Saturday, June 20, 2015

 

Adolph Reed, Jr. on the Dolezal Affair

Years ago I was honored to unexpectedly be asked to share a speaker's platform with Adolph Reed, Jr. at a labor conference. I had admired his writing for some time. While I don't fully endorse all of his positions, I still think he has one of the most compelling approaches to class and race in American discourse and sheds more light than heat (and, believe me, he puts out a lot of heat) on the Rachel Dolezal affair. Below are a few excerpts from his "From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much".


By far the most intellectually and politically interesting thing about the recent "exposé" of Spokane, WA, NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal’s racial status is the conundrum it has posed for racial identitarians who are also committed to defense of transgender identity. ... Their contention is that one kind of claim to an identity at odds with culturally constructed understandings of the identity appropriate to one’s biology is okay but that the other is not ...

***

This brings me to the most important point that this affair throws into relief. It has outed the essentialism on which those identitarian discourses rest ... The essentialism cuts in odd ways in this saga. Sometimes race is real in a way that sex is not – you’re black only if you meet the biological criteria (whatever they’re supposed to be) for blackness. 

***

There is a guild-protective agenda underlying racial identitarians’ outrage about Dolezal that is also quite revealing ... The charge is what those making it want to be true; they assume it’s true because they understand black racial classification as a form of capital.

*** 

... the Dolezal issue has captured such attention only because it rankles the sensibilities of those who essentialize race ...

***

... race politics is ... the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.

***

... the more aggressively and openly capitalist class power destroys and marketizes every shred of social protection working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations have fought for and won over the last century, the louder and more insistent are the demands from the identitarian left that we focus our attention on statistical disparities and episodic outrages that "prove" that the crucial injustices in the society should be understood in the language of ascriptive identity.

***

The fundamental contradiction that has impelled the debate and required the flight into often idiotic sophistry is that racial identitarians assume, even if they give catechistic lip service ... to the catchphrase that "race is a social construction," that race is a thing, an essence that lives within us.

***

The transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies. There is no coherent, principled defense of the stance that transgender identity is legitimate but transracial is not, at least not one that would satisfy basic rules of argument. The debate also throws into relief the reality that a notion of social justice that hinges on claims to entitlement based on extra-societal, ascriptive identities is neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness. In insisting on the political priority of such fictive, naturalized populations identitarianism meshes well with neoliberal naturalization of the structures that reproduce inequality.

Reed concludes his article by saying: "It may be that one of Rachel Dolezal’s most important contributions to the struggle for social justice may turn out to be having catalyzed, not intentionally to be sure, a discussion that may help us move beyond the identitarian dead end." I really hope that's true but, sadly, I see very little evidence of it.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

 

Rachel Dolezal, Passing, & White Self-Hatred

Rachel Dolezal
Right: Rachel Dolezal poses in front of a mural she painted at the Human Rights Education Institute offices in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Nicholas K. Geranios/AP 

On June 11, 2015, the Coeur d' Alene Press broke the story that the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, had woven a web of lies in order to falsely present herself as a Black woman. In a testament to the highly charged and contested nature of modern racial discourse the story has since "Gone viral" and international.

The phenomenon of so-called light-skinned Black people "passing as White" has long been a source of curiosity to me. If someone has so much non-African ancestry that they appear to the casual observer as White and they have/have adopted "White" cultural values and behaviors—whatever those may be—then who is to say they are not White? Do we take the White racist's and/or the Black racist's word for this?

Of course, it is true that the "one-drop rule" was a creation of White people made for enforcing slavery and later Jim Crow but now it seems just as many, if not more, Black people accept it (see, e.g. a recent Atlanta Blackstar photo gallery with the contradictory title "9 Black Celebrities Who Rejected The One Drop Rule" and especially the photo captions for Devyn (#2) and Zoe Saldana (#5)). It is in no small part because many Black people embrace the one-drop rule or some version of it that Rachel Dolezal was able to "pass as Black," apparently, for years.

This Black and White madness over racial identity leads to other bizarre outcomes. So, on The Atlantic we have Baz Dreisinger, author of Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture, telling an interviewer: "The earliest cases [of Whites passing for Black] that I look at are from the slave era. There are cases of white people who are kidnapped and sold into slavery, and which therefore are cases of involuntary passing." While on Slate, Jamelle Bouie writes:
Of course there were also black Americans who could pass but chose to stay in the black community. Walter Francis White led the national staff of the NAACP for nearly a quarter-century, from 1931 to 1955. The child of formerly enslaved people, White looked, well, white. And yet he chose blackness. "I am a Negro," he wrote in his autobiography A Man Called White. "My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me."
White is Bouie's example of a Black American who stayed Black. Bouie nowhere admits the possibility, if not fact, that the obviously European traits of White's race were quite visible upon him. Instead, implicitly, slavery is equated with Blackness (because there was no such thing as White slaves in the antebellum South, right?) and the one-drop rule is affirmed.

So why did Rachel Dolezal decide to deceive people about her identity? If anyone knows for sure, and that's not clear, it would be Rachel Dolezal herself. However, there are some interesting possibilities to consider. First, as Baz Dreisinger claims: "Anytime you're talking about the cultural domain, it certainly can be advantageous to pass as black." Dolezal is a talented artist whose work seemingly has mostly African-American themes. So there's that.

Second, and this is the one I find more compelling, there's the possibility that Dolezal is a victim of self-hatred for being White. As David Smedley, a Howard University associate professor, who was Dolezal's Master of Fine Arts thesis adviser told the Washington Post:
" 'White' people who have inherited a privileged place in society seemingly have just two choices: stay ignorant, accept and continue to justify the delusion that America is and always has been great and democratic; or do some research and then feel the heavy guilt and shame upon discovering the ugly truth about the systemic unfairnesses that their ancestors perpetuated.

"Neither of these are healthy, and I suspect that this isn't the last time we will see another white person chose to switch sides."
One need not accept Prof. Smedley's beliefs lock, stock, and barrel to see that there's more than a grain of truth to what he says about the choices White people are presented with in terms of how they see themselves. More evidence for this perspective comes from Dolezal's adopted Black brother, Ezra Dolezal. According to CNN:
Dolezal's time at predominantly black Howard University may have been a major turning point in her transformation, her adopted brother said.
"When she applied they thought she was a black student," he said. "When she came there, they saw she was white and she wasn't treated that well, especially by people that worked there. She probably started developing this kind of dislike for being white and dislike for white people. She used to tell [her Black adopted brother] Izaiah ... that all white people are racists. She might have developed some self-hatred."
Rachel Dolezal unsuccessfully "sued Howard for discrimination in 2002, the year she graduated from the historically black college with a Master of Fine Arts degree." If her brother is correct, then Rachel Dolezal would not be the first person to internalize perceived and/or actual discrimination and bias as self-hatred. In the case of White people like Dolezal there is also the poisonous concept of trans-generational collective guilt for the past sins—real or imagined—of others.

If the story of Rachel Dolezal is a case of self-hatred then one can hope that she will examine the lies and distortions that led her to this point and reject and combat them. She doesn't need the people who she may have thought needed or wanted her to be Black and there are probably far more Black and other people than she imagined who would have embraced her openly as an artist and humans rights activist who is White.

I want to shift now to the comparisons of Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner. As Nick Gillespie writes: "... what conservatives dig most about Dolezal is that she is a punchline regarding not racial misrepresentation but gender identity. Hence, conservative folks are using Dolezal's unmasking to yet again mock Caitlyn Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and reality TV star formerly known as Bruce." I agree but I also think it overstates the case to say that "There is no comparison between transgender people and Rachel Dolezal", as does the title to a Guardian article by Meredith Talusan.

Talusan, who is transgender, claims:
The fundamental difference between Dolezal's actions and trans people's is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people's decision to transition is almost always involuntary. Transitioning is the product of a fundamental aspect of our humanity – gender – being foisted upon us over and over again from the time of our birth in a manner inconsistent with our own experience of our genders. Doctors don't announce our race or color when we are born; they announce our gender. People who are alienated from their presumed gender and define themselves according to another gender have existed since earliest recorded history; race is a medieval European invention. Thus, Dolezal identified as black, but I am a woman, and other trans people are the gender they feel themselves to be.
I wonder how fully Dolezal experiences/ed her decision to pass as Black as voluntary. And "our race or color" is frequently determined when we are born by our parents or a bureaucrat via a birth certificate. Talusan's insistence that she is different from Dolezal because "I am a woman" strikes me as a case of protesting too much. Mind you, I'm not disputing her claim to being a woman, it's her vehemence in the service of criticizing another that I find troubling.

I suppose I am more, though not fully, in agreement with Camille Gear Rich, who, in "Rachel Dolezal has a right to be black", writes: "The central issue that separates Jenner's and Dolezal's choices is deception. Jenner chose carefully how and when she would disclose herself as actually female." In Dolezal's case I think the problem with the deception is that it was active rather than passive and she hitched that deception to her status as a Black community leader.

If Bruce Jenner had long ago ceased to have been a recognizable celebrity would Caitlyn Jenner then have any blanket obligation to out herself as transgender to anyone? No, but I think she would have an ethical obligation not to deliberately mislead people into thinking she'd had a girlhood or the lived social and biological experience of a typical natal female, except when her safety or well-being was at stake. To be clear, in light of the violence and discrimination faced by transgender people when I speak of deliberate deception I'm talking about steps akin to what Dolezal did—inventing a fake father, presenting her adopted siblings as her own children, and, possibly, falsifying hate crimes.

Camille Gear Rich writes: "People allow Caitlyn Jenner to change because she has some biological basis for believing she is female. But is this all identity is? Are we prepared to accept the implications of this view?" She raises a good point but I would go further, I've never been fully convinced by the science suggesting that biology is behind transgender (or LGB) identity.

Mostly, the studies I've read (admittedly quite a few years ago now) fail to address the question of causality: Are you transgender because your biology is different from a non-trans person's or is your biology different because you're transgender? Often, due to small sample sizes and ambiguous findings, they also fail to convincingly show that there actually is a biological difference. In any case, while I'm willing to go wherever the evidence leads, I also think it should be kept in mind that biological explanations are potentially dangerous.

See also:

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Sunday, June 07, 2015

 

Quotable: Jews, Christianity, & Porn

... Jewish involvement in the X-rated industry can be seen as a proverbial two fingers to the entire WASP establishment in America. Some porn stars viewed themselves as frontline fighters in the spiritual battle between Christian America and secular humanism. According to [Luke] Ford*, Jewish X-rated actors often brag about their 'joy in being anarchic, sexual gadflies to the puritanical beast'. Jewish involvement in porn, by this argument, is the result of an atavistic hatred of Christian authority: they are trying to weaken the dominant culture in America by moral subversion. ... Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw, said (on lukeford.net), 'The only reason that Jews are in pornography is that we think that Christ sucks. Catholicism sucks. We don't believe in authoritarianism.' Pornography thus becomes a way of defiling Christian culture and, as it penetrates to the very heart of the American mainstream (and is no doubt consumed by those very same WASPs), its subversive character becomes more charged. ...

It is a case of the traditional revolutionary/radical drive of immigrant Jews in America being channelled into sexual rather than leftist politics. Just as Jews have been disproportionately represented in radical movements over the years, so they are also disproportionately represented in the porn industry.

* Elsewhere in the article Ford is referred to by the author as an "Orthodox Jew and porn gossipmonger".

Source: Nathan Abrams. "Triple-exthnics". Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2004). No. 196, p. 30.

Ron Jeremy as Jesus in the 2012 film Bloody Bloody Bible Camp.
Nathan Abrams calls Jeremy "The doyen of the Hebrew
studs ... one of America's biggest porn stars." Note: I have not
seen the film and cannot confirm this image appears in it.

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

 

Quotable: Most Pernicious

The most pernicious image of all is the anarchist-hero figure. A creation of commodity culture, he allows us to buy into an inauthentic simulation of revolutionary praxis. The hero encourages passive spectating and revolt becomes another product to be consumed.

Source: Character of King Mob in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles: Counting to None (New York: DC Comics, 1999) p. 213.


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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

 

Quotable: Banking & War

One element, however, tends to go flagrantly missing in even the most vivid conspiracy theories about the banking system, let alone in official accounts: that is, the role of war and military power. There's a reason why the wizard has such strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there's a man with a gun.

True, in one sense, he's been there from the start. I have already pointed out that modern money is based on government debt, and that governments borrow money in order to finance wars. This is just as true today as it was in the age of King Phillip II. The creation of central banks represented a permanent institutionalization of that marriage between the interests of warriors and financiers that had already begun to emerge in Renaissance Italy, and that eventually became the foundation of financial capitalism.

Source: David Graeber. Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House Publishing, 2011) p. 364.

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Quotable: Conspiracy

An intelligence service is the ideal vehicle for a conspiracy. Its members can travel about at home and abroad under secret orders, and no questions are asked. Every scrap of paper in the files, its membership, its expenditure of funds, its contacts, even enemy contacts, are state secrets.

Source: Allen Dulles, US Director of Central Intelligence (1953-1961) as quoted in James Srodes, Allen Dulles: Master of Spies (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1999) p. 252.

See also:

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