The Moves We Make

One way sign covered in stickers

Prompted by the discussion surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP resignation, this series of posts is about how and when we take performativity seriously… and when it bows to interests in historical or experiential specificity.

If I’m counting, I’ve read exactly one smart thing about Rachel Dolezal on the internet—Adolph Reed Jr.’s “From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much” (thanks, Craig Martin, for directing my attention to it). In the piece, Reed says, among other things, that the distinction between trans people’s “involuntary” decision and Dolezal’s “active choice” where self-identification is concerned “is mind-bogglingly wrong-headed, but it is at the same time thus deeply revealing of the contradictoriness and irrationality that undergird so much self-righteous identitarian twaddle.” But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to explain why I think we should still even be talking about Rachel Dolezal, right?

When Dylann Roof shot nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the debate surrounding Dolezal’s inglorious resignation from the NAACP seemed comparatively pointless — political small potatoes in a racial landscape still so fraught in the U.S. that even someone as young as 21-year-old could be steeped in a quite literally fatal white supremacist narrative. Part of me sympathizes with the discursive turn away from Dolezal, finding much of the conversation about the story that scandalized her exhausting at best. It’s also easy to find the conversation frivolous in light of the devastating news out of Charleston. But inasmuch as both events rely upon essentialist understandings of race, I think it’s important for scholars to think about how such understandings operationalize and influence discourses on race and — consequently — choices people make based on those discourses. In that sense, the murders in Charleston make the discussion about how the phenomenon of Rachel Dolezal is made possible and about what’s at stake in how we talk about that phenomenon even more pressing.

With that in mind, I will turn to a perhaps initially unlikely source as a way in to thinking through some of these issues: namely, a short BBC feature last week about responses out of China to a Harvard study that found black people to be twice as likely as white people to have a genetic combination resulting in youthful-looking skin. While the study focused on genetic codes across black and white Americans, it particularly resonated in China, where (like in many other countries, to be sure) traditional definitions of beauty have relied on fair skin. And with millions of Chinese citizens taking to the internet to discuss the study, the proclamation of being “black and proud” arose in what to many might seem like a surprising context.

The quick BBC write-up is not at all a nuanced discussion of race and identification, offering simply a peek at what’s been trending in cyberspace. All the same, it gives us a really interesting moment to think about questions of who is given authority, by whom, to identify as what when and how. Is the donning of “Black is beautiful” rhetoric in China comparable at all to Rachel Dolezal’s own self-identification as black? Or does her situation warrant special critique because of her role as an activist in the NAACP? When exactly do certain boundaries of identity categories get invoked, policed, and/or reinforced?

The fact that there wasn’t a similar outcry against Caitlyn Jenner’s boundary traversal among left-leaning scholarly types should likewise offer an opportunity to think through some of these questions. Predictable pairings of Dolezal and Jenner have appeared in online commentaries, most chastising the former while celebrating the latter. Academic progressives, especially, who pride ourselves on our commitment to social constructivist views of identity formation, were surprisingly quick to call out Dolezal’s self-identification as disingenuous and praise Jenner’s self-awareness. The consistent thread in these responses, of course, is the touting of authenticity. Jenner became who she “really” is, and Dolezal ran away from it, the stories go, despite the personal performativity in both cases.

While we scholars cling to constructivist talk, it would seem the resonating definition of race remains one tethered to biology, and so the insistence on self-identification that often attends discourse on gender does not apply in matters of racial categories. In this way, Rachel Dolezal called our scholarly bluff. Strict constructivism is simple until someone tries to participate in what that constructivism allows. At that point, the strict policing of the boundaries of identification becomes evident. Invocations of personal experience and historical specificity present certain boundaries as categorically uncrossable and others as productively fluid. What this creates in the realm of popular political discourse, of course, is a gaggle of progressive bloggers and talking heads discussing the real locus of black identity and performance, perpetuating romanticized and reductive narratives about “black America.” Joan Walsh’s recent self-congratulatory Salon piece is a good example of this phenomenon.

It’s easy to think that a discussion of how people classify is simply mind-candy for academic elites, but the Charleston shooting is a prime example of the serious consequences acts of identification carry. I’m also reminded of this story related by Judith Butler about a young man who was killed because of his gait:

The sense of threat and panic elicited by this teenager’s way of walking reflects the tenuous nature of the normative boundaries he crossed. It is the very contingency of certain boundaries that require their constant policing. As Butler puts it in her essay “Critically Queer,” “The resignification of norms is thus a function of their inefficacy, and so the question of subversion, of working the weakness in the norm, becomes a matter of inhabiting the practices of its rearticulation” (26). Norms and boundaries that articulate dominant notions of gender or race have to be tenaciously repeated again and again, as they do not have a stable or inherent substance of their own. We perceive threat when the seams show in our invested presentations of identity categories as clear and experientially or biologically based (That’s part of why it’s easy to embrace Caitlyn Jenner — she conforms to traditional modes of femininity successfully enough to work a cover of Vogue). But to pretend such boundaries are obvious or knowable across time and space is to employ the same destructive logic as those who needed at a physical, visceral level to eradicate the possibility of a man walking with what they deemed a “feminine” style.

Butler calls our attention to the need for a more self-critical use of terminology where identity categories are concerned. Though she’s discussing the privileging of being “out,” the point is a valuable one when applied to other modes of self-identification as well:

As much as identity terms must be used, as much as ‘outness’ is to be affirmed, these same notions must become subject to a critique of the exclusionary operations of their own production: for whom is outness an historically available and affordable option? Is there an unmarked class character to the demand for universal ‘outness’? Who is represented by which use of the term, and who is excluded? For whom does the term present an impossible conflict between racial, ethnic, or religious affiliation and sexual politics? What kinds of policies are enabled by what kinds of usages, and which are backgrounded or erased from view? In this sense, the genealogical critique of the queer subject will be central to queer politics to the extent that it constitutes a self-critical dimension within activism, a persistent reminder to take the time to consider the exclusionary force of one of activism’s most treasured contemporary premises. (19)

When even a walk can be fatal, we should ask what kinds of moves people are allowed to make, both literally and figuratively… who can pass, and who is stopped (at times, dead) in their tracks.

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