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The Blackface politics of Rachel Dolezal – The Feminist Wire

The Blackface politics of Rachel Dolezal

By Jasson Perez

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Rachel Dolezal

Three Days ago Kai M. Green wrote a provocative and important article titled “‘Race and Gender are not the same!’ is not a good response to the “Transracial”/Transgender or we can and we must do better.” In it Green pushes us all to be more robust in our thinking and approach about the relationship with race, gender and Blackness. I agree whole heartily with such a call. Still, I have some disagreements with the analysis and political claims that the article touched on and so I wanted to offer some of my responses.

“A person can indeed become black because race is historically, biologically, and socially constructed!”

But what if Blackness isn’t primarily a category of race and racialization. I think there are 3 compelling ways we can conceptualize it that isn’t primary to race:

  1. We can work from Hortense Spillers’ idea of Blackness formation in relation to slavery as the “zero degree of social conceptualization.” If we follow Spillers’ approach it opens a space where we think about Blackness outside of sociality (which begs social construction) and race.
  2. A 2nd way points to many aspects of Fred Moten’s theorizations of Blackness that seem to lean toward concepts that propose “blackness needs to be understood as operating at the nexus of the social and the ontological, the historical and the essential.” I think Moten’s stating of the ontological and essential as pushing us to think of Blackness as more than just race since race is typically thought of as being “historically, biologically, and socially constructed,” which then by default gives an element of always unessential and contingent rather than sometimes unessential and contingent. I use Moten’s conception particularly because I think it pushes against some of Michelle Wrights key claims in “the physics of Blackness,” which insists on a Blackness that can only be social, raced, contingent, fluid and untethered to the middle passage, whereas Moten seems to argue for a both/and. A Blackness that is social, raced, contingent fluid and untethered to the middle passage — but also essential, ontological, fixed and tethered to the middle passage (as history, structure and relation).
  3. I think a third compelling way of dislodging race as the main way to understand Blackness was put forth by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, which asks us think of Blackness as “a structural position, as an ontology, rather than an identity or sociological experience…the latter is usually what we mean when we say ‘race.’” Jackson’s reasoning for this approach to Blackness contrasts it to some of the problems we face when we just use race, identity and the social: “Too often our work is singularly focused on individual experience or relies on a Cartesian form of consciousness. Such work focuses on black people’s identities or stops at what black folks say about their experience without interrogating the conditions that make such speech possible and without interrogating the limits of consciousness itself. I worry that in this work, history and structure disappear. It is my view that the lives of black people of all genders are structured in the context of antiblack existential negation.”

All these approaches, I think, trouble the assumption we are taught — that Blackness is primarily a product of or in relation to race. I think what’s so compelling about this conversation is the possible push it can give us all to rethink core ideas around race, gender and Blackness. I think a possible reductionism occurs when we theorize race, gender and Blackness as operating in symmetrical power relations to one another instead of asymmetrical power relations to each other. I think this idea of asymmetrical power relations between race, gender and Blackness can occur without falling into an analysis that begs for a “hierarchy of oppression” or becomes another iteration of “oppression Olympics.”

“What do your politics look like? And what kind of work do you do?”

Ones politics and work are important and I definitely feel that. And building community and space in that manner is important, but I believe peoples concerns around Rachel are not about identitarian allegiance over politics but about the disrupting of fictive kinship bonds that Blackness is built upon in the name of practicing a racial justice politics. Meaning, people who are criticizing her are questioning her very pursuit of politics within a context that harkens to Blackface rather than passing and becoming.

“Some people do have a privileged relationship to blackness.”

I understand privilege to mean: gaining power at the expense of another’s power systemically. I don’t know of any instance where Black person gain power at the expense of another non Black due to simply being Black and it not be attached to how they were located in other categories (such as gender, color, ability, class, migrant status, etc). Meaning, no data around race shows Blacks as a whole or even in blips accruing social, political, economic and/or political power at the expense of other non-Black people. Studies only show such a power deferential occurring intra-racially. But even on the non-data end I think reasonable post positivist assertions can be made that light skin folks such as myself derive privilege (power accrued at the expense of another) from how non Black we appear, not because we are Black per se. What I am trying to push back on is the idea that Blackness has the power to afford one the ability to dominate, exploit or oppress non-Black people, which is what I understand privilege to derive from. In Kai’s article, I am sensing an idea of privilege that wants to speak to the value of Blackness, which is important, but I’m sure that if one finds value or are valued due to their Blackness (to the point of accruing benefits), that accounts for a moment of privilege, particularly because there is no systemic accrual of such benefits.

“Dolezal reinforces and reiterates that black is a category that we all have the ability to move in and out of to a certain extent.”

We maybe better served to ask how did Dolezal do this though? Wasn’t what she did only of the performative, social and cultural realm? Is it that, to be Black in this world one only needs to occupy the performative, social and cultural realm of Blackness? Aren’t systemic location and structural position also important to the category of Blackness?

 “But there are people who are continuously questioned because their skin is of a lighter hue.”

But what is wrong with such questioning, specially when we take into account people of lighter complexion get less incarceration, better pay, etc.? Couldn’t one argue such questioning is about testing ones loyalty to the fictive kinship of Blackness since the more one makes and gains in status the less likely they are to live in Black dominant neighborhoods and be apart of Black dominant institutions? Light skin folks being questioned (which definitely happens to me, being light skin and all) could also be read as an accountability mechanism for the relative privileged life one lives in relation to other brown and dark hued Black folks. More importantly though, I think it’s important to hold on to an analysis that overall being light skin is a privileged status. This is different from being Black Transgender, a Black women and/or Black Queer where questions around Black authenticity occur to reinforce the violence of heteropatriarchy and heterosexism, therefore  maintaining privileged heteronormative power relations.

“We also already know that racial passing has been going on since race was constructed, and no it wasn’t only black people passing for or becoming white. It was white people passing for or becoming a whole host of things (which included white too). When does passing stop being passing and become being?”

I don’t think passing ever stops being passing. What Kai is proposing is that Rachel was attempting to pass, which ignores the structural and systemic power dynamics at play. His example seems to strip the politics of passing of its specific racial context and history. Passing narratives usually center on how the person recognizes and knows they are of one race (a race that causes them some form of systemic and structural domination or oppression), yet feels the need and desires to be another race in order to achieve what those in domination claim is “the better life.” They are usually looking to pass as those who are deemed dominant.

Becoming narratives in the spectrum of sexuality to gender, I understand to be primarily situated in a questioning of what one really is. They are mainly anchored in questions of being/beings and being-ness. Within becoming narratives there isn’t an element of passing as it relates to oneself as an internal reflection. The politics of passing apply in these narratives in the quest to avoid the violence due to the fact that they live in a cis-ist and heterosexist world. So I think the questions become: 1) Does Rachel live in a world that is anti white and needed to pass for Blacks to live a “better life”? 2) Does Rachel live in a world where in her quest to “become” Black, Black people would commit violence towards her, therefore having to practice a “politics of passing” in order to be the person she felt she was becoming?

These to me speak to the divide between passing and becoming — the relationship and context of structural violence to when one is practicing a politics of passing and becoming. Both becoming and passing are narratives and practices about circumventing structures of violence/s. In Rachel’s story, what structure of violence is she seeking to escape that is doing harm via domination and oppression to her? White Supremacy? Anti Blackness? Black structural killings of people who try to pass as Black? I am at a loss trying to find a structure of violence that warranted classifying Rachel’s story as passing or becoming.

This is in fact is a story of wearing Blackface. I use Blackface to describe what she did because it actually accounts for her relationship to power and the choices she was making to maintain and accrue power. It also accounts for relationships to structures of violence, particularly, and for this context, white supremacy and anti Blackness. Within her context, Rachel was always the privileged and dominant subject. This is different from the power dynamics and structures of violence that undergird a cis-ist and heterosexist world that makes a gender non confirming or queer person an un-privileged and dominated subject.

So what does transformative justice look like in this situation?

I think on the micro level the beginning of it looks like Rachel admitting, apologizing and making amends for the harms she has done – in particular to Black women (cis and trans), acknowledging the place of privilege and power she came from in doing what she did and the violence it caused. I think overall, for us as Black people in this context and in relation to this situation, I would say she (and we) need/s to rethink and reimagine the fact and fictions of Blackness and how race and gender relate to it. It will take some science fiction, social fiction, radical imagining, but it will also take intense, manic commitment to analysis, concepts, frameworks and methods that hold accountable the structures of violence and domination in our lives. Such an approach can maybe be the beginning of some semblance of Transformative justice.


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Jasson Perez currently serves as a National Co-Chair of BYP100, Black Youth Project’s organization of young Black activists working to build a transformative justice movement that centers on a Black, feminist, queer, differently abled, de-colonial politics. He is also working towards a BA in Economics and Black Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. He is a rapper with BBU, a group rooted in the freedom and defiance aesthetics of Black Power Movement music and lives at Stone Soup Housing Cooperative where he and his daughter collectively build community and work towards social justice. Previously, he worked as a labor organizer with SEIU Local 73, working with the support staff at Chicago Public Schools in the fight against school closings since 2004 when CPS announced Renaissance 2010.

1 Comment

  1. Gabriel Chillag

    June 17, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    there is no such thing as “blackness” it is completely contrived from cultural imagery, like the “emo” or “hippie” or “punk” from high-school, its just the way they dress and the way they talk, the music they listen to. in reality all human beings are exactly the same.