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Will the Rachel Dolezal Story Be A Nail In The Coffin Of Identity Politics?

June 14, 2015

Last week the internet was on fire with the question “what makes a woman?” Over the last two days, the case of Rachel Dolezal, has shifted the focus to what makes a white woman, or what makes a black woman. We must not equate the acceptance of transwomen with the feigning of a racial identity, nor should we impose the language of transgender and cisgender onto discussions about racial identity and categorization. But we must absolutely be willing to discuss and analyze what it means to say that race and gender are socially constructed.

To say that something like gender or race is a social construction is not to say that it is imaginary or entirely arbitrary. Social constructions depend on deeply reinforced patterns that are created and recreated over time. They also change over time, and often as a result of the concerted efforts of organized movements. The language we use to talk about race has changed as organized groups have demanded recognition, self-determination, and dignity. Even official categories of race – that is the number of races officially recognized and the labels we give them have changed over the centuries. In 1790, the official count of people in the US included the following categories: free white males, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves. A hundred years later, in 1890, the categories looked like this: White, Black (3/4th or more “black blood”), Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”), Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”), Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”), Indian, Chinese, Japanese. The year 2000 was the first time the Census Bureau allowed people to claim more than one race, and about 2% of the population did so. By then the racial categories looked like this: White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian (a category which allows the respondent to choose between Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, or Other Asian); Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (which also allows the resident to choose between Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian or Chamorro, or Other Pacific Islander); and Some Other Race.

Obviously the way we construct race changes. The impact of race and racism on the lives of people also changes over time. Slavery, mass incarceration, police brutality, residential segregation, voter disenfranchisement, employment discrimination, the school-to-prison pipeline, poverty … none of these are race-neutral, none is exactly the same today as it was 50, 100 or 200 years ago, and none is the result of some intrinsic product of that cluster of physically observable characteristics that we use to lump people into racial categories. Each is instead the product of a hierarchical system that puts light skinned people who are identified as white on the top of the heap when it comes to ownership of property, educational and occupational opportunity, and access to civil and human rights. In a society like this one, with many multiracial residents, it is a system that also produces colorism among people categorized by whites as blacks, where lighter skinned blacks are granted more privilege than darker skinned blacks, evidence that the impact of race even within a group or category is not uniform. This system is called white supremacy and it is a system that is maintained by the concerted efforts of economic, political, and media elites. Because it is a system constructed and maintained by the concerted efforts of some, it can be dismantled though the concerted efforts of the rest of us, if we choose.

What stops us? I think that identity politics is one of the culprits. By identity politics I don’t mean whole movements whose goal is to help a particular community or category of people. I mean the movement strategy of organizing around identities rather than around concrete social change goals. As movements have increasingly focused on organizing based on identification by group and as those groups have become increasingly fragmented and then remixed, we’ve become increasingly unable to do much more than tinker with systems of power, achieving liberal changes where we achieve change at all. Nowhere is this more visible than in LGBT rights movement. Meanwhile, we’ve been losing ground around core justice issues like wage inequality, reproductive justice, and civil liberties.

One alternative is to organize around those core justice issues themselves. Racial justice, labor, and reproductive justice movement organizations have done a better job at this than LGBT organizations. The reason that I so admire the organizers behind the #blacklivesmatter and #sayhername hashtags used to coordinate opposition to state violence against people of color is that they understood that, unlike the “#iam{name of most recent victim}” frame, the #blacklivesmatter and #sayhername frames don’t depend on people to share an identity. Instead, they require people to acknowledge a fundamental truth. Rather than connecting people based on identity or solidarity, they connect people based on a shared moral outrage about a particular injustice – in this case the devastating devaluing of the lives of black men and women (whether cisgender or transgender) – that the organizers are trying to address.

Another great example is the organizing around raising the minimum wage. “Fight For $15” is largely the work of labor organizations but is absolutely about addressing wage inequality that disproportionately affects people of color.

One danger of organizing in the way I am suggesting, of course, is that white professional-class men and women take control of the organizations working for change, and reproduce white supremacy within them. The recent scandal at HRC, and the LGBT rights movement’s tunnel-vision focus on marriage equality are good examples of what happens even within an identity-oriented movement when this is allowed to happen. If we take the approach I’m suggesting, we have to work hard to make sure that working class people, poor people, people of color, incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people, disabled people, queer people and others who are routinely marginalized are identified as leaders within our movements, guiding the agendas rather than being silenced or pushed to the sidelines. I was excited and encouraged to see the young organizers from Ferguson Action take over the stage during Al Sharpton’s speech at the Millions March rally last December. Clearly they are not willing to let their movement be taken over by the professionals. We in the sexual rights movements could learn a lot from the way that racial justice organizers are doing their work.

I don’t know the real story behind Rachel Dolezal’s identification as a black woman, though I suspect we will know more soon. I know that based on early reports it appears that she is using the lingering effects of white privilege gained earlier in her life in order to take a leadership role in an organization that could otherwise be held by a person of color whose voice needs to be recognized. Those same reports, though, make it seem as though Rachel Dolezal has been living as a light-skinned, highly educated, professionally successful black woman for several years, and not just putting on an identity whenever it suited her and taking it off when it doesn’t. Her experience is clearly not the same as most black women in the United States, but then, as with gender, there is no single essentialist black identity, and I’d be surprised if anybody truly wants to argue for reinstituting definitions of racial purity. What people want is to prevent the appropriation of their histories and cultures by those who would co-opt them. Class, gender, skin tone, education, and location all intersect in ways that mitigate or exacerbate the impact of racial injustice and white supremacy on people of color. Whatever her story, I wish Dolezal been invested in accounting for the privilege she had as a white woman and doing her antiracism work from that position. We need more whites actively engaged in anti-racism work.

White supremacist capitalist patriarchy is a very real, intentionally constructed system of power, and it needs to be dismantled. As I said earlier in the week, that will be easier to do if we are committed to common goals. We must honor, rather than appropriate, the histories and identities of those who belong to communities of color. We must understand that we are not all equally affected by injustice but that injustice needs to be fought regardless. We can start by taking a page from the labor movement and reminding ourselves that an injury to one is an injury to all.



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