Rachel Dolezal is a terrible poster-child for much of anything. The woman’s got her share of problems, and her probably-darkened skin and fake hair seem like a way to find a place in some community—any community. To make matters worse, there are signs that she falsified evidence of hate-crimes against herself, all of which feels like a kind of plea for authenticity.
Dolezal’s story raises plenty of questions. What does she mean when she says that she “identifies as black”? It’s unclear whether she ever called herself “transracial” but others took on the term, and turned it around for close and critical examination. Her marriage and current family life, her work as an artist and an organizer, are all embedded in the African American community, but did she lose an opportunity to struggle with the complicated business of being a white woman engaged in anti-racist work?
But some responses were far more vitriolic, along the lines of “How dare she?” Dolezal did more than get a tan. She falsified a history and a legacy, rooted in the body and confirmed through DNA tests now readily available from 23andme. In short, she’s a cultural expropriator, a classic Wigger. And we don’t live in a post-racial society. Well, of course not. End of discussion.
Then, in the midst of the Dolezal brouhaha cames the South Carolina massacre, and a new figure for obsession, the ultra-authentic white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof with his creepy bowl haircut and his Confederate flag. If this is what whiteness means, frankly, I want out.
Ah, but where do I go?
Can we imagine a society that is actually “post-racial”? Can identity be so individuated and complex that skin-color is one of countless elements, as seems to be the case with the African-American Jewish activist and writer, Julius Lester? Or would such a society resemble a weird nightmare vision in Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, where the problem of race was solved by making everybody gray?
Full disclosure: I’m a Jewish woman, descended from Yiddish speakers who fled pogroms in Lithuania and Poland. I have no particular interest in having my DNA analyzed; maybe that, in itself, is telling. Jews are well-known cultural chameleons, famously damned as “rootless cosmopolitans.” But in my country, these days, most Jews pass as white, with an identity perhaps as disconnected from our DNA as Rachel Dolezal’s.
One of the many on-line posts about Dolezal mentioned a book by a fellow Jewish woman, Marge Piercy, her brilliant novel Woman on the Edge of Time. I read the book when it came out in 1977, and it’s worth a close examination.
Piercy’s heroine is Connie Ramos, a Hispanic woman brutalized and trapped in a mental hospital: she has visions of a utopian future: an eco-aware population in a rainbow of skin-tones who live in villages with designated cultures like Wamponaug Indian or Harlem-Black. On a bus-ride, Connie and her companion meet a man who lives in an “Ashkenazi” village and who bids Connie farewell with a very artificial-sounding “Shalom”.
Connie finds these DNA-free cultural constructions ridiculous and child-like. Then, to make matters worse, gender has also been dismantled; babies are born in “brooders” and raised by three parents. “His” and “her” have been replaced by “per” which serves as a catch-all pronoun. Men breast feed. Here, Connie draws a line. “She hated them, the bland monsters of the future, born without pain, multicolored like a litter of puppies without the stigmata of race and sex.”
In fact, Piercy’s utopia presents us with a stark choice: if we want to get rid of the brutal baggage of race and gender, we also break the tie between that baggage and our bodies. Piercy likes bodies; all of her characters have a sensual appreciation of good food and good sex. She also appreciates the pleasures of cultural celebrations and historical pageantry, but in her utopia, holidays are abstract mash-ups of multiple traditions, and history is written in crayon-broad primary colors where Harriet Tubman storms the Pentagon.
This world feels artificial, inauthentic and infantile. Yet Connie eventually embraces it when she sees her own daughter—lost to her through the violence of the present– projected into this future: here is a world where she could be safe and free.
A current counterpoint to Piercy is Mat Johnson’s just-published Loving Day, a complex and very funny exploration of tribal categories, where “mixed” folks of African and European origin are trained to find “balance,” in a school and retreat called “Mélange,” This “Mulattopia” is deliberately artificial and ridiculous but also poignant. Ultimately, it’s where his hero finds a home and a family, but also ghosts.
I can’t know Johnson’s intentions. Maybe he’s in earnest—defining “mixed” as a category, and giving it a history and language. Maybe he’s making fun of categories altogether. Maybe—like any good writer—he’s raising questions and figuring things out as he goes along.
A post-racial society may be utopian, and by definition, inauthentic and absurd. Maybe if we want to live there, we also need to be inauthentic and absurd. Maybe we should try a little harder.