In his article on Rachel Dolezal, the Washington activist, Gary Younge acknowledges that ‘People ‘passing’ for one race, when they are in fact another, has a long tradition in America.’ Dolezal, president of the Spokane NAACP and professor of Africana studies, and prominent anti racist activist, has been in the news because her parents have claimed that she is of white heritage and has been trying to ‘pass herself off’ as a person of colour. Her mother Rutheanne Dolezal told a local TV station that ‘Rachel has wanted to be somebody she’s not. She’s chosen not to just be herself, but to represent herself as an African American woman or a bi-racial person and that’s simply not true.’ Her adopted brother Ezra claimed to BuzzFeed that Rachel, prior to leaving for Washington, told him: ‘Over here, I’m going to be considered black, and I have a black father. Don’t blow my cover.’
Younge’s piece also mentions Philip Roth’s The Human Stain – about a black classicist who takes himself and is taken for others as white, and lives a successful life until he is destroyed by a scandal that erupts when a throwaway remark in class is misconstrued as a racial slur. When I first read the novel, I thought the premise unlikely. How can you disguise your ethnicity? Then I saw, in John Farrell’s biography of Clarence Darrow, an account of the attorney’s meeting with NAACP activists about the Ossian Sweet trial.
Springarn and Studin were dark-complexioned white men, and White was a light-complexioned black man. As Darrow told him of his reluctance to take the case he turned to Springarn and assured him: ‘I know full well the difficulties faced by your race.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Darrow,’ Springarn said. ‘I am not a Negro.’
‘Well, you understand what I mean,’ he told Studin.
‘I am not colored either,’ Studin replied.
With a certain degree of exasperation, Darrow turned to White. ‘I wouldn’t make the same mistake with you,’ he told the blond-haired black man.
‘I smiled and told him I was colored,’ White recalled.
The point Younge took from Roth’s novel is that ‘When you pass from one racial domain to another, you’re supposed to slam the door shut behind you and throw away the key. You say goodbye not just to the boxes you ticked but the people you knew, including family.’ Reading between the lines, Dolezal’s family life is, at best, difficult. The Guardian report says Dolezal ‘told local media she is not in touch with the couple because of an ongoing lawsuit, and that she does not view them as her real parents.’
The NAACP have issued a statement saying that ‘One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.’ It is not yet clear that any ‘misrepresentation’ has taken place. So why the accusatory, even jeering tone of the comment surrounding this affair? Younge writes that ‘It is a cardinal rule of social identity that people have the right to call themselves whatever they want… But with this right comes at least one responsibility: what you call yourself must be comprehensible to others.’ (He adds that: ‘Right now, one can only speculate to her motivations.’)
The NAACP statement is in line with Dr King’s great universalist tradition. You would think that as we reached the twenty first century that society would become more fluid and the old poisons of community, faith and flag would lessen in significance. And indeed most people today don’t self-define in the way that patriarchs and community leaders would like us to. Yet the opposite has happened in our society where identity has become aggravated and essentialised and blown out of all proportion. Political parties hold gender segregated meetings, racist myths proliferate, contradictions between religious tradition and basic universal rights are tiptoed around. Borders fly up around liberal democracies so that immigrants are left to drown in the sea for the political crime of fleeing oppression. Politicians say that the problem with Britain is that we have lost a unifying identity. They’re wrong. We have too much identity and not enough of anything else. Think of all the times you hear ‘pretentious’ used as an insult. But what kind of world would it be if no one ever pretended to be anything they weren’t?
All of which makes the Dolezal coverage, to me at least, seem nasty and hectoring. How dare you slam the door. How dare you forget where you come from. How dare you cut us off. How dare you reinvent yourself. Everybody knows. The worst of this is the implication that Dolezal lied about receiving death threats. ‘She made herself into a martyr on purpose for people to feel sorry for her and to help her,’ her brother says. Does he imagine that now that his sister has been ‘outed’ as ‘white’ the professional organised US Neo-Nazi movement will leave her alone? (As the late lamented Christopher Hitchens observed: ‘It especially annoys me when racists are accused of ‘discrimination.’ The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members on one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.’)
Gary Younge quotes the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah: ‘The reasonable middle view is that constructing an identity is a good thing … but that the identity must make some kind of sense.’ I’ve yet to meet a human being I can say that about.