Al Jolson, American minstrel performer, in blackface stereotyping Black people

Al Jolson, a white Jewish minstrel performer pictured in blackface and without makeup. Source: Examiner.com

Rachel Dolezal, white woman who created a Black identity and used blackface to advance career in civil rights

Rachel Dolezal, a white academic pictured in blackface as an adult and without blackface as a teen

Given that U.S. media outlets are teeming with stories about Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who has been using blackface and a fabricated past to advance her career, it seemed appropriate that I use this space to reflect on some fundamental concepts that have been alluded to but not strongly articulated by the many think pieces that have since come out.  I do so not only because of the impact Dolezal’s deception has had on my community,* but because it offers me the opportunity to discuss power, identity, and how both impact social equity, one of the three prongs of sustainability.

Generally speaking, social equity involves the fair distribution of, and access to, forms of “livelihood, education, and resources; full participation in the political and cultural life of the community; and self-determination in meeting fundamental needs.” (Reliable Prosperity). It is important to note that power determines the distribution of and access to these resources and social institutions. As the concept of identity politics implies, who seizes power and who is denied power is strongly dependent on one’s identity or belonging to a particular social group(s).

Race in the U.S.** is one of the most salient identity categories through which power is accrued and access to resources is facilitated. Because the republic was conceptualized by white Europeans, founded upon Native genocide and land theft, and powered by the uncompensated labor of African slaves, the division of power and resources was thus structured into a racial pyramid, with whites*** as the effective “top.” In order to maintain this supremacy, whites developed various ways to police (often violently) races and the access/denial of resources (such as the one-drop rule for Black Americans and Jim Crow, the Dawes Commission for Indigenous Americans, anti-miscegenation laws, immigration and naturalization laws, and so on).

This racial caste system has been maintained for the majority of the nation’s existence, and it is only within the last generation that the most blatant structures of white supremacy have been formally abandoned. Throughout this time, whiteness has been defined and refined in juxtaposition to different ethnic and racial groups, and, as some have argued, used as a form of property in itself:

Because “[i]dentity is … continuously being constituted through social interactions,” the assigned political, economic, and social inferiority of Blacks necessarily shaped white identity. In the commonly held popular view, the presence of Black “blood” – including the infamous “one-drop” – consigned a person to being “Black” and evoked the “metaphor … of purity and contamination” in which Black blood is a contaminant and white racial identity is pure. Recognizing or identifying oneself as white is thus a claim of racial purity, an assertion that one is free of any taint of Black blood. (Cheryl I. Harris, Critical Characteristics of Whiteness as Property)

All of this is not meant to be a history lesson on racial dynamics in the U.S., but to explain why something as simple as “identifying” as a race means more than enjoying the culture of a group and changing one’s appearance and behavior (and family history) to mimic that group. What is largely missing in conversations about Dolezal’s fraud is this element of power, and that all races are (literally) not created equal. In the U.S., one race gave itself the power to define all other races, and determine what resources those races would be permitted to have, and then placed itself at the top. This race created the stratified society we now struggle with dismantling today.

How does a country with such an enduring legacy of white supremacy correct itself? How can we achieve social equity among these groups of identity and power? Surely not by allowing the group that created the racial stratification in the first place to (re)define race yet again in a way that can be exploited by members at the top when it is convenient for them. It seems rather impermissible to now allow the same group to once again use its power to (re)define and take advantage of the stratification, through mimicry and deceit, to access the limited resources allowed to those at the bottom.

In an imaginary utopia of true social equity, perhaps it would make sense that everyone could adopt the racial identity that appeals to them most. But so long as we live in this world, which continues to define and use race as a means for determining who gets power and resources, it is far from equitable to demand the most vulnerable relinquish scarce resources because a member of the topmost group “identifies” with them, all the while maintaining and further investing in racial stratification.

 

 

*Full disclosure: I am Black and am deeply troubled by all this wasted attention when actual Black women and girls are suffering, including the numerous Black people on the verge of being ethnically cleansed from the Dominican Republic.

**I speak only about U.S. country because race takes on different meanings depending on context, and this country’s racial dynamics are the one I am most familiar with.

***The racial category of “white” is long and interesting, and spans beyond the inception of the United States. Nell Irving Painter’s The History of White People provides an excellent overview of what whiteness has meant throughout the centuries and how it has expanded, bended, and shifted in relation to other groups and their relative power.

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