You Can’t Want What You Want

by Matt McKinnon

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I am somewhat taken aback by the national and international attention to the Rachel Dolezal story. When I first read of it (on the BBC website of all places) I was confused: why is this news, much less international news?

It has only gotten worse.

I shudder at what amounts to a feeding frenzy from both conservatives and progressives alike, with each new detail from her past trumped only by each successive interview she gives.

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But what I find fascinating is how we think of and treat the question of “race” itself. We know it’s not biologically “real,” that it is a social construct, that it is actually a relatively recent convention born out of a Modern misapplication of biology to earlier attempts at classification based first on language and later physical appearance.

Contemporary science no longer thinks in terms of “race” as a biologically-based set of qualities that separates groups of people used for taxonomic purposes. For science, “race” has been rendered antiquated at best and completely useless at worse.

We know all this.

Yet in most any given discussion of the Dolezal case, little of this subtlety ever seems to be displayed. Or when it is displayed, it carries relatively little weight, especially when, in the light of the very public transgendering of Caitlyn Jenner, the possibility of being “transracial” comes up and is summarily dismissed.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, a specialist in the psychology of race at the University of Illinois, explains the history of the idea of “transracial” in describing adoptions where children of one “racial category” are adopted by parents of another. These children are understood “to be spanning their own and their adoptive parents’ racial categories.” Thus these folks, he contends, are really “transracial.”

But the attempt to call Dolezal’s identity “transracial” and compare it to Bruce Jenner’s transgendering into Caitlyn Jenner is met with disapproval. Lyubansky continues:

This description…makes sense when describing both trans men and trans women, meaning that it fits equally well regardless of direction. Applying this concept to race makes little sense to me. ‘Trans’ refers to a lack of fit between biology and identity, but there is no biology involved in race.

Exactly. There is no biology involved in race the way there is biology involved in one’s sex: biology determines one’s sex while society and culture determine gender, and one’s gender identity is determined by him or herself. Gender identity is more like “race” in that it is a social (and psychological) construct: the issue for transgender people being that their biological sex does not match their gender identity.

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But then, why can’t “trans” here refer to a lack of fit between a social construct (race) and one’s racial identity? We are left wondering: maybe perhaps, because a social construct is harder to overcome?

If race is not based in biology and is completely and wholly a construct of society and culture, then why is it impossible to move within this social construct (from “black” to “white” or vice versa) and yet it is possible to move when the biological fact of one’s sex does not fit one’s identification of their gender?

As Lyubansky suggests: a transgendered person is “trans” in that her sex (male) does not correspond to her gender identity (female). She is really a woman, despite what her biology is. But, it seems, a transracial person cannot be “trans” in that her race (white) is not decided by biology but by social convention. And while this is not biology, is it something more?

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After all, no one with any sensitivity towards the trans community would ever suggest that a transgendered person is “pretending” to be someone she is not (charges many have levied against Dolezal) but rather is changing the appearance of her body to match her sexual identity—being who she really is despite her physiology—since who someone “really is” ultimately comes down to how they identify themselves, right? Like changing the physical appearance of one’s body to match one’s racial identity?

Not so fast.

Lyubansky argues that the application of “transracial” in the case of someone like Dolezal is “logically flawed and socially problematic in that it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgender and those who have had to live with real racial discrimination.”

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So the problem is not the biology of race, since there is no biological basis there. Nor is it the social construct of race itself (since gender is also a social construct), but rather the fact that this social construct has been used to oppress other groups by the dominant group.

But can’t this also be said of gender?

And moving from the dominant group to an oppressed group is “logically flawed and socially problematic” because it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgendered and those who have lived with racial discrimination. But a person who is biologically a man can become a woman because that is how she identifies herself even though some of the same dominance-oppression issues undoubtedly apply between male and female.

Something does not quite add up.

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I want to be clear here: I agree that a transracial move is socially problematic and that there may be more than a little “white privilege” at work in the concept of an avatar-like existence manifesting in any old racial group it likes, but I fail to see how it is illogical. Historically insensitive? Perhaps. Outside the norm? That too. But illogical? No, not if race really is just a social construct. After all, social constructs get deconstructed and reconstructed over time. And the growing acceptance of the transgendered community is a prime example. Race, in fact, is another.

It’s true that the specifics of this case are troubling, and I suspect there are some psychological issues that need to be addressed. I also don’t think Dolezal went about any of this in the right way (though I’m not sure what the right way would look like) and her past actions while at Howard (like suing the school for racial discrimination because she is white) leave her credibility more than a little questionable.

But this doesn’t get to the underlying idea: why switching sexual identification is possible, logical, and even socially acceptable but switching racial identification is not.

Unless we simply don’t want it to be.

Unless, regardless of the science involved, we really do think that race is more than biological, deeper than mere appearance or culture: based in our bodies and social histories and constitutive of who we are in a way that is even more basic than chromosomal. We seem to have an essentialist mentality when it comes to race, despite having dispensed long ago with “essences” in the way we think about things. Perhaps this “social construct” of race is so real (more real than biology in fact) that a person really is African American—or they are not, based not on identification, but rather on something more, something essential, something ontological that transcends an individual’s assent, choice, or identity.

This would explain the criticism directed towards folks our society identifies as African-American but who either don’t display the characteristics expected of them (Bryant Gumbel) or have the audacity to think of their identity in more complex terms (Tiger Woods). From this perspective, you cannot choose to be African-American any more than you can choose not-to-be—if indeed you really are African-American (a judgment left to society and not the individual).

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Lawrence of Arabia told us as much in the 1962 film of the same name while taking part (as a white Englishman) in the Arabian Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. While recovering after being flogged by Turkish soldiers who discovered he was white, T.E. Lawrence announces that he is leaving the revolt:

Lawrence: “I’m not the Arab revolt, Ali. I’m not even Arab.”
Ali: “A man can be whatever he wants. You said.”
Lawrence: “I’m sorry. I thought it was true.”
Ali: “You proved it.”
Lawrence: “Look, Ali. Look.” (Shows him his white skin.) “That’s me. What color is it? That’s me. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Ali: “A man can do whatever he wants. You said.”
Lawrence: “He can…but he can’t want what he wants.” (Still displaying his skin.) “This is the stuff that decides what he wants.”

This seems to be the way most of us tend to think about race, at least when we don’t really think too much about it: that there really is something physical if not biological about what it means to be African-American, or Arab, or white. Or rather that there is something more than physical that includes but goes deeper than appearance and determines one’s “race” and “racial identity,” something that, unlike sex and gender identity, we cannot escape or change.

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Ponder on that for a moment: Caitlyn Jenner can escape the misalignment of her sex and gender identity but Lawrence and Dolezal cannot escape the misalignment of their “race” and “racial identity.” That seems strange to me.

The fact of the matter is that most of our classification systems when it comes to humans are hopelessly flawed and messy, based in linguistics (Celtic, Germanic, Hispanic/Latino, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, etc…) but having outgrown their parochial origins to become descriptions of ethnic groups and the individuals who comprise them.

The uncomfortable truth seems to be that our society is wedded to race: that we are wedded to race. Oh sure, we may speak ill of it, admit that it is a social construct, deny that it is actually rooted in biology or science, pretend that we don’t see it, opine for a society that transcends it, and so on. But the fact is, we cling to it in an essentialist and ontological manner that says more about our own history, hang-ups, and issues than it does about any “real” identifiers.

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And the even more uncomfortable truth is that the idea of changing one’s racial identification seems absurd and illogical—more absurd and illogical than changing one’s sexual identification.

I cannot help but wonder if underlying this is the assumption that the real absurdity, the real illogicality is the suggestion that non-whites would ever be able to do this, or that most whites would want to.

I’ve noted in this forum before that Benjamin Franklin was opposed to the influx of Germans into “English” Pennsylvania, arguing that they could no more become “Anglified” than they could become “our Complexion” (southern Germans were regarded as “swarthy” and not “white”). But guess what? They did become Anglified as well as “white.” As did many other “ethnic” populations who were historically regarded as “not white”—Italians, Jews, Irish, Eastern Europeans. After all, social constructs change over time.

But I suspect that underneath the way most of us so easily cast off this idea of transracial identity lurks the notion that “white” is a pure category and that “real” non-whites (those of recent African descent and not Germans, or Jews, or Irish, or Italians) could never make the switch. It is not, as Lyubansky argues, applicable “regardless of direction.”

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Only certain light-skinned folks, this line of thinking goes, would be able to do it. Historically called “passing,” this in itself raises all sorts of issues about white hegemony and the effects it has on the psychology of being “non-white” in America. Furthermore, many would suggest that no sane white person would choose to identify as black for any other than sociological study (John Howard Griffin) or personal gain (the movie Soul Man unfortunately comes to mind). But then again, I wonder if not so long ago folks thought the same way about the idea of men identifying as women and women identifying as men. And yet, we are working to change those social constructs as well.

For now, however, it seems pretty clear: Rachel Dolezal, like Lawrence of Arabia, can do whatever she wants…

…but she cannot want what she wants.

We have bound ourselves to a social construct that is skin deep.

But made it so much more.

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