Like everybody else, I’ve been following the controversy involving NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal who identifies as black despite her lack of African-American ancestors. A few quick thoughts:
1. I don’t know her life. In both the cases of Michael Lacour (he of the Science fraud) and Rachel Dolezal, I’ve been thinking a lot about journalist and humorist, Jon Ronson’s, new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (here, as an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine). Web 2.0 is technologically designed for cascades, for the viral. What serves to spread knowledge and empower, also serves as a powerful tool for ridicule, humiliation, and hatred. We should hold fraudsters accountable and make them answer for their behavior. But shaming is no pathway to understanding and reconciliation.
There’s certainly a place for expressing outrage and anger. But, as Jon Ronson told GQ online this week, there’s a big difference between Rachel Dolezal and the McKinney cop. Neither Lacour nor Dolezal are perpetrators of violence or hate speech. In Dolezal’s case, she has quite clearly done remarkable work to advance the black community and the cause of social justice.
Any scholar of restorative justice would say, let’s fully acknowledge the wrongdoing, but respect the wrongdoer’s human dignity and look for reasonable pathways by which s/he can be part of the restoration and healing process. It’s not what Twitter is built for, but let’s give it a try.
2. Speaking of accountability … icon of men’s fashion, Matt Lauer, made a real hash of his interview with Dolezal this morning because he seems to have an incredibly poor understanding of race and ethnicity. He let Dolezal off the hook by allowing her to say, “I identify as black,” without pressing her and asking, “What is your ancestry? What are their ethnic origins?” She would have been forced to acknowledge that her ancestors did not identify as black and are ethnically of European descent. Instead Lauer repeatedly used the term “Caucasian” — a sure sign you don’t “get” race and ethnicity — and allowed her to dodge the deeper question.
Here’s what Lauer should’ve asked: Race is a social construction, but also becomes “real” in people’s minds and its consequences. Our construction of race links blackness to African ancestry and a set of phenotypes. Is race fluid enough that people can opt to identify as a race without any of the ethnic background typically linked with the group? Moreover, is it wrong to adopt that identity without having the experiences of growing up black and as someone with the privilege to give it up at any time? In other words, he should’ve asked her to defend her conceptualization of race and answer for the moral issues with adopting it.
3. Identity or status? Lauer didn’t make Dolezal say it, but what she’s doing is treating race as a fluid identity and ignoring the fact that it’s also an ascribed status. Several people have pointed out why it was easy for her to do that and what’s wrong with doing it (and especially why it’s especially wrong that she adopted “peak blackness”). All of those points are right, but I also think it’s been made possible by a shift in our sociological thinking about race.
As a structural kind of a guy, I tend to think about race (along with gender, class, sexuality, etc.) as a status. It’s a status that is associated with an enormous wealth gap, a higher risk of victimization by police, experiencing discrimination in hiring practices, and so on. Admittedly, treating race as a status alone grants people little agency when we know that people also make meaning from and perform race in various ways. As a corrective to a narrowly status-based understanding, many scholars and activists have framed race/gender/sexuality (and, to a lesser extent, class) as identities — which they absolutely also are. We hear this perspective in phrases like “I identify as a man” rather than “I’m a man” or “I identify as a white” rather than “I’m white.” This move is an empowering one because it acknowledges our human agency. The risk of emphasizing the identity component over the status component is that we create the impression of unlimited agency and may not consider either the way society ascribes status or the moral implications of adopting particular identities (e.g., a person of European ancestry identifying as black, a person with only heterosexual relationships and desires identifying as “queer”).
Of course, both status and identity are real. To deny neither agency nor structure, we need to balance the two in conceptualizing race.