An Open Letter to Caitlyn Jenner (Huffington Post)
Rachel Dolezal: ‘I identify as black’ (USA Today)
Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King addresses race reports (CNN.com)
For all that Maury Povich’s daytime talk show career may be defined by the phrases “You are the father” and “You’re not the father,” perhaps the most iconic video inspired by his use of DNA testing on talk shows was of a white supremacist in North Dakota who came on a British talk show. The DNA testing that usually results in yelling and ridiculous dances on Maury’s shows revealed that despite the white supremacist “looking white,” he’s actually about one-eighth African by ancestry. The resulting reaction may not be GIF-worthy, but it’s certainly worth looking at a few (dozen) times for the delicious karmic smackdown:
Anyone who’s studied the history of slavery in America (the real one, not the damnable lies of Margaret Mitchell novels and Texas schoolbooks) knows that male slaveowners quite often fathered children through their slaves, and that light-skinned children were sometimes raised as free whites and not as slaves. For an older white American living today, it’s hardly inconceivable that they may have had a slave (or even a free African-American) as a great-grandparent, which would make them one-eighth African-American like the person in the video above.
The reality is that nearly all of us, despite the colour of our skin and other physical so-called “racial identifiers,” are some pretty mixed-up mutts. Finding out your ethnic mix through your DNA costs less than a hundred dollars, so it’s hardly something that requires the funding of a nationally-televised daytime talk show. Most people still treat the concept of race as immutable fact when most of what we think of as “race” is based on social constructs that are horribly outdated. No one is suggesting that racial definitions are going to disappear anytime soon (especially when they’re still so often used as an excuse to hurt people perceived as “different”), but we need to have more of a dialogue about how “race,” as it’s commonly defined in America, is constructed.
One of the huge problems facing our understanding and definition of race is the issue of identification, especially the agency we all have to identify ourselves. Hardly anyone thinks of President Obama as a white American, but his mother was a self-identified white woman. Why should Barack Obama be forced to define himself by his father’s African ancestry simply because he was born with darker skin? Why should anyone of “mixed race” parentage be forced to identify as a single race based solely on skin colour or some other physical trait?
More to the point, is there a “magic percentage” that allows someone to identify as a given race? My name may be one of the most stereotypical Irish names out there (arguably to the point of comedy), but my family’s own genealogical research shows that I’m actually slightly more German than Irish (although I haven’t had DNA testing done). If I were to use German design elements on the .org and in other fora, though, it would look pretty incongruous next to my name. In the end, my decision to use Celtic-themed graphics on my website and other media is based solely on a personal preference for the Celtic aesthetic. If I were to use more traditional German elements, though, I get the feeling that people would disapprove based solely on my name, not my actual ancestry, which is pretty darn silly when you think about it.
When the whole controversy around Rachel Dolezal erupted a few months ago, I couldn’t help but think back to that Maury Povich clip and how even a white supremacist, who certainly meets all the common visual identifiers of “being white,” could actually have a good deal of African ancestry to him. Ignoring the media shitstorm that made Dolezal a national figure (created by conservative media to deflect attention from another, contemporaneous incident of a white police officer mistreating an African-American, the one at that Texas pool party), most media accounts merely looked at purported pictures a younger Dolezal “looking white” and decided that she must be trying to “trick” people when she says she’s an African-American.
I doubt that any of these people surreptitiously grabbed a sample of Dolezal’s DNA and had it tested for her ancestry. (We probably would have been told the percentages if someone had done that.) I don’t know if Dolezal has had her DNA tested, and I honestly don’t care because the odds are that she has at least some African ancestry, as do most of us who “look white” in America. Numerically that percentage may be small, but where is that number? Does someone have to be of 50% African-American descent to be able to claim that they are African-American? Ten percent? Five percent? I’m not comfortable setting any number, and I’m certainly not comfortable with the idea of racial self-identification being determined solely by where the colour of your skin lands on a pigment chart or what the shape of your nose is.
There are certainly lots of legitimate issues that Dolezal’s identification as an African-American brings up, particularly given the long history of white Americans appropriating African-American culture, but these discussions have been glaringly absent from public discourse because mass media chose to latch onto the spectacle of Dolezal (largely forced on her by right-wing media and family drama) instead of the larger issues. I understand the concerns my African-American friends have about Dolezal, and I’m hoping that the start of a new academic year here, and conservative media trying to “pull a Dolezal” on Shaun King in recent days, will lead to more intelligent discussions of this topic that address the real issues at work here, not the punch-line punditry of the Twitter age.
It’s hard not to notice that a lot of the people who have been making such a hullabaloo of Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King are the same people who, if they even recognize transgender people at all, attack those they perceive as not being “enough” like their gender. This is something I’ve experienced simply because I don’t wear pink (even though pink looks hideous on me) and don’t wear dresses (because I don’t like them and no one needs to see my ugly-ass legs). When it comes down to it, there’s a very similar dynamic here because people are placing their own definitions of “what a ‘black person’ should be” and “what a woman should be” on top of other people, ignoring the reality that those definitions often have so many exceptions that they’re really little more than preferences. (As the recent saying goes, homosexuality isn’t ‘normal,’ it’s just common.) At its best this is highly annoying. At its worst it denies people the fundamental agency to identify themselves, attempting to force them into roles and molds based on the denier’s subjective beliefs, and if you’ve taken a close look at suicide rates in America lately then you know how dangerous and devastating this can be.
One of the things that’s bothered me about the whole Caitlyn Jenner situation is how a lot of people I know — people who have always and hopefully will always respect my gender — are turning around and denying Jenner that very agency. Some of them simply don’t like her because of her association with the whole Kardashian media empire, and even though I’ve done a shockingly good job of avoiding all things Kardashian, I can certainly understand not wanting to like Jenner based on that, but there’s a gulf of difference between not liking someone and denying them the right to self-identification. More troubling has been the fact that some people have been saying Jenner can’t be a “real” transgender person or transgender icon because she’s expressed some conservative political views. Jenner is no less of a woman, or a transgender icon, if she’s conservative, the same way that Herman Cain and Ben Carson aren’t somehow less African-American (or “less black”) because they’re Republicans. Just because someone is gender-nonconforming doesn’t mean that they can’t also like lower taxes and smaller government, and even if you dislike them for believing those things, that still doesn’t give you license to attack their identity. To put it bluntly, even assholes have the right to self-identification and to respect for their identity. Attacks on identity are based on the same kind of ignorance and hatred as every slur there is out there, and there’s no place for that in public discourse.
These kinds of attacks boil down to wanting to hurt someone based on difference, only instead of going after the real difference (for example, X person’s political beliefs are harmful and could damage people if enacted into law), elements of the person’s identity is substituted for the point of attack. It may not feel like it’s based on the same ignorance and hatred as more overt discrimination, but there’s no real difference except possibly in degree of hatred/ignorance, and even that’s open to debate. Saying that “it’s okay” to slur Jenner because you have transgender friends, or to slur Dolezal and/or King because you have African-American friends, isn’t substantially different from calling every dark-skinned person you see the N-word because one of your African-American friends lets you use that term with them. They all deny basic agency to people in an attempt to excuse language that is, in the public discourse, simply inexcusable.
Hatred and ignorance are powerful tools, as anyone who’s been following the current Republican primary campaigns knows all too well. (According to a new PPP poll just released tonight, most Republicans still think President Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States, and more Republicans think Ted Cruz was born in the US than think Obama was even after it’s been well-publicized that Cruz was born in Canada. The stupids are taking over, which is why I’m moving to Vancouver at the first available opportunity.) It’s disappointing to see them used, at a national level, by so many people, a good deal of whom should (and I suspect do) know better, and while I don’t hold out much hope for America as a whole to move away from this sort of thing any time soon, I hope that at least some of my friends can be more conscious of it and stop acting so disrespectfully.