Rachel Dolezal and the Problem of Race

The case of Rachel Dolezal is both amusing and frustrating. Frankly, something about this case feels like a set up. It’s emergence onto the national stage at a time when substantive discussions about race, police brutality, systems of oppression, etc. are finally being engaged is suspicious. Almost as thought some reactionary right winger had this card up his sleeve and was only waiting for the right moment to play it. The fact that the life story of the director of the Spokane, Washington office of the NAACP, an unpaid position for Christ’s sake, would become the top national news story in the country would have seemed preposterous a week ago. Regardless, I do not think that this story is entirely a distraction.

While I am sympathetic to the position that whites have appropriated cultural inventions of the African American community there is an underlying philosophy behind these critiques that is troublesome. The reaction of Identity Politics liberals to this case highlights the methodological inconsistency and cul de sac like quality of Identity Politics. The very people criticizing the likes of Rachel Dolezal are avowed defenders of transgendered people. They argue that gender is a social construction. Thus the gender identifications of trans people, being as they are, in opposition to the socially constructed conceptions of gender identity associated with one’s sexual organs, should be supported. Put simply, because gender is not based in any biological reality there is no reason that a person born with male sex organs cannot gender identify as female. They also argue that race is a social construction with no basis in biology; invented to excuse the oppression of one group by another. But because it is somehow a special kind of social construction. and therefore somehow not equivalent to gender, these advocates of Identity Politics claim that Dolezal should be condemned for attempting to appropriate the black experience, misrepresent her identity, deceive her friends, colleagues, students, etc.

These claims are usually derived from the presupposition that the view transgendered people have of their identity is genuine while Dolezal’s is not because she was forced to go to such extreme lengths to distort her true identity in order to deceive everyone around her into believing she was black. She fashioned her hair like your stereotypical black woman, darkened her skin, changed the way she spoke, lied about her parentage, and so on. How can they claim that race is not a biological reality while also arguing Dolezal is white? They seem so invested in an idea they themselves admit is only real in the sense that human beings have been forced to fabricate it! But because so many people are so greatly invested in this notion of race, because they so fervently and genuinely believe in it’s existence, it is transformed, via a kind of racial prestidigitation, into a concrete reality that is also social construction. Dolezal’s critics are not the only ones committed to this conception of race. She seems equally invested in maintaining it, all the while devoting her life to championing equality based on a shared humanity that stands in opposition to claims that race is biological.

Liberal and progressive critics of Dolezal are not the only ones who make the case for some special category for race in America. This has been one of the most important issues for conservatives and right wingers. One can hear it even today in arguments in defense of Southern heritage, and criticism of the welfare state supposedly disproportionately benefiting minorities, with the implicit understanding being that they are inferior to whites and thus undeserving of the social contract; among a multitude of other arguments! So, not only have these so called liberals and progressives adopted such an intellectually ridiculous approach to these issues, they have made common cause with reactionaries! The very same people who must be fought tooth and nail for every inch of social progress. We must reject these conceptions once and for all. There is no legitimate basis for these arguments. These categories are merely the expression of class power by those who rule against those who are ruled. That is all race and gender have ever been, an ideological means to justify the location of a designated group of people within a particular exploitative social relationship. Listening to the critique of Dolezal from the left is very reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin’s complaints that German immigrants not being white enough.