely claiming to be Native American. An intentional deception on his part, but one that I cut him some slack for, since it was a temporary lie that allowed him an education and life he would otherwise have been unable to obtain.

            I love him like a brother; but if he shows up tomorrow collecting fees for lecturing about the plight of Native Americans, I will blow his damn cover myself.

            Report

    • @glyph

      Another aspect to the story is that there is a whole history of reinvention in the United States.

      Ralph Lipshitz turned himself into Ralph Lauren, designer of high-WASP and Prep aesthetic.

      Bernie Schwartz turned himself into Tony Curtis because who has ever heard of a leading man named Bernie Schwartz?

      Of course in fiction there is Jay Gatz, dirt poor North Dakota farmboy turning himself into Jay Gatsby, Oxford educated millionaire who says things like Old Sport.

      But the changes have always been to something more desirable and mainstream. Dolezal’s change is odd to us because of the history of American racism and the continuing problems that African-Americans face. The stories I am seeing are alleging that some or many of the crimes she reported were potentially fabricated especially one about a threatening message to the NAACP P.O. Box because it was not stamped according to the post office. So this raises the troubling question over whether she got some sort of pleasure over these incidents when people have had similar but very real incidents and felt unsafe.

      The whole thing is a huge damage of trust and will do nothing more than give fuel to the fire of the most ardent bigots and reactionaries.

      Report

    • Maybe people discriminated against her because they thought she was crazy.

      I don’t say that to make light of mental illness; but if she is mentally ill, and has constructed a reality in her head where she is something she is not and is being persecuted for being that, then any negative reaction she gets for anything, may be transmogrified to fit her delusion. She could even be seeking such confrontations out or instigating them, since these conflicts would reinforce and buttress the central delusion.

      Apologies in advance to Chris, who will probably blow his top if he sees this amateur Freudian speculation.

      Report

    • It looks like at least some of them were false, either made up entirely, faked, or involved her lying after the police ruled out a crime (e.g., the hunting rope she continues to claim was intended as a noose).

      Report

      • It never ceases to amaze me how very very bad some people are at lying or fabricating incidents. Really most people just suck at it. You don’t need CSI to figure out a lot of schemes, you just need a mildly observant 18 year old.

        Report

        • I sometimes watch movies or TV shows and think, “Why the F didn’t he just say XYZ?” I then worry that this says something about the speed with which I can concoct a lie.

          Report

          • There’s a comedian talking about the show “The First 48” (it’s about police solving crimes, and apparently it’s pretty much if you don’t get it figured out in the first 48 hours, you won’t) and he remarks at length about how bad people are at lying.

            Cop: “It says here that you own a blue shirt…”
            Suspect: “Yeah, I killed him!”
            Comedian: “Dude, lots of people own blue shirts. Lie a little. I mean, give it a try!”

            He then remarks that he’s only seen two episodes where the suspect asked for a lawyer, and both ended with “All charges were dropped”. He noted he’d like to think he could lie to the police, but having seen this he’d just stay quiet and ask for a lawyer.

            Report

            • More than this: A lot of crimes are done by REAL professionals. Assassins, arsonists, people who have to get the details right to be successful. If you don’t catch an assassin, you aren’t going to crack the case. And really, when someone runs a mini-explosive up some guy’s urethra and then puts a delay on it — you think you’re going to catch that guy?? Please.

              A lot of criminal underclass is full of people who just can’t do anything right, and are mentally deficient besides (leaving out probable head trauma from barfights).

              Report

  5. I think this whole affair tells us less about “race in America” than it does about Rachel Dolezal’s personal understanding of and relationship with race.

    Report

    • As noted in the OP, I find the reactions more fascinating than the actual offense. They are completely varied across racial lines. The fact that she seemes to have done some real good while posing as black and, as noted, that it is unusual to pose as a minority really just leaves people scratching their heads.

      IMO focusing on her misses an opportunity for a more interesting conversation.

      Report

      • The degree to which race is socially constructed is pretty huge.

        Along those lines, membership to any social construction is likely to have a number of costs (both tangible and intangible) and a number of benefits (again, both tangible and intangible).

        If we somehow managed to give all of the sneeches stars overnight, I wonder how long it’d take for a new group of social constructs to establish themselves.

        Over issues of weight, probably.

        Report

          • Didn’t reddit just start modding because of a subforum that was, basically, “let’s say mean crap about random pictures of fat women”?

            Shaming people based on weight is still quite allowable, because we see being “fat” as a failure of will. Despite the fact that doctors are getting increasingly glum about actual weight loss (fun fact: Your body is designed to pack on fat. It LOVES doing that. Because fat is useful for emergencies, and we spent eons of feast/famine cycles and our bodies don’t do well in a time of plenty).

            Report

      • It’d be helpful if you linked to the reactions. Most of what I’ve seen has come from high school friends on Facebook (and their connections) with some pretty unanimous condemnation. Though that group skews pretty heavily non-white and liberal.

        Report

  6. Am I allowed to come to any conclusions about the NAACP based on this or is that only the case for stuff like when Franklin Graham does it?

    Report

    • Well, that would depend on how well Dolezal represents the NAACP. From what I understand, the local chapter she headed up was scammed like the rest of folks and I doubt she was known well beyond that. So, the best conclusion I think you could draw would be that her local chapter housed some rather gullible folks.

      I don’t really know much about Graham so I’m not comfortable to speak. But if he did something as absurd as Dolezal, then the ability to draw conclusions about whatever group he is apart of would depend in large part on how representative he and his actions were of that group and how they respond upon the behavior going public.

      Report

            • That *what* is not an issue of right or wrong? Drawing conclusions?

              And I’m sure the libertarian in you can recognize that something being a valid choice does not make it immune from being wrong in some way.

              Report

              • “I’m sure the libertarian in you can recognize that something being a valid choice does not make it immune from being wrong in some way.”

                Kazzy: This conversation will probably make more sense once you realize that Jaybird isn’t actually talking about Rachel Dolezal, or even the NAACP for that matter.

                Report

                • It’d help if Jaybird actually talked about what he was actually talking about.

                  It seems to me he took my, “You are free to draw conclusions as you see fit,” as an endorsement of those conclusions themselves… as opposed to an endorsement of his ability to freely make them.

                  Report

        • Of course, you can view the two situations and the two respective posts as dealing in the same stuff, but they really aren’t. Sam’s argument was that if you take Graham’s view to its logical conclusion, he’d rather have kids remain institutionalized than be adopted by gay parents. And the same logic would apparently apply to anyone who opposes gay marriage. Mike’s post is about a person who apparently lied about her race and currently holds a position with the NAACP. I’m not at all sure what conclusions you can draw about anybody here other than Dolezal herself. And people have been pretty unwilling to draw any conclusions at all about her at this point.

          Report

              • Well, we should see what is done to her before we come to any conclusions about the people who continue to voluntarily associate with any organizations that she associated with.

                Has the college fired her yet?

                Report

                  • Tenure only did so much to protect Ward Churchill… they brought out the magnifying glasses and fine-tooth combs to find something that would effectively allow them to fire him.

                    As such, I’m sure that those same tools are being quietly prepared over there for this.

                    Report

                    • Hey … Why don’t you just go ahead and draw those conclusions and then we can discuss their validity? Is that fair to ask? Because if you aren’t… This is yet another useless exercise in saying something without saying it while ultimately saying nothing. The act is getting a little tired, IMO.

                      Report

                      • How’s this for a tentative conclusion:

                        It would be the height of disingenuousness to reach any conclusion about any of Ms Dolezal’s stated principles, associated organizations, or, for that matter, anything but Ms Dolezal herself based on this incident. Attempts to do so would be obviously fallacious.

                        Is that something that we can agree upon?

                        Report

                          • If we can agree that this concept is one that we can universalize, then we know that it applies to him too.

                            And pretty much all other “we’ve got this bad actor here who was associated with these stated principles and associated organizations therefore we can reach these conclusions about this person’s stated principles and associated organizations” arguments that folks may be inclined to make.

                            Report

                            • I don’t agree that it can be universalized. At least not across unlike situations.

                              I don’t know the specifics of Graham’s case. I also haven’t see anyone (here, at least) generalize from Graham to any organization. But what little I do know about Graham is that he is a religious leader of sorts and claims to represent a particular faith. Therefore, when he makes pronouncements about what that faith teaches and what its followers believe, I think it fair to connect those statements with his followers.

                              I mean, if I stood up and said, “I am the unquestioned leader of the Kazzy-ites. All Kazzy-ites believe the sun is green,” and you met someone who was a self-described Kazzy-ite, wouldn’t it be fair to assume that they believed the sun was green? And if you found my teaching of the greenness of the sun silly, wouldn’t it be fair to assume that this person held some silly beliefs?

                              Please answer directly. I really can’t deal with all the round-about quasi-logic right now.

                              Report

                              • What does it mean to universalize a principle? The prohibition on murder can’t be universalized, since some murderers think it’s hunky dory. Other folks won’t agree outa whim.

                                Is the idea that a rational being can imagine everyone adhering to the principle without contradiction in their behavior and beliefs? Why think that people can ever be that rational? Or that they should be?

                                Report

                                • Adding to that: One way to get to the point is that I can universalize the concept of complete moral mayhem insofar as I attribute that belief to others. But that doesn’t mean that those “others” accept the idea of moral mayhem.

                                  The whole thing is whack, I tell ya. WHACK!

                                  Report

                                • It just means that you can apply an imperative to all rational beings without thereby creating a contradiction. It does not require their consent, as it is not an imposition, but a means of practical reasoning.

                                  A prohibition of murder is obviously universalizeable because its opposite, making murder OK, leads to a contradiction pretty much instantly. Same with lying, which is of course the example Kant uses repeatedly to illustrate the point.

                                  Report

                              • I mean, if I stood up and said, “I am the unquestioned leader of the Kazzy-ites. All Kazzy-ites believe the sun is green,” and you met someone who was a self-described Kazzy-ite, wouldn’t it be fair to assume that they believed the sun was green? And if you found my teaching of the greenness of the sun silly, wouldn’t it be fair to assume that this person held some silly beliefs?

                                I’d probably have to ask “Of the OG-Kazzyites?” first. If they said yes, I could then ask “So you believe the sun is green?” and I would not be completely surprised to get the answer of “well, we get that question a lot, let me explain to you some of our basic concepts…” and wander through some definitions for a while that got us to the definitions of colors that would be similar to Rachel Dolezal’s explanation that, ultimately, the human race all comes out of Africa.

                                Or they might say “yes, the sun is green” before moving on to other discussions including their talks about how pleased they are that their gardens are doing so well this year.

                                As for assumptions that this other person holds other silly beliefs, that’s an assumption that I work with currently whether or not they claim to be a follower of you or not.

                                But the fact that they have other silly beliefs is not related to their belief in you beyond their belief in you being one of those silly beliefs.

                                And that’s totally without getting into the issues of the differences between beliefs and publicly affirmed statements indicating group membership.

                                Report

                  • Dolezal was an adjunct professor. No tenure. Whether she taught or not was decided on a quarter by quarter basis.

                    Is right-wing radio going to tell you she was offered a tenure spot at Harvard next?

                    At least try and get some facts right….

                    Report

                  • So what, it is surprising how fast a bureaucracy can move when it wants something done or how slow it can go when it doesnt. I see it all the time in my job.

                    Report

                    • er, given that she’s an adjunct and is teaching no classes for the present term, there’s probably no bureaucracy that needs to happen at all. She exists in a state of not being employed by the University, and that state can likely be maintained without any further action on the part of the University.

                      Report

                  • You said when liberals engage in bad behavior, the expected response is rationalization. Damn near everyone (save for Saul) is condemning Dolezal. So if you stand by your argument that liberals expect her behavior to be rationalized away, you’re going to have to actually build that argument.

                    Report

                        • That is a laugh coming from you Kazzy. Clearly I hit a nerve with all these irrelevant snarky comments. I’ve watch the video twice and I’m stil kicking. Sharpie ignors the questions and then goes on the offensive to tell her parents to act like adults. Stay classy al and dont forget to burn you financial records again.

                          Report

                          • Yesterday you said, “[W]ith liberals you are supposed to rationalize an excuse for the person.”

                            Today you said, “I certaily expected some liberals to rationaize her actions and havent been disappointed.”

                            Those are very different statements. The latter does not support the former. So, unless and until you can demonstrate that liberals insist we rationalize an excuse for Dolezal, I’ll remain confident that you are wrong in saying liberals respond worse than conservatives to bad behavior within their ranks.

                            If anything, the evidence suggests just the opposite.

                            Report

          • I’m pretty sure you misread Saul. I didn’t get rationalization from that. I got musings on the nature of people reinventing themselves. (Which does involved a great deal of lying about themselves, their past, their heritage). And that it’s weird that she reinvented herself without an obvious upside.

            Gatsby’s reasoning for doing so are clear. Historically, blacks who could (and did) ‘pass’ for white had a pretty clear reason for doing so. Same with Jews (or other ethnicities) that changed their names.

            Her reasons are a lot more murky. Makes it an odd case. Doesn’t fit into the regular pigeonhole for people who do this sort of thing.

            Report

            • Her reasons are a lot more murky. Makes it an odd case. Doesn’t fit into the regular pigeonhole for people who do this sort of thing.

              Did she wield power with her new identity that she wouldn’t have been able to wield otherwise? When it comes to costs/benefits, did she gain more by lying than she would have by telling the truth? (And how much does the fact that she was in Spokane make that dynamic greater or lesser?)

              It seems to me that she was 100% under the impression that she got more social benefit from what she did than from not doing it.

              Assuming that that assumption is a good one, it’s fair to ask if she was right to reach that conclusion or whether the “mental illness” answer is the go-to one (because I’m pretty sure that “evil” isn’t on the table).

              Report

              • Well, to be pretty blunt — she traded in the majority race which has held power for centuries for the one that, until the last 50 years, was actually officially held to second-class status (Jim Crow) in half the country and whom even now seems to be held to an entirely different standard on everything.

                And not an easy one, no matter how many people like to scream about not getting into college or that job because apparently all the unqualified black people took the spots.

                Report

                  • No. Because the value she put on particular gains and losses is known only to her.

                    We might look at her and say, “Dude… You know if you get arrested for drugs you’re fucked! And for what? To go to the block party on the other side of town?” And she might respond saying, “I don’t use drugs and that block party is the best day of the year for me.”

                    So, no, I don’t think *anyone* can say she is wrong.

                    Report

                  • Nope. I’m just saying it strikes us as strange, in a way passing as ‘white’ does not, because absent some specific circumstances, it’s a ‘downgrade’ in terms of power and assimilation.

                    We understand blacks passing as white, because we see the stark advantages that conveys, even today. The opposite is murkier, because while it might work under some specific circumstances, in general it is a loss of power and prestige. (The sad truth of American race relations right there).

                    Which is why she sticks out, because she doesn’t fit the first approximation mold for attempt to pass for a different heritage. (We do get people who play up their 1/16 Hispanic ancestry or 1/32 Native American ancestry for scholarships — because such things are temporary. They ‘pass’ for white otherwise. There’s no downside to that tradeoff to them, personally).

                    *shrug*. You’re trying to make my statements into more than they are — I’m just saying THIS is a story in the way that a black woman passing for white isn’t, because the reasoning behind it is far, far more opaque. In fact, it strikes people as being something of a loss, socially.

                    Maybe it’s not for her. But to the average Joe reading this, deep down, there’s a “why would you want to pretend to be black? They take a lot of crap, you know”

                    Report

                    • “Maybe it’s not for her. But to the average Joe reading this, deep down, there’s a “why would you want to pretend to be black? They take a lot of crap, you know””

                      Follow some conversations being had largely or exclusively by Black and brown folk on Facebook, I’d say this is a big part of the response. Another big part is the the offensive nature of her appropriation/transition/whatever it is. A friend of a friend* said something along the lines of being annoyed when Black folk take the Blacker-than-thou position and justify it with natural hair and knowledge about what part of Africa their ancestors hailed from and the like. So for a white woman to take that position and in such a hackneyed way was offensive in a, “She doesn’t even seem to really understand American Blackness,” kinda way.

                      But, yea, the absurdity of it all seems to be the most striking aspect of it. Not the fact that this says something monumental about race in America.

                      *I’m connected with the one guy and folks I didn’t know were commenting on his post.

                      Report

                    • “I’m just saying it strikes us as strange, in a way passing as ‘white’ does not, because absent some specific circumstances, it’s a ‘downgrade’ in terms of power and assimilation.”

                      That’s because you don’t live on Tumblr.

                      I don’t think you understand the extent to which white liberals will assign moral authority to racial minorities.

                      Report

                      • And by “white liberals” you mean “College and high school kids”?

                        You know, like 95% of everyone on Tumblr?

                        They’re KIDS. Overreacting and using hammers when scalpels will do the job is what college kids DO.

                        Seriously, if you’re using tumblr as your go to for what liberals think, there’s no point in having a serious conversation with you. Unless you want me to take Redpill as the go to site for what conservatives think?

                        Report

                        • “Seriously, if you’re using tumblr as your go to for what liberals think, there’s no point in having a serious conversation with you. ”

                          Why did Justine Sacco get fired?

                          Maybe you don’t care what the Internet thinks, but *you* aren’t the one who calls the shots.

                          Report

                          • For tweeting something stupid that went viral? I’m sure you can blame that on SJW’s on tumblr if you want, but you seem to have your platforms mixed up.

                            But, yep. one lady got fired for saying something stupid on Twitter, ergo teenagers on Tumblr run the left.

                            So I’m gonna go ahead, when talking to you, and assume outright misogynists longing for the days women couldn’t own property and vote speak for the right, and that the guys screaming “PRIVATIZE THE SIDEWALKS” on Reason speak for libertarians.

                            Not sure who speaks for the Greens, but probably someone who doesn’t have internet access because it’s not vegan. I’ll send them a letter asking what they think.

                            *eyeroll* Yes, the college kids on Tumblr are a force to be reckoned with, because never in the history of the world has anyone ever said one thing that turned into a media firestorm until they came along. NEVER.

                            Totally new phenomenon. If you need me, I’ll be bowing down to the 15 year olds arguing over trans rights and cis gender on Tumblr, since they obviously rule the world. Someone got fired for Tweeting something that embarrassed her boss.

                            (Fun tip: Teacher I know got fired two years ago for having a photo of her sipping from a red solo cup on Facebook. Sadly, neither tumblr NOR SJW’s were involved, just one particularly obnoxious parent. I guess that lady runs the entire education system!)

                            Report

              • You’re assuming the thinking was “I’d like to be head of the NAACP, so I should pretend to be black” rather than first pretending to be black (for whatever reason) and then deciding that the NAACP was now an appropriate career. We have no idea.

                Report

                • Well, my assumptions are that there was something approaching rationality behind her decisions rather than that she was completely irrational.

                  I’m not thinking that her thoughts were “I want to be head of the NAACP” (not at all!) but “I would much rather have those tradeoffs over there on that side than the tradeoffs I have to make over here on this side.”

                  But that probably assumes a level of intention that probably didn’t exist on the intellectual level. We’re probably not in or around the “I’m a sneech with a star who wants to be a sneech without a star!” ballpark (though I did kinda assume that we were somewhere around there).

                  At this point, it strikes me that the degree to which she immersed herself in this strikes me as probably more indicative of something akin to mental illness (if a highly functional version of it) than a choice that she deliberately made.

                  Report

                  • Again, I’d point you to the individual’s ability to determine value individually. Just because we can point to all sorts of objective metrics that indicate it is advantageous to be white in America rather than Black in American doesn’t mean certain people won’t come to different conclusions through wholly rational means.

                    Report

    • Oh, totally. Organizations exist and perpetuate themselves. They also give some level of protection to people under them (including child molestors, so this isn’t too terribly bad compared to College Football).

      Report

  7. Embarrassingly, I can relate to Dolezal. I grew up convinced that I was partly Jewish, based on my mother’s maiden name and a complete misunderstanding of our family history. It wasn’t until college that I accepted that I had basically invented a romanticized Jewish ancestry. In the rural South, I was the only kid in school who even knew any Jews. I had Jewish cousins by marriage, but this was, I guess, not sufficiently exotic for me.

    I think—hope—that I never made a complete idiot out of myself about this, and I never tried to pass myself off as Jewish or falsely insinuate myself into a different community. Any attempted imposture would have been laughably easy to figure out.

    I definitely remember a keen disappointment in learning that I was—obviously—just a plain old white kid. I can really understand that Dolezal’s young identity might have been shaped in part by her adopted sisters, and when she struck out on her own, she just kept the parts of herself that she liked and left the rest behind.

    Obviously, as an adult, and especially given her field of study and NAACP post, she must have known that she was living a harmful lie. It might be hard for a lot of people to feel sorry for her, but I sure do*. I can imagine how I might have ended up in a similar situation of my own devising.

    * Should I say that it’s possible to feel sorry for Dolezal while also understanding that the people she lied to deserve more sympathy? Maybe I should.

    Report

    • She’s embarrassed a number of folks. The local chapter, the college she works at… but I don’t know how much harm she will end up having done by this.

      The school will get a black eye and the local chapter of the NAACP might see a dip in membership for a while… but this is pretty obviously a case of a bad actor acting with what were probably the best of intentions on behalf of a cause that many folks agree is worth fighting for (and a cause that most folks probably don’t see as worth publicly criticizing).

      As such, the people she lied to definitely deserve a lot more sympathy than Dolezal… do we know that they will require it?

      Report

      • The first things I read from her NAACP colleagues were pretty admirably supportive. I’m not real clear on why anyone’s criticizing them, anyway.

        I don’t think anyone she had a personal relationship requires our sympathy, but it’s not hard to imagine their feelings of betrayal. It’s not like someone’s DNA means they can’t be your friend anymore, but the feeling of being fooled is tough to get past.

        Report

  8. To the extent this incident has larger implications I think they would relate to an illumination of the workings of civil society organizations of this or that stripe. How do they not pick up on this; do they really care; is there really any reason for them to, etc.? Societally I don’t think there is really all that much here. Passing is hardly a revelation; passing for a member of a more oppressed group than yours not much more of one. But I’m not really sure there is that much to learn even about the organizations she advanced in. Surely something, just not sure it’s that much.

    I can say that I don’t find what she did all that shocking from a personal perspective given her family background, wherein her siblings were adopted children of color. The development of identity in common with them is not that much of a shock, and the way this apparently developed incrementally in her life over time isn’t hard to understand either. It kind of strikes me that she might be a bit of a Neverneverland case where she just never quite arrived at that moment of coming to terms with things and instead just did what she had to do to maintain her consulted identity. and it didn’t hurt that she found a path in which a measure of professional success became intertwined with that identity, so that much of what was good in her life became fully wrapped up in this identity.

    I guess the one interesting institutional/societal question in all this is whether she genuinely found opportunities that were open to her that wouldn’t have been matched by opportunities open to her had she not engaged in any deception around her identity. (It’s important to note that the only part of that question that has resonance is the deception part – the actual invention of family history that doesn’t exist, etc. A person can seek to present herself as having cultural affinity with African-American culture and find opportunity that way, but if she doesn’t hold herself out to have a background she overtly doesn’t have, I.e. black parents in this case, I’m not sure there’s really much we can identify as notable. Lots of pele to thT to varying degrees.)

    Report

    • Michael Drew:
      I guess the one interesting institutional/societal question in all this is whether she genuinely found opportunities that were open to her that wouldn’t have been matched by opportunities open to her had she not engaged in any deception around her identity.

      I doubt she would have much trouble being a part time adjunct professor in African Studies if she identified as white–Given the racial demographics of Eastern Washington, I suspect that’s pretty common. Similarly, plenty of white people obtain leadership positions in the NAACP, and there’s no particular reason to suppose she’s not qualified for that role.

      However, as a white person, she would not be qualified to wear her hair the way she has over the past several years.

      Report

  9. Thought experiment: suppose it’s discovered that one of her great-grandparent was black, passing as white, so she really did have black ancestry. Would that make the problem go away?

    If so, since it’s very unlikely that all of the great**n-grandparents can be demonstrated to be white, what exactly is the problem?

    Report

    • For the same reason that it would be a problem if I claimed that the mere possibility that one of my great**n-grandparents (and to be clear, that N represents a mathematical variable, right?) was non-white (a very real possibility, of course) gave me special standing or authority to opine on race matters.

      If all of a sudden I started claiming to be black, and therefore my opinion on racial matters had any more weight than the average white man’s, you all would rightly dismiss that nonsense. “Well, speaking as a black man, since we all came out of Africa, I feel Freddie Gray should have…”

      We are *somewhat* more flexible on allowing people to create or define their own identities than we used to be; but our continued *focus* on “identity” (even if it is allowed to be somewhat self-created/chosen) still inevitably runs up against our notions of “authenticity”. I can’t always claim to be anything I want, just because in some version of the world it *could* be so.

      Report

    • Because is right that race is a social construct insofar as it is not simply a matter of genetics. It has to do with how the world perceives and treats you, how you interact with it. Until her “transformation”, it seems that Dolezal lived, was perceived as, and was treated like a white person. She enjoyed white privilege. She was not the victim of anti-Black racism. She did not interact with the world through these and other related lenses.

      This is not to say that the Black experience in America is simply defined by racism. There are myriad other factors that go into what it means to be Black in America… none of which Dolezal experienced until after her “transformation” (and even many of those instances seem to be fabricated by her).

      Report

      • Well and also, because our attempts at remedying racial discrepancies in this country kinda depend on those attempts not being gamed. If I suddenly start claiming to be black to take advantage of affirmative action initiatives, that is something that should be rightly frowned upon, no matter where you stand on the advisability of affirmative action itself.

        People are concerned less with her claim to be black, than in the ways she might have improperly leveraged that claim.

        Report

      • I disagree. If she has been raised as white and then, on discovering that great-grandpa was black, embraced her “black identity”, this wouldn’t be a scandal, or even noteworthy. At most, it would be like when quintessential privileged WASP John Kerry revealed that he has Jewish ancestry and is very proud of it, and everyone went “awwwwww”.

        Report

        • Embracing her black ancestry is one thing. Disowning her white family, adopting a faux black father, asking the former not to ‘out’ her, and inventing claims of racism is quite another. To say nothing of the apparent skin darkening, colored contacts, and hair coloring/texturing. She seems to have thought braids were what made her black, not an ancestral claim or cultural connection.

          Report

    • Mike S,

      Thought experiment: suppose it’s discovered that one of her great-grandparent was black, passing as white, so she really did have black ancestry. Would that make the problem go away?

      I’ll second what Glyph wrote here, and elaborate a bit on it by answering the question you pose. From my pov, the issue (I’m not sure I’d call it a “problem” since I think that puts the emphasis on the wrong things) is that a person apparently lied about certain biological facts for certain (perhaps) self-serving reasons. Discovering that her geneology included black people after the fact – information which is by hypothesis (according to your thought experiment) inaccessible and unknown to her – doesn’t change the (apparent!) fact that she lied about her identity. So the issue at this point isn’t the actual status of her ancestry, but her deception in presenting an ancestry which she (given what we know right now!) believed wasn’t true.

      Report

  10. I have to day, I’m sort of bemused by the head-scratching tone of many here; why would she want to be Black? talked about wanting to be Jewish, wanting to be exotic; I don’t think that’s an uncommon thing to want.

    I have another window into this from my daughter’s transition. The most common reaction is “why would she want to be female?” followed by discussion about the things she was giving up, and most of it boiled down to ‘this is better than that for this whole host of reasons that I can pretty much ignore until I consider the consequences of not having these privileges.”

    So yes, is right that the reactions are interesting. If being female instead of male or black instead of white is giving up stuff that most of us take for granted but recognize as a surrendering when we have to cognitively process that, maybe we should serious consider what that stuff is and how it might be shaping things for people who don’t have that stuff.

    Report

    • Good point.

      Dolezal has a lot more claim to being African-American than I did to being Jewish—my calculation being, black siblings beat Jewish cousins-by-marriage, full house to two pair. Neither of us picked our ersatz identities out of a hat.

      This is just a sad story of someone’s secrets being exposed and her persona unraveling. The rest of the circus is just all of us hooting and laughing and not really knowing why.

      Report

      • But if I read your comment correctly, you were genuinely confused about your religious and ethnic background with regards to Judaism. Dolezal, it seems, suffered no such confusion. She seems to have opted to adopt a different race, telling those who could expose her not to do so.

        Report

        • I’m just saying whatever she was up to was probably a lot more complex and deep seated than most of us can imagine. I don’t know—I’ve only read the one article about her and the commentary here.

          The case really reminds me more of the phenomenon of people who imagine themselves to be Native American, a thing that real NAs have been dealing with and exasperated by for a very long time. Sherman Alexie has worked this into a lot of his writing. There’s a continuum between Elizabeth Warren, who said/believed she was part Cherokee like every single Oklahoman I have ever met, to people like me, who latch onto a particular wrinkle of their family history and either grow out of it or not, to outright fraudsters and/or lunatics.

          With regard to the Spokane NAACP, I feel bad for the tornado of stupid commentary that’s probably already hit them. They must feel like, look, we obviously didn’t appoint Ms. Dolezal because she was the African-Americanest African-American lady we could find—she earned the job. As pointed out, you don’t have to pass some noxious paper-bag test (look that up) to work for the NAACP. I can’t really see how this is an embarrassment for them.

          Sorry, , the gravamen of my discourse got away from me. Not much of this comment was in response to you.

          Report

          • Heh… no worries, . I appreciate your perspective on the matter. I think you’re right that this topic is more complex than much of the dialogue thus far has indicated.

            To bring your experience and my conversation below with into conversation with one another, I have recently come to understand that my experience as a white person in America is vastly different than I understand the “mainstream white American” experience to be. I’ve always identified as white and consider myself to be white — and still do — but it was interesting to realize over the last five years that I’m not quite white like most other white Americans are white. I always assumed white was white was white. I now know otherwise.

            Report

          • kroger,
            ” part Cherokee like every single Oklahoman I have ever met”
            … when people from the Mountain South claim they are Cherokee, I wonder how black they are. (because that was a “natural transition” of ancestry. better to claim that you were part native than part black)

            Report

  11. Question for anyone that wants to answer: Do you think light-skinned blacks that passed as white during Jim Crow were doing something wrong?

    Report

    • I tried to dig into this yesterday, but no. They were doing what they had to do in a society that at best wanted to keep them in second place and at worst wanted to harm them.

      But if *I* try to pass for black today to take advantage of affirmative action initiatives, I am doing something wrong.

      Report

      • So is it as simple as saying it’s only okay if you are improving your position? Or is there more to it? If Dolezal didn’t take any minority scholarships, was anyone harmed? What are the negatives?

        Report

        • You’re looking for simple answers to really complex questions. I think that is why it might not seem to make sense.

          In America today, being Black is about more than just the color of your skin or your ancestry.

          In Jim Crow, being white was not about your lived experiences but whether you were considered white by others.

          Race was defined very differently then than it is now. Which again supports your understanding of race as a social construct (which doesn’t mean that race isn’t real, as some argue).

          This is why — even today — there are certain contexts where Person X qualifies as a member of Group A and other contexts where that same person will not qualify as a member of that same group. Because, in reality, those are two different groups being described with the same term. Our issue is as much about language as it is about the complex system we are attempting to describe.

          Report

          • An example…

            Technically speaking, you and I are both fathers. So is the guy who has never even met his kid. We couldn’t really argue that, technically speaking, he isn’t a father.

            But suppose you and I — dedicated fathers who love our children very much — decided to start a club for fathers to get together to talk about the experience of raising kids and to support one another. We’d probably bristle at that guy who has never even met his kid and has no interest in being involved in his life being included. In fact, we might argue that he cannot join the Father’s Club because he is not a father… not as we define it for the purposes of our group.

            So it that guy a father? Or not a father? Depends on the context, no? Which is why you hear statements like, “Anyone can be a father but not anyone can be a dad.” Because language doesn’t always serve us as we need it to.

            Report

            • I think a better analogy would be someone who became a stepfather at some point but passed himself as the real father of the child. If the net good is that the stepkid had a loving male parent then does that trump the way we ‘real’ fathers feel about the deception? You can also unpack all sorts of things about what is the definition of a ‘real’ father? We certainly know the tropes about some biological fathers being terrible and some step parents being wonderful. Couldn’t the same logic apply to cultural identity? For example, someone who is 1/4 Jewish but far more devout than the person that is 100% Jewish. If race is a cultural construct then in theory you should be able to assume that identity with enough experience and understanding.

              Report

              • Mike…

                All that is true but again we are hamstrung by language. Is the devoted stepfather a father or not? Do we need different terms for biological fathers and the roles we/they actually play in children’s lives? And for something that can’t be objectively defined… who is the arbiter? You might look at that stepdad and think, “Hell yea, that guy belongs in the club,” and I might say, “I’m open to stepdads but I don’t know about that guy in particular.” Then what?

                It is why ideally we reach a point where membership in a group is largely inconsequential but we sure as hell ain’t there yet.

                Report

          • It should be no surprise that I am pleased to here race being thought of much more as a social construct (culture) than a biological one. If we’re saying that Dolezal did something wrong because she is claiming cultural experiences she didn’t have, then I think I can accept that as a step in the right direction away from the kind of biological racism that some people still believe is common.

            One follow-up question though, what if she had lived this way for another decade and then was discovered? At what point could she fairly claim the same cultural experiences as an adult? I think if we say ‘never’ then we’re still saying there is a link to biological race.

            Report

            • I don’t know any folks involved in anti-racism who don’t recognize race as a social construct. If anything, it is a fundamental component of the work.

              I don’t really know the answer to your second question. I’m not qualified to say definitively what defines Blackness in America today. I guess the follow up question is whether or not someone can be the victim of racism without actually being a member of the race targeted.

              My hunch is to say yes.

              A story… I grew up in a town that had a large Jewish population. Many (perhaps most?) of the white folks in town were Jewish. More importantly, the perception of the town was that is was Black folks and white Jewish folks. I was white but not Jewish. During a high school soccer game one time, a kid on the other team referred to me as a “Jew bagel”. I’m not really sure what it mean but it was certainly meant to hurt. Was I the victim of anti-semitism? I don’t know. His comment was undoubtedly anti-semitic. And it sure as hell pissed off my Jewish teammates (as it did me, but differently, obviously).

              I guess I’d say that it is possible for Dolezal to be the victim of racism while still not being Black.

              And what makes this situation so unique is Dolezal’s apparent intentional deception. Some folks will fall victim to various -isms because of mistaken identity. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

              Report

              • I don’t that I agree that they understand race as a cultural construct, because anytime I have tried to shift the conversation away from biological race to cultural race, it seems like there is always static from certain people who think it’s an effort at ‘lessening’ the seriousness of prejudice.

                What I will also say is that in all of the condemning comments I have seen on the various articles over the last few days, almost universally they say she can’t be black because she hasn’t felt all of the negative aspects of growing up black. I find it very sad that so many black people themselves believe one can only understand blackness through the lens of oppression. It just shows how far we still have to go as a society.

                Report

                • I think the pushback you are getting is because race being a social construct is not the same as recognizing the relationship between race and culture. Whether you intend to or not, maybe conversations about race and culture end up turning into ‘victim blaming’… “If Black folks just didn’t act so Black, racism would go away.” Shit like that. Again, I’m not saying you do that… but there is undoubtedly scar tissue there.

                  Report

                  • Kazzy,

                    I’m sure you are right about the ‘victim-blaming’ thing. My pointing out that black people walking down the middle of the street probably not great for race relations is infamously the latest reason why Chris likes to call me a racist.

                    What I will say is that minorities arent shy about telling whites when our behavior or words are offensive and many people will defend their right to do so. The day when that can be a two-way conversation is the day when I’ll feel like we have made some progress in this country.

                    Report

                • “I find it very sad that so many black people themselves believe one can only understand blackness through the lens of oppression.”

                  I think it’s more complicated than that. There’s going to be a lot of terrible articles/blog posts/tweets and twerps written about this, but anyone, white or black, who says that black people think oppression is the only key to the story, is not doing a very good job of explaining things.

                  Report

                • I find it very sad that so many black people themselves believe one can only understand blackness through the lens of oppression. It just shows how far we still have to go as a society.

                  How do you think blacks should perceive their blackness?

                  Edit: I hope the answer isn’t “more like white people.”

                  Report

                • I think it was less “This comment was actually offensive” and more “This guy was clearly trying to take a cheap shot at Jews because he didn’t like what was happening with a ball being kicked around by teenagers.”

                  Report

        • – yes, in some way I think perceived “ill-gotten gains” plays into it – material, such as money or job or promotion I would otherwise not have received.

          Or, non-material (reputational). To whatever degree she has improperly become “Rachel Dolezal, Moral Authority on the African-American Experience” instead of “Rachel Dolezal, Ordinary Schmoe Who Happens To Enjoy African-American Culture”, people are going to resent that.

          Report

          • See, that’s pretty much it. It’s not so much “I like rap music and I think my hair looks pretty like this and I like having darker skin tones”. It’s “I, as an Actual For-Reals Black Person, am in a position where I can claim moral authority over all you crackers, and so when I say things you better listen up and do what I tell you, otherwise you’re racist”.

            Report

    • Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is a great answer to this question. Coleman Silk’s decision to reinvent himself as a white/Jewish man exacts a terrible cost on him long before his eventual downfall. He loses his family and his past, and raises a family of his own to whom his entire child- and young manhood are completely and painfully hidden. It’s a tragedy, but (if I’m remembering the book correctly) Silk has no illusions about his choice—it was deliberate, and he knew what it would cost him, but in the end he decided to determine his own fate rather than let it be decided for him. Like all Roth’s books, the theme of this one is an exploration of how little control we have over the things we think we choose for ourselves.

      Report

    • Pretty sure you don’t say jack about a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust deciding to pretend to convert to Christianity and raise their kids as Christian.

      I think that going through Jim Crow as a black person had enough “oh, shit, that was hard” that we can at least understand the reasoning on lying to everyone altogether.

      Report

  12. There was a Barney Miller where Wojo accidentally outs a gay cop. After a lot of concern that the guy will lose his career, it turns out fine: the mayor, who wants to show that he’s not a bigot, has the cop promoted to his personal security detail. At this point, Levitt, the uniform who has spent the whole show trying to get promoted to plainclothes, comes out with “I’m gay.” All of the detectives look at him, till finally he admits “It was worth a shot.”

    Report

  13. I think this will come down to a strong individually psychological explanation .. . . an obsessive personality and black culture and causes became her focus . . . no doubt her parents adopting black children helped foster that. As others have noted, she went all in . . . .if you look at her FB page her musical, movie and book likes are almost too much, too obviously black . … .and way more things are liked, like 100’s vs. the typical half dozen or so, esp. for a middle-aged woman. She could legitimately gain more personal cred in fighting for black causes by the fact of marrying a black man and having a black child who will face discrimination based on the color of his skin, and she did that too. But somehow it still wasn’t enough. Everything seems to be leading toward a desparate need for cred. Like a series of boxes to be checked off.

    An interview with a colleague even highlighted that she would bring up things to kind of one-up people with her blackness . . . Howard University and having “actually been to Africa” (though as reported now, she never has been to Africa). And then there is the repeated theme of drawing attention to one self by being a victim of childhood abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, hate crimes and discrimination against minorities–all things she can write impassioned rants about in op-ed pieces and lecture about. I think you’re dead on, she wasn’t using faking black to gain advantage . .. she was using the attainment of things as proof to herself of her acceptance in the black community that yes, I really am black now. That would fit into the psychological story and so would trumping up and taking any opportunity however small to note that she had been discriminated against as a black woman.

    It all sounds very psychological and sad . . . .many people desparately seek something, find passion in a thing a cause in order to latch on to something. Why I don’t know, I’m not a psychiatrist . . .. It’s one thing to identify with a culture, but from the sound of it putting others in their place for being “less black” or proving her “blackness” with her knowledge of history, black hair, the struggle . . . . . is sad and ironically also seems racist.

    Report

    • +1, TM. I admit a bias in thinking about the issue pretty much along these lines, but this strikes me as an awesome comment despite that.

      Report

    • Its similar to how some people latch on to nerd culture very strongly and become stereotypical fans. In both cases, blackness or nerd identity, provide something to latch on to and derive comfort of sorts from.

      Report

    • “Everything seems to be leading toward a desparate need for cred.”

      Yep. Nobody really cares what some white chick from Midlanowear, USA thinks. She’s the butt of every joke. But *everyone* cares what A Black Woman Struggling Against The Legacy Of Racial Oppression In America thinks, and you damn better not tell any jokes about her if you want to have a job anywhere the public can hear about it.

      Report

      • Yep. I actually wrote about this phenomena over on Tumblr, which I quote here. I was linking to this little episode: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/gay-girl-damascus-tom-macmaster

        Anyhow, here is what I wrote. Note, it’s not very complimentary:

        I think about this episode a lot, which seems to me to be part of a pattern, something that plagues much online discourse. In fact, I think it has the same root cause as the “oh noes special snowflake” nonsense you get from people-who-are-not-special-snowflakes.

        I call it (admittedly uncharitably) “the white boy’s ennui.”

        Like, how do you stand out if in fact there really isn’t much interesting about you, and you don’t have any particular insight that a million other privileged people don’t have? And since being privileged means have easy access to publishing – in fact in the old days nearly exclusive access – that means that there are a metric fuckton of people out there more or less just like you, all scrambling to stand out above the din of other boring people just like you.

        A strange thing about being a late-transitioning trans person is – well – been there, walked that walk. And then my insight caught up with my truth, and here I am.

        We would be interested in the opinions of a Syrian lesbian over “just another privileged white guy” for good reasons. People such as a real-life Amina are rare, and more, their voices are largely unheard. We listen because we want to learn from people who have something to say, instead of people who say the same stuff everyone else has already said.

        And yeah, if you’re super accomplished, then sure. You’ll get heard. But the competition!

        This is unfair, but as a result of injustice. It’s not cuz white guys have it hard. It’s cuz they have it fairly easy.

        And so the ennui, and the envy of “special snowflakes,” and the constant suspicion that interesting people are being unfair, with no consideration for the struggle that made their life interesting and yours not so much.

        What a burden it must be.

        Anyway yeah.

        So I have no idea if this applies to Dolezal, even with the gender/sexuality part replaced by race. But it’s a real thing.

        Report

          • — Well, probably not. The world only needs so many big-time bloggers, and a lot of folks step up to the plate, and a lot of them (probably most) are white-and/or-male-and/or-cis-and/or-some other kind of privilege. So a typical privileged, middle-class white dude is probably going to vanish into that morass.

            But then, there are like 5-10 trans women who have any footprint in the media, and really I bet most of you can only name 3 or 4 currently active (without Googling).

            Maybe more if you pay attention to my posts. But still.

            (Fun test: how many important trans guys can you name? And does your list start with Chaz Bono?)

            Anyway, my point is, the idea that minorities/women/queers are getting some big unfair advantage is bullshit. This is a perception that arises from vast entitlement and self-indulgence.

            But still, the white boy’s ennui — it’s a thing.

            Report

            • I was more thinking along the lines of Global Voices. Not everyone needs to be a top line blogger to be contributing and be “famous enough” (defined as I can get chicks, naturally, because boys)

              Report

              • Preeeety sure that we’re not gonna learn that Rachel Dolezal is actually a boy.

                On the other hand, you’re almost right. It’s not “get chicks”, it’s “get clicks“.

                Report

            • Fun test: how many important trans guys can you name? And does your list start with Chaz Bono?

              This is interesting to me, because my (anecdotal, subjective) impression is that there aren’t many I can think of.

              Is that a matter of:

              1.) Sheer numbers – is MtF a far more common transition than FtM? My guess is possibly; due to some combo of genetics/biology, culture, or the present state of available surgical/hormonal corrective measures.

              and/or

              2.) Trans guys are generally even more determined to “pass” than trans girls are, and so may be less likely to share or publicize the fact that they were assigned female at birth? This also seems possible, since to be “a guy”, culturally, means to never share your private business, nor your pain, whereas I think women are allowed more leeway here.

              To borrow some terminology I think you’ve used before, the boundaries of masculinity are policed even more aggressively than the boundaries of femininity. Many men don’t accept some men that WERE assigned male at birth as “real men”; never mind someone who wasn’t.

              (Also, totally OT, but I watched a pretty good Pitchfork doc on Slowdive’s Souvlaki this AM. You might dig it, it’s on their site, it’s about an hour).

              Report

              • — These days trans men are about as common as trans women. They do tend to pass better, but that shouldn’t really matter when we talk about media exposure. Certainly Janet Mock passes very well, but her name is out there. Laverne Cox is tall, but still, people who look at her see a woman.

                I think the difference is more base: the public can sexualize trans women and finds it difficult to sexualize trans men. Think of how much trans media you heard of growing up. How much was really about the sexual anxieties straight men felt around transgender women?

                You cannot tell that story with a trans man, so the culture ignores them.

                Report

                • To clarify, I wasn’t talking about *ability* to fully pass, I was talking about *desire* to fully pass; and I wasn’t talking about passing physically, I was talking about passing behaviorally/culturally.

                  It seems to me that a female (cis, or trans) is more likely to tell me about ANY painful or “private” subject in her history (a rape, say, or having been assigned the wrong gender at birth) than a male would be.

                  A man is culturally expected to be “tough”, suck it up, put ancient history behind him and move on.

                  “Strong and (crucially) silent” – that whole thing.

                  Report

                  • — Oh, okay, that makes sense.

                    I don’t know. Certainly the pressures of masculinity are far different from those of femininity, and moving in one direction is bound to effect people differently from moving in the other. I’ve met plenty of trans men, for example, who seem to overplay the “bro card” — in fact they’re sort of a stereotype — but I’ve met plenty who do not.

                    But still, it’s not really about how we face the world, how we present ourselves, since people are seldom interested in what we have to say about ourselves. Instead, the public learns about us according to what cis audiences want to hear about us, and what material is offered up to them by cis writers. This has been going full bore since the sixties — since Gore Vidal’s wretched thing —

                    and of course sensationalist material existed before that, but it was Myra Breckinridge that really set the broad cultural tone about how trans women would be used at plot devices. Nothing similar exists for trans masculinity.

                    Remember, people observe Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner because they want to observe those women, and not other women. They could hunger for stories about trans men, and regardless of what most trans men feel, some would step eagerly into the spotlight.

                    Funny thing, around the turn of last century there was a spate of novels about women who presented as men, based on some real-world cases from the American Civil War along with some women who joined ship’s crews. In any case, these were adventure fiction and they struck a nerve, but they later died out and stopped being popular. I know very little about them, however. Who was reading them? Why? Why did they stop? But they existed.

                    Report

  14. I was going to post in this thread….but…well, I got enough popcorn out of the comments that I see no need.

    Thanks!

    Report

  15. Re: transracial

    I saw a really interesting comment where the person said if we are going to accept that Dolezal was transracial, than we need to allow Black folks to claim whiteness when the cops approach. Unless/until we can do that, we need to cut the “transracial bullshit” (the person’s words… not my own).

    Report

  16. Danger Will Robinson Off Topic/ Old Topic. I can’t find the recent conversation about the McKinney pool party debacle but this is a really interesting piece from TPM about the cop. He was still wrong and out of control but the context is very helpful. He has responded to two suicide incidents THAT DAY. That will scramble anyone and the typical cop attitude of being hard and impervious is not helpful to coping with serious stuff most times. Yeah in the moment they need to be hard, but afterwards anybody will be shaken and stirred.

    http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/stress-ignored-cause-of-police-violence

    Report

    • God, yeah. That deserves a full talk-to for the entire team. When you screw up badly enough to get the national news on your behind, you should address the issue. If you aren’t right enough, clock out or go see the shrink (and there should be mandatory “go see the shrink” time, in my not so humble opinion. Scream, yell, sit silently and stew, at least give people the Chance To Get Better).

      Report

    • Holy crap. That’s a good article (as was the prior one by the same author). It doesn’t excuse the guy’s actions, but you can certainly see how taking a call or two in which he may have felt very helpless (I mean jeez, someone publicly shot themselves) might have made him perversely desperate to be “in control” of the situation at the next call (which, unfortunately, equals “out of control”).

      Report

      • It is a really good article. I’ve seen some activists talk about how the way police are trained, and the way police departments operate, are ultimately bad for cops as well as the public, and this may be a good example of one way that plays out.

        It seems almost obvious, to an outside observer, that officers (or EMTs, or firefighters) who are exposed to traumatic events should have ways of taking themselves off the street temporarily (even if only for the rest of the day or night), and should be encouraged to do so. You know, a policy that basically says, “You do two suicides or murders or rapes, you go back to the station, maybe talk to an in-house counselor, and then call it a day.” Otherwise they might end up throwing to the ground harmless teens who are following their orders, or worse.

        Report

        • I’d go further. If they are involved in that type of event, they should be removed from the streets for at least the day. Not because we presume incompetency, but because we presume humanity. That shit would rock even the strongest person.

          Report

          • Yeah, I have to agree completely with this. Greater access to, and increased cultural perception of the need for, trauma psychology for emergency personnel would be a boon across the board.

            Report

          • Yeah, we all agree the average person’s psyche would probably have trouble dealing with those events, but if one cop can’t subdue multiple assailants Chuck Norris style? He’s a pussy.

            Report

              • If you get an assault call, it’s not improbable that you come in thinking assault. And a bunch of unarmed kids is one of the scenarios that a cop thinks of (note: this is generally upwards of 4 kids to one person that they’re assaulting).

                Now, these kids obviously weren’t doing that…

                Report

                • Yeah, the linked article says the cop was supposedly (per his lawyer) reluctant to respond when the call was just “trespassing”, and only responded when it became “possible assault”.

                  We’ve seen these sorts of situations before, where the (literal) game of “Telephone”, from the 911 caller to the police dispatcher to the police responder, results in a cop walking into a situation that they have been primed to think is potentially much more dangerous than it actually is. Which can have bad consequences.

                  Report

                  • But the other cops were already there and visibly relaxed. Whatever he might have heard from dispatch, he had to know cops were already on the scene and see them, even before he tripped and wet a little bananas.

                    Bad day or not, he should have noticed the other cops. Who were practically shouting, body-language wise, “no big deal”.

                    Report

                    • At the end of the day, for whatever reason, he obviously overreacted to the situation. I’m just saying that someone who is already under stress and is told there could be a ‘possible assault’ at the scene they are arriving at, is probably more likely to see ‘assailants’ than they would be otherwise.

                      And like I said, someone who has, that very day, probably felt very out of control as they watched someone blow their brains out, might have a desperate desire to control what they can.

                      But as I noted, all this info is coming from his lawyer, who obviously has an incentive to present his client in the most sympathetic light.

                      Report

                • Yeah, that’s part of my point. If you respond to an assault call, and decide that any teenager standing around, even talking to other officers calmly, is an assailant to be thrown to the ground, you’re clearly not thinking clearly. If he is an otherwise rational cop, that’s a pretty good sign that he was stressed to the breaking point: treating a bunch of harmless kids as assailants.

                  Report

                  • Of course, at this point we’re basically taking his lawyer at his or her word, something we wouldn’t do for just about anyone else who we’d just seen tossing around harmless teenagers in bathing suits. So while I think this raises an important issue, we don’t know how seriously to take this. How involved was he in those other calls? Does he have a history of reacting violently to stressful situations? And so on.

                    Report

    • That is a good article, thank you.

      Made me wonder about other potentially high-stress fields; medicine, in particular. I’ve seen how my sister, a pediatric ICU nurse, was often devastated by a patient’s death; and would guess it must have been a challenge for her to get through the remainder of a day, even the next day, providing consistently top-quality care. I’d imagine there are similar problems facing teachers; one really negative interaction affecting their ability to teach at their best for the remainder of the day.

      thought-provoking piece.

      Report

      • there is SO MUCH drug abuse in the medical field. Pop a pill, it’ll help you cope.
        And still so many nurses quit — it looks like such a good field, but Damn is it Draining.

        Report

      • Oh, he’s still racist, but it’s even worse now because he should have known that he was psychologically compromised and voluntarily taken himself off duty. It’s his own fault, really, for recklessly continuing to work.

        Report

    • While we are on the (off)topic, is anyone else alarmed that the police force seems to have fully co-opted the ranking terminology of the military? I have never heard of a police officer being referred to as a corporal but I guess that is a thing now. How much does this reflect and/or contribute to the Warrior cop mentality? I understand we need terms to designate leadership and hierarchy, but there is no reason this need to mirror the military’s.

      Report

  17. I dunno. I kinda think the Dolezal-Jenner correlation is a valid one. Perhaps my pronounced apathy towards such things is affecting my view but she seems to have put more effort into it than the average white boy who listens to a Dr. Dre album and decides to start turning his cap backwards. Yes, I can see where and why the two political sides are lining up like they are but that really has no bearing on her actual decisions and says more about the …unflattering… political directions that both parties have taken over the past decade than about Rachel.

    Upon looking over the arguments up above, the two things that stood out are:

    Discussions over mental illness: I would counter with the number of articles including those printed in medical journals that, even today, take the same attitude over transgenderism. I would say that, before someone writes it off as mental illness, they might want to consider those arguments in a wider context than just being able to dismiss something to restore their own comfort levels.

    The irreversibility of trangender hormones/surgery: This doesn’t strike me as a valid argument simply because we don’t have any procedures that I know of that can change skin color. If there were a procedure to do so, would Rachel have done it? Maybe. I can’t really say since I’m not living in a Bruce Willis movie or a Sam + Fuzzy comic. As it is, the argument that she can’t be black because she has no access to a procedure that would change that is similar to saying that, if you don’t have access to hormone treatments, you can’t identify as a different gender.

    Report

  18. There is so much mixing of races, so much change in the anthropological view of race, that choosing the race one identifies with is starting to feel like an exercise designed just to keep the Census Bureau happy.

    This. It seems like there’s two sides to this cultural constructing. The one is what communities of people do everywhere and all the time- create their own little in-jokes, songs, argot, foods, etc. Pretty much what we call culture. That seems harmless and actually fairly positive. If people want to believe that only they can fully appreciate, say, polka music, it’s no skin off my back. The second is what gets imposed from the outside by people or organizations looking to better “understand” some group of people, and that seems about as arbitrary and foolish at this point as when the Catholic schools used to try to get left-handed kids to write with their right hand.

    Report


    • What’s interesting to me, having spent a lot of time studying immigrant communities, is the push/pull forces regarding assimilation. To generalize, I think it’s fair to say that within immigrant communities 100 years ago the push to assimilate was mostly coming from within while outside many people were trying to contain them due to racism or xenophobia. Now, it often feels like the dynamic goes in the other direction, especially among blacks.

      To your point about culture, the problem for me is when we link culture and race, then criticism of that culture becomes taboo. That’s why it is impossible to realize any progress.

      Report

      • Hmmm… I have to think about this a bit. I basically agree but I think the thing with assimilation is there are plenty of cultural traditions that are basically salutary and the pressure from outside has, especially in the past, been so sweeping that it’s essentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater, if not just equating “be more like us” with progress as such.

        I also suppose there’s a difference between a defense of traditions as something outsiders misunderstand vs. something outsiders can’t understand because they lack some magical genetic component.

        Partly, I guess my thoughts today are also with the Gullah/Geechee nation in Charleston, who’ve done a remarkable job of preserving their traditions, while also assimilating fairly well, I’d say, if Clarence Thomas can be held as an example. I’ve often heard people talk about cultural and religious traditions as repressive, which they certainly can be, but I think they’re also often strengthening.

        So, I don’t think criticism should be taboo, but I do think that there are plenty of things that groups of people do that might not make sense to us, but which are basically harmless. I don’t think anyone in Ontario has met anyone else who puts peanuts in their Coke, but where I’m from it’s just a thing.

        Report

        • I agree that preserving traditions/cultural traits while also assimilating can be done successfully. For example, in Louisville the German community that many of my ancestors belonged to was fully assimilated while still having a strong German identity. Obviously with blacks there is a very unique dynamic of having been oppressed more than any other group, so therefore they see anything that appears to reduce their identity as a threat.

          Report

Comments are closed.