Thursday, June 18, 2015

Black and White America

A few days ago Rachel Dolezal's parents (who are white) outed their daughter (who was passing herself off as black) and the media feeding frenzy was on. That is, until Neil MacDonald of the CBC put some perspective on the thing in a piece titled Why can't Rachel Dolezal be as black as she wants to be?
People identify with—even pass themselves off as members of—cultures and groups to which they don't belong by birthright. Take Grey Wolf, for instance, an Englishman who passed himself off as Aboriginal for years. 

And then there are the politicians who pretend to be leaders by reeling off talking-points with a show of confidence, or people with little applicable skill pretending to be teachers, doctors, etc.
The furor over Dolezal's story indicates once again that the most important marker of identity in America is race.

I remember my older brother participating in a quartet that performed Stephen Foster songs at a community event. They blackened their faces with . . . I'm not sure what. The practice of blackfacing and performing in a way that comically presented the stereotypes of the descendents of slaves grew up in the USA and was called minstrel show, or minstrelsy. Click HERE to read more about this practice.

In South Carolina, a 21 year-old walked into a black church yesterday, apparently sat in the pews for an hour or so and then stood up and shot and killed 9 people. He was white, they were black. Reports so far suggest that they were shot only because they were black; the perpetrator had a history of expressing white-supremacist sentiments.

It's difficult for me to imagine what changes would have to occur in the USA in order to turn it from a black and white country to one in which race is no longer the divisive identity marker that it is today. Perhaps a massive crisis would do it, some catastrophe that would make everyone dependent on cooperation for survival. I've heard that people who find themselves in life and death situations lose sensitivity to racial or ethnic distinctions . . . at least until the crisis has passed. 

Dolezal claims that although she may not be black biologically, she is black culturally. That is, she's come to identify primarily with the American black sub-culture. And we all know that owning a satisfying identity is enormously important to a person's mental health.

Denying people a satisfactory identity is a sure-fire formula for deviance, even violence. “Who steals my purse steals trash,” Iago says in Shakespeare's Othello. One might well add, “who steals my identity, however, robs me of my most precious treasure.”

I'm with MacDonald on this. If Dolezal has come to feel more at home in black circles than in the culture into which she was born, what in heavens name is the problem?

No comments:

Post a Comment