Why Rachel Doležal is a Hero in the
fight against the disease of identity
At a time when the far right is on the rise in Europe and a post-racial society appears a distant dream in the US, the case of Rachel Doležal offers a clue to how we might win the fight against racism — at its heart a disease of identity.
In the days following the election of Barack Obama, the new buzzword bandied about by well-meaning sections of the liberal media was “post-racial”. This historic moment, it was hoped, would usher in a new epoch in which the discussion of race as a source of tension was passé. But in the trenches of American public life, reactionary forces from the Birther movement and The Tea Party through to Donald Trump have rejected the command of the liberal media to meekly wave their white flags at the forces of human progress. And so the grisly reality of race relations grinds on.
In the UK, meanwhile, if you fear the rise of the far right and you’re looking for a statistic to send a chill down your spine, how about this one:
- 5,000: the number of people who marched peacefully through London’s Kensington area on 14th June 2018 in memory of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
- 15,000: the number of people who marched in June in support of Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the far-right, Islamophobic English Defence League, jailed in May for contempt of court.
Is racism, like history itself — contrary to the predictions of Francis Fukuyama — destined to drag on inexorably until the end of humanity? Must we accept that racism is an innate part of the human psyche to be, at various times, bargained with, cajoled, attacked, denied and, at our worst moments, welcomed? Much has been done to change beliefs, mental biases and associated behaviours. And yet racism persists, from mild to virulent, revelling in mocking progressives by reigniting just when we’re lulled into thinking the battle is being won, as in 2008. Is there a way to stare down racism and redouble efforts to drive a stake through its heart?
If, like me, you’ve wondered whether racism was simply a correlate of visual perception and innate fear and mistrust of otherness, a 2015 study shows that blind people are prone to racism too. They’re just a little slower at getting there than sighted people. The study finds that blind people can still be susceptible to racial stereotyping. “In all cases it takes them longer to categorize people by race and there is more ambiguity,” according to Asia M. Friedman, the assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at University of Delaware who conducted the study. However, participants in the study categorised people racially based on non-visual cues and then made mental calculations that sometimes led them to make predictions about a person’s lifestyle, behaviour and socioeconomic class.
Racism manifested by mental biasing of the sort explored in this study is what you might facetiously term workaday racism. It’s all around us in the workplace and in social settings, and while we shouldn’t underestimate its pernicious effect on equality of opportunities, it won’t sully its hands with outright violence. In disproving the hypothesis that visual awareness of skin colour is the main trigger for racism, the Friedman study leaves us free to explore something we all have in common, sighted or not: identities, how we form them and why we cling to them. My assertion is that extreme racism of the far-right persuasion is rooted in a glitch in the individual’s concept of self-identity, causing what philosophers and psychoanalysts might term a form of “over-identification” — precisely the accusation levelled at Rachel Doležal, falsely in my view. What lessons can we learn from these two very different subjects in order to confront racism in a new and revolutionary way?
Of all species, humans are perhaps in the unique position of having a brain that observes itself, allowing us to attribute thoughts and emotions to ourselves as well as to others. We take for granted this complex capacity for self-observation, but it’s central to both our achievements and our failures: it’s why we rose to the top of the food chain, why we are destroying that same food chain, and why we have a pretty good chance of destroying ourselves as a species. The ability of the mind to observe itself is also responsible for each individual’s perception of separation from others: crudely put, the perception that “I am I and you are you”. This in turn leads to a more complex formation of individual and group identity, which drives human beings to stridently assert their individuality while paradoxically seeking the security of group membership. The latter compensates for the inevitable difficulty the former poses for survival. The split self is at war not only with itself (think id, ego and super-ego), but also with others — and ultimately with the environment, which is seen as a force to conquer rather than something of which we’re an integral part.
As far as identity might affect racism, the real problem arises when identification with a physical characteristic such as skin colour is of such significance to both the individual and their bond with a group that it triggers a fear of the group disintegrating if this aspect of identity is lost. This extreme identification with a single or small group of identity markers is what binds groups like the EDL together. A glitch in the identity circuit causes an individual to inflate the importance of a single marker (skin colour or religion) to such outlandish proportions that they cannot conceive of co-existence with other identities. An existential threat arises in the mind of the individual: if we lose this characteristic, the group will die and therefore I will die with it. So I must fight — to the death if necessary. In this sense, racism could ultimately be viewed as the mobilisation of personal and group identity against the perceived threat of extinction at the hands of another identity. Racism is really an identity war.
Brexit revealed the paradox that anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK is generally stronger in areas with lower levels of immigration. But this paradox doesn’t diminish the theory of racism as an identity war. It merely confirms that the threat is an imagined one, and that the greater the interaction between different ethnic, migrant and non-migrant groups in big cosmopolitan cities, the greater the awareness that group cohesion isn’t dependent on narrowly defined identity markers. The markers that were thought to be essential to the survival of the individual (colour, religion, nationality) and his / her group are dissolved in the pot of integration when people quickly learn through experience that group membership is fluid and determined by the real-life human exigencies of work and play, the latter being no less important than the former in the business of integrating communities.
Osagie Obasogie, a professor of law at University of California Hastings College of Law, who has also researched how blind people think about race, commented: “Race is a disease of society and the idea that the disease will go away by ignoring it is not the most sophisticated and proper way to deal with the problem”. Race is indeed a disease of society, but if we go a step further and label it a disease of identity, then perhaps we’re moving closer to a cure by locating its source. If we can agree that racism is a problem of identity, then we need to understand not only how identity is formed but whether or not it is fixed once formed. In other words, can we do something about the problem? To answer that question, we need to explore the rigidity or flexibility of race identity.
Any scientist will tell you that a rule is not a rule if there are exceptions to it. You can’t claim that all swans are white if you encounter one black swan. From a very early age I knew I was neither a black swan nor a white one, and given the rigid roles assigned to each, I was happy to be a swan of indeterminate origin. I was born in New York to a black Zimbabwean father and a white German mother, who both travelled the world in my infant years courtesy of the United Nations, with which my father served in the capacity of a legal advisor. Imagine my mother’s shock when we swapped the culture of acceptance found in this international community for the racial politics of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) following my father’s decision to return to his homeland in the early 1970s. Aged four, I was hurled headlong into the arid wilderness of apartheid lite under Ian Smith’s recalcitrant white minority regime. I say apartheid lite because it wasn’t as brutal as neighbouring South Africa’s, but Smith’s regime could never have been accused of idleness in its efforts to construct barriers to ethnic mixing.
The workplace was pretty much the only arena in which different ethnic groups interacted, if that’s how you can describe an arrangement under which people of colour did exactly as they were told by white managers. White people lived in green, leafy, capacious suburbs and black people in grey, cramped townships; white people managed the economy, black people toiled in it for subsistence wages. And, of course, black people had no vote. Smith’s answer to that question on 20 March 1976 — “not in a thousand years” — reverberated until 1980 when Zimbabwe gained independence. Only two schools in the whole country were permitted to rebel against this separation, admitting a small number of pupils of colour. I went to one of these schools and my sisters to the other. I am indebted to the Jesuit priests of St George’s College for showing me that diversity is more than just a fine idea; it’s the universe’s blueprint for all life on earth. Ignore it at your peril.
One problem under apartheid lite was what to do with people of mixed ethnicity descended from the dalliances of white colonial settlers with the indigenous population. They were categorised as a separate community and assigned to neighbourhoods of their own, leaving another little problem — what do to with pesky rebels who, in spite of the white minority regime’s best efforts to build barriers and put people in their respective cages, still wanted to marry outside their ethnicity. The Afrikaner in neighbouring South Africa had a simple solution to this problem: criminalisation and prison. But the Rhodesian settlers, who were largely of British stock, adopted a decidedly English approach to the problem. These couples were assigned to yet a different neighbourhood from all the others. It was called Westwood and it was where I lived from the ages of four to 12.
I don’t recall my four-year-old self experiencing any kind of angst about what colour parents in general and mine in particular were or should be. My early experience of Westwood prior to school had the effect of normalising ‘mixed’ marriage for me, something of an own goal for the Smith regime. Perhaps normalise isn’t the correct word, as it implies that I knew what abnormal was. And I didn’t. As odd as it may seem against the backdrop of a racially segregated society, for a fleeting period in my early life, I thought nothing, in the most literal sense, of mixed marriage because there was no other type of union in my limited experience to challenge it.
Consider a pre-industrial time in a far-flung corner of the globe inhabited only by dark-skinned people who were unaware of variegation in skin colour. Those people wouldn’t think of their skin colour as ‘normal’ because there would be no reason to give it any thought at all. And that is the whole point about identity: it’s formed in opposition to something and someone else. I am left-wing because you are right-wing; I am rich because you are poor; I am Christian because you are Muslim; I am black because you are white. And yet this oppositional formation of identity reveals the illusion that can be summed up in the words of Rabbi Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk: “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you”. Identity is a hall of mirrors. For this reason, it’s not fixed because the less concerned I become about you as an oppositional source of my identity, the more my identity dissolves.
Being less identikit than most when I was growing up provided me with concrete proof. If I experienced any problems with my identity growing up in Rhodesia (and then Zimbabwe), I gradually learnt it was society that had the problem, not me. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve come to understand the psychological etymology of my teenage fantasy of being abducted by aliens. Racial identity in 1970s Rhodesia was so restricting, I was convinced I would have more in common with extra-terrestrial beings.
Having a single fixed identity at birth, or even being dealt a mixed hand of cards as I was, is one thing. But things get really interesting when people who are dealt a seemingly fixed hand at birth decide to trade it in for something completely different later on. As far as the game of race goes, many would argue that Rachel Doležal was dealt a pretty decent starting hand, as a white female. As an adult, she exchanged a relatively quiet life for full-blown notoriety by having the gall to try on a different racial identity to the one assigned to her by society. For this reason alone, and setting aside inconvenient allegations of other false claims made by Ms Doležal, this woman is one of my heroes in the battle against racism.
Born in 1977 to white parents of primarily Czech, German and Swedish origin, Doležal began to identify herself more with the African American community around 2007. In her application for the post of chair of the Office of the Police Ombudsman Commission in Spokane in May 2014, she identified as having several ethnicities, including black. She was hired at Eastern Washington University as an instructor in the Africana Education program and was elected president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 2014. Her resignation from the civil rights organization was announced on June 15, 2015 after her parents, family members, and numerous media reports had exposed her stated biography and ethnicity to be untrue. In the aftermath of the controversy, Doležal was dismissed from her position as an instructor in Africana studies at Eastern Washington University and removed by the city council as chair of the police ombudsman commission over “a pattern of misconduct.”
Doležal’s critics contend that she has committed cultural appropriation and fraud. In subsequent interviews, Doležal stated, “If, you know, I was asked, I would definitely say that yes I do consider myself to be black.”
In a February 2017 interview with The Guardian, Doležal said that she sees race as a social construct. Psychologist Priscilla Dass-Brailsford stated: “Because of a familiarity with black culture, she [may] regard herself as ‘transracial’ ”. Psychologist Halford Fairchild said, “Rachel Doležal is black because she identifies as black. Her identity was authentic, as far as I could tell.” He noted that the country’s first black president has a Caucasian mother and that some black people, like supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, “might be black as night but eschew any identification with the black community”. This is because race is tied to identity politics and not biology.
Sociologist Ann Morning also defended Doležal, saying: “We’re getting more and more used to the idea that people’s racial affiliation and identity and sense of belonging can change, or can vary, with different circumstances.” All of which points to an acceptance of the loosening of racial boundaries and affiliations that would go a long way to ending the race wars.
Conversely, the comment that seems to characterise the general condemnation greeting Doležal’s attempt to reinvent herself comes from psychologist Derald Wing Sue, an expert on racial identity, who suggests that Doležal had become so fascinated by racism and racial justice issues that she “over-identified” with black people. I find the diagnosis of “over-identified” in this context problematic given that the use of the prefix “over” in medical and psychological diagnoses strongly implies that the condition has entered an extreme state with attendant negative consequences for the subject diagnosed. Poor Ms Doležal had, in effect, overdosed on blackness, according to Wing Sue. Doležal expressed a strong affinity with African American culture. Why should this be considered a psychological abnormality? The judgement of “over-identifying with black people” is absurd because it implies that, in her expression of affinity, she went too far.
This brings me back to my association of “over-identification” with the disease of racism. Given that Rachel Doležal is in my view neither racist nor delusional, why should the accusation of over-identification be levelled at her? There’s no denying that things went wrong for Doležal, but not because of an extreme condition that required treatment. She had found an enviable measure of success and purpose in her new-found identity and her need to hide her past through subterfuge and deception reflects more poorly on the society in which she lives than on her own moral character. It was society’s reluctance to accept her choice that proved to be her undoing. The barriers to gender identity are thankfully tumbling, but the disturbing question remains: why is society ready for Caitlyn Jenner but not Rachel Doležal?
As far as the accusation of cultural appropriation is concerned, culture isn’t denoted by skin colour, and making such a claim is to succumb to the racist dogma represented by the very type of mental bias that was the subject of Friedman’s study on racial attitudes in blind people. Culture as ideas and customs invites appropriation. Should Elvis and the Rolling Stones have been forced to apologise for being heavily influenced by African American music? Today, descendants of white British settlers who defeated indigenous Maori tribes in bloody battles to expropriate land perform the Haka at the start of All Blacks’ rugby games. Appropriating culture is as human and inevitable as thought itself.
It’s interesting that Doležal was credited in some quarters with revitalising the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. It’s hard to understand the precise causal factors for any perceived turnaround, but it’s easy to speculate that the Spokane chapter of the NAACP may have benefitted, albeit unknowingly, from the much-vaunted positive effects of diversity. It’s not surprising that someone who straddled two identities could understand and exploit limiting beliefs and biases exhibited by both in order to find ways to move the argument forward positively.
The lessons of this real-life case study in identity are perhaps best summed up by Doležal herself: “challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness”. The validity of transgender rights is thankfully evolving, if not fast enough, and it is perplexing that one of humanity’s most pernicious constructs, race, is not being dismantled in tandem. They are both individual and group identity constructs. Equally, if not more, perplexing to me was the response of several African American commentators who took offence at Ms Doležal’s “appropriation”. You can’t claim, on the one hand, to have been the victim of a centuries-old cruel construct and then complain when someone outside the group has the temerity to demonstrate what a silly hoax it’s been. Here was a white (whatever that means beyond skin colour) woman yearning to be black (whatever that means beyond skin colour) despite centuries of brutal evidence that this would not be a career- or life-advancing move. This was truly the moment to start an outreach project for all white people interested in trying on a different ethnic identity, with Doležal as the movement’s spiritual leader. A golden opportunity was missed. What we now need to do is ask ourselves how we can make the experience of trying on new identities more accessible, thereby loosening the dangerous grip that over-identification has on the individual psyche.
A rigidity of attitude to identity is just as informative as the flexibility displayed by Doležal. Peter Hitchens declared matter-of-factly in an interview with Owen Jones in September 2015: “The UK is finished. We are bankrupt, non-sovereign, robbed of our culture and our past. We have no power to save ourselves. The next proper history of this country will be written in Chinese.” Focusing on the alleged robbery of culture and past, it’s simultaneously difficult and easy to attack this statement for its senselessness. Difficult because it’s hard to know where to begin: Who stole the UK’s ideas, customs and past? How did they carry out this theft? (Presumably in roughly the same manner that English culture appropriated innumerable foreign words into its language without asking for permission from the French, Germans, Arabs and all others who were robbed.) What were these ideas and customs he is referring to? Why were they worth stealing? (I can understand why someone would want to steal the Haka. The All Blacks have been invincible for too long and the Haka is, as every right-thinking sports analyst knows, their secret weapon. But discussion of the weather as a means of breaking the ice or avoiding the elephant in the room? Really?)
It’s easy to attack the statement for its senselessness because British culture, or any culture for that matter, is always “finished” and always beginning. It’s always in flux, always shifting. New generations can’t waste energy on any real contemplation of what came before because they’re too busy redesigning the past and creating the culture of now. The cycle of culture is first you make it, then you comment on it, then you become Peter Hitchens, then you die. Hitchens’ lack of faith in British culture’s ability to evolve is unfathomable given the blinding evidence of how a small island nation turned itself into an empire and then how a collapsing empire reinvented itself to survive.
It’s important to reflect that society rewards Peter Hitchens with a lucrative living and puts Rachel Doležal in a straitjacket. Only when society rewards the Caitlyn Jenners and Rachel Doležals of the world for performing amazing feats of identity acrobatics and puts the Hitchens of the world in a straitjacket will we start to see a real shift in the disease of identity. If we are to truly accept that a human-made construct for categorising people into racial groups hasn’t served humanity’s best interests, then we must also accept that the first step to dismantling the construct is acceptance of fluidity of membership of what were false constructs and groups in the first place. When the environment changes, the group must evolve and issue new entry rules. The very practices and values which supposedly bind the group together are as changeable as a chameleon slowly making its way across an African print dress. In the long term, what’s important to groups isn’t necessarily the composition of their members or even their rules. It’s simply the group itself. The rules and the members change, but the one thing that will never change is the existence of groups.
It’s time we turned identity politics inside out and stopped treating identity as sacred ground. Instead of building shrines to national identity we should build schools to teach identity change. The practice of wearing a new identity is the first step to discovering that we don’t die when the identity to which we have clung is exchanged for something new. If anything, it leads to empathy. Many EU citizens now claim to feel more affinity with the EU than they do with their national identity. As long as humans feel the need to belong to groups to assuage the isolation and loneliness engendered by the split, warring self, then an expansion of the group along with fluid membership rules is a step in the right direction. Perhaps the preference to be part of something bigger, not smaller, is what ultimately binds EU Remainers together. And perhaps this sentiment is the most effective weapon against the far right, who prefer the certainty and rigidity of small groups to the inclusiveness, complexity and freedom — real freedom for the individual to choose which coat they wish to wear — of larger groups.