It is our deep debt to Rachel Dolezal that her behavior, whatever one may think of it, has triggered one of the deepest debates about race in America that we’ve seen in years. This is one of those rare occasions where I don’t feel the need to set the whole world straight in light of its silliness: most of the salient issues are on the table and the discussion has been surprisingly diverse and complex. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.
I don’t aspire to the definitive response here; I merely wish to highlight some points that I think have been not sufficiently emphasized thus far. But before I get to that, let me say that Ms. Dolezal has all my sympathies, and that my sympathy is not contingent upon her being a perfect person: only fanatics demand perfection.
The first large issue in our story is the tension between two conflicting conceptions of what race is, and the fact that our politics are driven, not by a disagreement over this, but over the fact that both sides (crudely, liberal and conservative) are committed to some degree to both of them at the same time. There’s a reason for that: it enables people to hold others accountable for what is within their control while excusing what isn’t–unless your thing is to excuse what is within people’s control while simultaneously holding people accountable for what isn’t. Ambiguity is nice that way: it’s adaptable.
The first is the question of whether race is a natural category or not. Let’s be clear: you could lie about many things related to your self, your life history, etc., but you cannot be caught out in a lie of having concealed your real race if there are no such things as real races. If a lie is involved here, it will have to be about something else. Although it is seldom expressed openly on the conservative side, I think there is evidence that liberals, following a train of biological research (alas, decades out of date) and a train of sociological research (happily, not out of date at all), believe that race is some sort of myth, and yet somehow racial status gets attached to people by social processes which are caught up in the oppression of some by others on the basis of this ascribed status. This in turn justifies a raft of moral and political stances. Conservatives, by contrast, seem to silently think that the biological status of race is a no-brainer. While this is seldom stated openly (discussing the biological basis of race is one of the few things that can get you ostracized from movement conservatism) the reaction of many conservative pundits to the Jenner and Dolezal cases seems to imply that they are perceived to be sick individuals in rebellion against their natures. It follows, then, that they think that Ms. Dolezal has a nature.
What is the truth here, if I may be so bold? Well, tentatively, the most recent biological research, which the humanities and social science leaders and followers of the Left seem largely unaware of, is that there actually is a high degree of convergence between folk-racial classification, and statistically defined geographical populations. That is to say, if we sequence DNA, and then look at whose DNA more closely resembles whose, an overall population of DNA samples will tend to cluster, with people whose ancestry traces back largely to one geographical region having a higher degree of convergence with each other than they will with people whose ancestry is from another region. Of course there are anomalies, grey areas, etc., but this broad fact shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. If race is real, the most one can say is that it is real as a statistically defined group of DNA sequences. Some sophisticated race theorists have argued that the concept of a population defined by statistical convergence in this way is not close enough to the folk concept of race to count as both showing what race really is, and that there therefore is such a thing. It seems to me that this puts far too much weight on the folk concept. Certainly discovering the molecular compound H2O counts in favor of the thesis that water is real (or more precisely, a natural kind) but in countless cases, whether the discovery of the underlying scientific truth about a phenomenon vindicates a folk classification (almost always with some modification in the process) is a matter of some latitude. In short, it is somewhat up to us whether we say “race is statistically defined geographical DNA sequence populations” or “there is no such thing as race; rather, what there is are statistically defined geographical DNA sequence populations.” This loosey-goosiness is something that has escaped liberals and conservatives alike, for various reasons, but it is worth noting. If you are not familiar with the philosophy of science issues here, it may be helpful to turn your attention to the debate over whether Pluto was a planet or not. Planet, originally, was a folk classification of observable celestial objects, but this concept changed significantly with the shift to heliocentric astronomy. Happily for the folk concept, all the things that had been called planets before seemed enough alike in light of the new knowledge to continue to be planets, and we ended up saying “planets revolve around the sun, not around the earth” although given the earlier views about what planets are like, we might well have said “there are no such things as planets as traditionally understood; Mars is really a solar orbiting body, or SOB.” Anyone who followed the “is Pluto a planet” debate will grasp immediately that this hinged not primarily on a new discovery about Pluto, but the discovery of vastly more bodies in the solar system than we had been aware of previously, bodies which Pluto resembled more than the “traditional” planets, and a proposal of a new definition of planet which would justify excluding all these new bodies… at the cost of excluding Pluto as well. If you think that scientists simply discovered that Pluto is not a planet, then you either don’t know enough about the debate, or enough about how science works. Race is similar (in light of the most recent research utilizing DNA sequencing and statistical methods).
If we hook “being black” to instantiating the concept of race held by people in the 19th century, then there are no such things as races, and it is impossible to “conceal one’s true race.” If we decide that the older concepts of race are not enough like the new concept of geographical population, and choose not to call such things “races” that continues to be true. If we decide that they are enough alike, so that we reform rather than reject the folk concept, then it is possible to conceal one’s true race. Such concealment would involve concealing the fact that one was statistically far closer to one geographical population than another. It is partly in light of this fact that Ms. Dolezal has stated that she has not had her status confirmed by DNA test. Indeed, such a test would be the only way to determine whether she was “black” in the only scientific sense remotely in the running. Indeed, it would be most interesting if it turned out that she had some genetic convergence to people we folk-classify as “black” and even more interesting if that convergence was not so high. At that point the fact that it is somewhat up to us what to make of all this would become quite apparent to the dispassionate, if not to the majority.
All that said, the social constructionists have a point, and a big one: the only importance any of this has, is the fact that some phenotypes can be readily perceived with the naked eye, and on that basis, societies have singled out members of these populations and treated them in certain ways, e.g. giving some the opportunity to buy and sell others, forbidding marriage across these boundaries, etc. As W. E. B. Dubois explained long ago, these social practices cause people who are subject to them to internalize an identity and membership in a community, and if nothing else, that community is as real as anything purely social ever is. Over time the communities will develop their own distinct cultures. The profound depth of this enculturation is perhaps best illustrated by spoken language accents. One could, with a high degree of reliability, absent deceit, determine whether a voice sample, without any further data, was from an African-American or a European-American. But of course accents are not genetic to any significant degree and certainly not here. Yet one’s accent is a very deep fact about oneself. It is almost as immediately recognizable as skin color, and can be every bit as effective as a criterion for discrimination.
So, to review: if there were such things as racial essences, then Ms. Dolezal could lie about hers, and probably did. But there aren’t, so she didn’t. If we wish to regard the new concept of statistically convergent DNA-sequence geographical population as “what race really is” then there could be such things as races, but then it remains to be seen whether she lied about anything because none of the relevant information that has come to light is dispositive in absence of a DNA sample, and even then, since there would likely be some convergence to several populations, it would then be up to us to decide where the boundaries are, much as it was up to us to decide what Pluto was.
No doubt many will be impatient at this point. Of course her DNA sequence is not at issue! they will insist, and it’s a distraction to suggest otherwise. The social realities of race mean that she was “white” before she was “black” and she had to lie her way into ever having been labeled as black, not by making false claims about her DNA, but about her parentage, family history, life experiences, etc. But this is trickier than may at first appear, for a number of reasons, any of which should be accessible to today’s liberals and progressives.
First, if social constructionism about race means that there is no deep truth about race, but rather that race is a matter of where one lives, how one speaks, how others perceive you, etc. then the dishonesty complaint about Dolezal must be, not that she lied about her biological race, but that she refused her assigned racial role in the social construction process. She’s supposed to self-identify as white because that’s what society tells her to do, so that she can better claim her privileges as a white person, and better be the object of moral criticism for having done so. It seems a bit perverse (to put it mildly) for people committed to destroying racism to complain about someone for refusing to help participate in our racism-reproducing processes. Think about that some. She refused to become a presumptively racist recipient of white privilege, and by refusing to help prop up a racist society by how she herself lived (and what is more, did not choose to be apolitically black, but a black activist) what more could she have possibly done to combat racism as liberals and progressives understand it? Or is it that we don’t really want white people to surrender their privilege because if they all did so, black activism would necessarily die as a result? It would not be the first time that political “entrepreneurs” hoped against hope that they wouldn’t actually win, and then put themselves out of business.
But that seems ungenerous. For one, it doesn’t do justice to the understandable outrage that people feel towards those who lie in order to claim a benefit. After all, it is always wrong to lie, as Kant famously said. Then again, maybe it isn’t, as Plato equally famously said. It depends upon who you are lying to, what they are up to, in what ways they motivate you to lie, and what you hope to achieve by doing so. Everyone would agree that lying about being Jewish to escape Nazi Germany is an OK lie. So, I guess it’s OK to radically misrepresent who you are, to achieve just goals in a deeply unjust society, say, a deeply racist one…
Which is more praiseworthy? For a Jew to lie to the Nazi and claim to be a Gentile in order to avoid suffering a horrific injustice… or for a Gentile to lie to the Nazi and claim to be a Jew, in order to be sent to a camp so that she is better situated to help others escape? It may be a mistaken moral principle in itself, but we do tend to think that the more you give up, the more strenuous your conduct for morally good ends, the more praiseworthy. In order to see Ms. Dolezal primarily as a fraud by focusing narrowly on whatever advantages she may have received as, say, a candidate for employment by the NAACP, or a candidate for employment as a professor of Africana studies, is to be willfully blind to a larger context. It’s like saying about my hypothetical Gentile that of course they would lie about being Jewish in Nazi Germany! Who wouldn’t want to go for those plummy synagogue jobs?
At this point, the liberal/progressive may feel that my analogy is strained. But isn’t it your analogy? There’s no paucity of conservatives happy to tell us that racism is a thing of the past, and that race-neural policies and attitudes should suffice henceforth, and if some individual who happens to be black suffers under such policies and attitudes, let the chips fall where they may. It is precisely the liberal/progressive that wants to emphasize the fact that the cup is half empty, indeed, the emptier the better. The closer we are to Nazi Germany, the more sense activism makes.
But these points about dishonesty should be obvious to liberals and progressives for another reason: one of the central objects of liberal and progressive concern, is the plight of gays and lesbians. Remember the bad old days? If not, let me help you. In the bad old days, homosexual activity was considered (1) a sin, (2) a vice, and (3) a psychiatric disorder. In light of this pervasive attitude, most people who engaged in homosexual activity concealed it, lied about it, to the point that, first, the pervasive dishonesty of homosexuals was taken as a kind of corollary confirmation of the fact that homosexuality was a vice (people prone to one vice are likely to be prone to others), and second, the experience of being pervasively dishonest and then at some point ceasing to be so became “a thing”: coming out of the closet. Liberals and progressives have all accepted the idea that the closet is not to be equated with the morally bad conduct of being dishonest for gain, despite the fact that it involves being dishonest, and leads to gain (social acceptance… at the cost of inner suffering, but presumably all dishonest people experience some sort of inner suffering related to their dishonesty). Instead it is almost perceived now as a kind of wonderful episode of self-actualization within a kind of Bildungsroman narrative that all gay people share. The pro forma dishonesty involved is drained of any moral significance which speaks ill of the gay person. I am not contesting this; I’m saying that this is one thing you can do with self-misrepresentation, and whether or not we should goes back to our earlier questions about the context in which one lies, and how morally compromised the society one finds oneself in is. Now one might say that this is 180 degrees different from Ms. Dolezal’s case because she chose to conceal her dominant status, her “heterosexuality” if you will. But that simply takes us back to the question of how burdensome or not it is to be black in America. I suppose this is as good a time as any to put my cards on the table: in my opinion, pretty fucking burdensome.
Last point: the liberal and progressive criticism of Ms. Dolezal seems to emphasize that it is offensive of her to use her privilege to play at being black, when blacks cannot with the same ease opt out of blackness. Setting aside the issues above, it is of a piece with the very nature of race as a social construction that it is possible for people, black and white, to opt out, if they are fortunate enough to have an ambiguous appearance (if the appearance is not ambiguous at all, and you’re a social constructionist about race, then it is unclear what you mean when you say that someone black passes as white because they are absolutely indistinguishable from white people–if they are and “act white” they are white, by definition–this is one of the consequences of adopting an anti-realist stance about a phenomenon), and brave enough to go undercover, so to speak, to “pass.” It is simply not true to say that it is a part of the essence of blackness or whiteness that “passing” is impossible as a matter of racial classification ex ante. The fact that it has occurred, in both directions, proves that false. So what we’re really talking about is the unequal distribution of natural gifts: it is easier for some to pass than others.
Now if you “are” black and yet succeed in passing for white, and then proceed to actively belittle and thwart black people, if you become a facsimile white racist, the people of the culture from whence you came have every right to be resentful, outraged even (this is the background for the great “outing” debate in gay politics of the 1990s). But if, instead, you pass in the opposite direction and then use your acquired status as black to do literally nothing but help the black community, then to direct resentment at that person seems misplaced. All else being equal, people should be happy for people who enjoy natural gifts… however rare that phenomenon may be. The ire should be reserved for the system, not for the person who was given more degrees of freedom within it, and especially someone who used that freedom to engage in near heroic measures to renounce that very privilege in as absolute and total a way possible–by trying to completely efface the fact that the privilege had ever existed for them, lest they benefit from it.
One of the great challenges that faces progressives is the task of assimilating Nietzsche’s critique of resentment as the root of leveling, and still remain a progressive. I believe that is possible, but more importantly, I believe that it is necessary. To blame someone for defecting to your own side in a war because that diminishes your opportunities to shoot at them, especially when it is a target-rich environment anyway, speaks so ill of the progressives who have, if not said as much, given indications (shall we say), that that is what they are thinking, that I would think that they would be ashamed to even insinuate as much. Still, rage makes one blind, and much must be forgiven of those who rage against the injustices which they themselves have suffered, if they find themselves occasionally raging against allies and adversaries alike.