Thursday, June 18, 2015

Identity and Victimhood

A number of articles on the intersection of identity and victimhood in academic and activist circles were published the other day in light Rachel Dolezal's passing herself as a black woman. It's a salient point to make, I think, and probably one that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but in a climate that valorizes victimhood and plots people along axes of power, that someone would claim marginalization for personal gain shouldn't come as a shock to anyone.

Freddie Deboer:
I think, quietly, there are a lot of people who have noticed an unhealthy appropriation of discourses of marginalization by those who are not marginalized. But they’re afraid to point out this appropriation for fear of having that same discourse turned against them. Dolezal’s story has, in an absurd and sad way, made this dynamic real. If I can’t say that such behavior is wrong without being forced into some “anti-PC complaint” narrative, then I’m not sure what space is left than just the inherently apolitical stance of total acquiescence.
Sean Collins for Spiked:
Following the ‘outing’ of Dolezal, several academics have said they don’t understand why she went as far as she did, when she could have remained white and continued her work. But that is disingenuous. In a climate dominated by identity politics, no one dares to speak for others without risking being hysterically denounced. As I noted previously on spiked, today’s new race activists are promoting separation on the basis of race, telling whites to stay away or to go to the back of protests. This is in stark contrast to the 1960s civil rights movement, which welcomed rather than demonised white people. In today’s race-conscious activism, the best a white person can be is an ‘ally’, which denotes a distinctly inferior status. The only acceptable reaction is to admit white guilt, to accept that you must shut up, and to abase one’s self.
Adolph Reed Jr. wrote a very lengthy piece about the inevitable Caitlyn Jenner/Rachel Dolezal comparisons. (Note: I'm leaving the slur in here because I refuse to edit another writer's words.) He says.
I can imagine an identitarian response to my argument to the effect that I endorse some version of wiggerism, or the view that "feeling black" can make one genuinely black. The fact is that I think that formulation is wrong-headed either way one lines up on it. Each position – that one can feel or will one’s way into an ascriptive identity or that one can’t – presumes that the "identity" is a thing with real boundaries. The issue of the line that Dolezal, who has now resigned her NAACP position, crossed that made her alleged self-representation unacceptable is interesting in this regard only because it highlights contradictions at the core of racial essentialism. In addition to the problems of articulating what confers racial authenticity, if what we have read about her approach to expressing black racial identity is accurate, she seems to have embraced an essentialist version of being black no less than do her outraged critics. Wiggers do so as well, and we must admit that Dolezal’s performance and apparent embrace of culturally recognized representations of black womanhood rests on an aesthetic purporting to embody respect and celebration rather than the demeaning racialist fantasies that shape the commercial personae of the likes of Iggy Azalea. Moreover, even if Dolezal may suffer from something like racial dysmorphia, the expression of her fixation has been tied up with commitment to struggle for social justice. She may have other personal problems and strained or bad relations with family members, but those are matters that concern her and those with whom she interacts. They do not automatically impeach the authenticity of her feelings of who she "really" is. And I doubt that we’d want to start a scorecard comparing her and Republican Jenner on that front.
I think it's interesting to note that Dolezal appropriated a particular image of black womanhood that's strong and powerful, an advocate connected to nature and culture, an image not really available to white women except as white feminism, which is still carries a lot of negative connotations (shrill, man-hating lesbians), and in particular to white women on the far left who still have trouble acknowledging their privilege as white women. I say this not to provide an excuse, but I'm not surprised this happened.