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.
Race, as many have pointed out for years, is not biological. This point raises questions about the basis on which it is determined. Is it ancestry, appearance, cultural practice, or something else? That complicated question has come to greater prominence in light of the media circus around Rachel Dolezal and her assertion of an African-American identification. While discussions of Dolezal often focus on the process of self-identification and strategic choices made in relation to that self-identification, I want to focus, instead, on the strategic nature of the act of ascribing identification to someone else.
The effort to police the boundaries of any community employs strategic arguments, even if the community presumes a basis in ancestry, not personal choice. Oftentimes, people who maintain the boundaries of the group strategically consider ideology as a part of their acceptance or rejection of community members. We frequently see this in national and partisan contexts. Ideology determines if someone has “American values” (whatever that means to the speaker) or is a RINO (Republican in Name Only), but such strategic efforts to control thought also come into play in identifications such as racial and ethnic identifications, which both have an presumption of ancestry/birth but have been constructed in differing ways historically.
One statement from a colleague of Dolezal caught my attention in this regard. The Director of the Africana-education program at Eastern Washington University reportedly asserted that Dolezal fit an identification as African-American, explaining “There was this apparent connection in life experiences, not just ideology.” Clearly, ideology was not the final arbiter of her being recognized as African-American, but her performance of an African-American identification was easier to accept because her ideological assertions fit with a particular, though not universal, understanding of African-American ideologies.
Such efforts are certainly not limited to African-American communities. In the study of India, for example, some individuals and groups, including some nationalists, argue that only an insider, someone having an Indian heritage, should teach about the country. (Of course, that assumes a singular Indian heritage, in contrast to the diversity of tribes noted in the map above from 1882.) What becomes more interesting, however, is the strategic application of this principle. When these groups engage individual scholars, that ethnic rule becomes central when a scholar whom they do not recognize as having an Indian ancestry expresses something that they find objectionable. In other cases, it becomes less important than the scholar’s conclusions. They quickly reject scholars whom they recognize as having ancestry in India but whose conclusions challenge elements of Indian history or culture in ways that these individuals and groups do not appreciate. These scholars are then dismissed for succumbing to an American or European imperialist mindset. At the same time, some scholars whose ethnic heritage does not appear to be Indian become accepted because their assumptions and conclusions fit the interests of those judging. So the emphasis on a particular heritage is employed when it is convenient for their ideological purposes but ignored when it does not promote their conception ideologically.
The recognition of an ethnic or racial identification often is strategic, like other aspects of identification. As those wishing to claim the identification sometimes experience pressure to conform to particular ideological positions, presented as orthodoxy by some in the community, their own performance of their identification extends beyond the physical actions/appearance to incorporate ideological positions. In that manner, the power to recognize, reject, or ignore identifications in others becomes a power to enforce particular thoughts.
Image: 1882 Map of the Tribes of India courtesy of The British Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons