The in­cen­tives made her do it

Rachel Donezal’s black iden­tity isn’t a shock to any­one who un­der­stands ac­tivist cul­ture.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Fredrik deBoer Fredrik deBo­eris a writer and aca­demic. He­lives in In­di­ana.

It’s hard to think of a more bizarre story, or one more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica, than that of Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal is an aca­demic and ac­tivist who rep­re­sented her­self as African Amer­i­can for many years, earn­ing a de­gree in Africana stud­ies, even as­cend­ing to the po­si­tion of pres­i­dent of the Spokane, Wash., chap­ter of the NAACP.

Dolezal’s par­ents, how­ever, have re­cently made mat­ters un­com­fort­abl efor her, telling the me­dia that she is in fact Cau­casian and show­ing pho­tos of her as a younger woman with blond hair and blue eyes. The NAACP is stand­ing behind Dolezal, stress­ing that “ra­cial iden­tity is not a qual­i­fy­ing cri­te­ria or dis­qual­i­fy­ing cri­te­ria for NAACP lead­er­ship.” But there are additional ques­tions re­gard­ing, among other things, her po­si­tion on a lo­cal po­lice coun­cil. When ap­ply­ing to the Spokane po­lice om­buds­man com­mis­sion, she in­di­cated a ra­cial cat­e­gory of black, which if un­true would vi­o­late the city ethics code.

Dolezal, for her part, ac­knowl­edged that her bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents are two self-iden­ti­fied Cau­casians, but has thus far re­fused to elab­o­rate.

The story has pre­dictably been cat­nip to our pun­dit class, pro­vok­ing com­men­tary rang­ing from the ou­traged to the sym­pa­thetic to the amused. Al­most ev­ery­one, how­ever, has been shocked — shocked that some­one would act this way and shocked that some­one could pull it off. I am shocked that peo­ple are shocked. Rachel Dolezal was in­evitable. We made her.

Hu­man be­hav­iors are the prod­uct of in­cen­tives. We re­peat be­hav­iors that are re­warded. And clearly, Dolezal be­lieved she would find re­wards in rep­re­sent­ing her­self as a black woman. That state­ment might seem strange, given the con­tin­u­ing de­struc­tive power of racism in Amer­ica. In ma­te­rial terms, the con­di­tion of the av­er­age black Amer­i­can has ac­tu­ally got­ten worse in the last 35 years, post-ra­cial rhetoric to the con­trary. Racism and white supremacy are real and pow­er­ful in Amer­ica in 2015.

Why, then, would some­one try to oc­cupy that po­si­tion of op­pres­sion? The an­swer has a lot to do with the spa­ces that Dolezal had ad­vanced in: po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism and academia.

It hap­pens that I’ve spent most of my life in those spa­ces. And in those spa­ces, aset of so­cial norms have cre­ated di­rect in­cen­tives for Dolezal’s be­hav­ior — and for­bid­den any­one from check­ing up on her story.

First, there is a se­ries of du­bi­ous and prob­lem­atic pre­sump­tions made about black peo­ple that, while ul­ti­mately un­healthy, might have ap­peared at­trac­tive to Dolezal. The no­tion of black peo­ple gen­er­ally and black women specif­i­cally as in­her­ently more authen­tic, more wise, or more con­nected to na­ture are alive and well in many aca­demic and ac­tivist con­texts.

Though many race the­o­rists have con­vinc­ingly ar­gued that such stereo­type sare ac­tu­ally con­nected to the most nox­ious at­ti­tudes about race, and ul­ti­mately per­pet­u­ate ra­cial in­equal­ity rather than com­bat it, for an in­di­vid­ual white per­son work­ing in those spa­ces, black­ness might ap­pear to be the kind of thing you might want to bor­row— par­tic­u­larly given that you wouldn’t have ex­pe­ri­enced a life­time of petty big­otry and ma­jor dis­crim­i­na­tion. In­deed, part of what makes this story so of­fen­sive to many lies in the fact that Dolezal has bor­rowed a ra­cial iden­tity with­out suf­fer­ing from the harsh con­se­quences of Amer­i­can racism.

She might not have at­tempted such a de­cep­tion if not for an other as­pec tof aca­demic and ac­tivist cul­ture: the no­tion that race does not equate to skin color, com­plex­ion or other phys­i­o­log­i­cal mark­ers. I have at­tended many aca­demic con­fer­ences where speak­ers have pas­sion­ately ar­gued against the no­tion of some­one “look­ing black,” that you can ever tell by look­ing at some­one what their ra­cial iden­tity might be.

I have no opin­ion on this is­sue; it’s not my ques­tion to an­swer. But with that kind of so­cial taboo in place, there was lit­tle to fear for Dolezal in rep­re­sent­ing her­self as black; only the be­lated at­ten­tion of her par­ents brought the truth to light. Nor did she have to worry that any­one would dig into her claims that she’d re­ceived hate mail and was the vic­tim of hate crimes— which are also now in doubt.

Who, ex­actly, would feel con­fi­dent in ques­tion­ing the claims of a self­i­den­ti­fied vic­tim of a hate crime? Par­tic­u­larly when that per­son was serv­ing as the head of a re­gional NAACP branch? The ou­traged tweets write them­selves. Dolezal was no dummy. She knew how these cul­tures op­er­ate. She knew she was pro­tected.

In the end, per­haps Dolezal sim­ply be­lieved the con­vic­tions of her aca­demic cul­ture a lit­tle too much. After all, we on the left have in­sisted for years that the var­i­ous de­mo­graphic cat­e­gories we are placed into are merely so­cial con­structs, the cre­ation of hu­man as­sump­tion and hu­man prej­u­dice. That race is a so­cial con­struct is a stance that brooks no dis­agree­ment in left-wing spa­ces.

It should not sur­prise us, then, when an in­di­vid­ual chooses to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent ra­cial iden­tity for her­self. I’m not say­ing that’s a le­git­i­mate read­ing of so­cial con­struct ar­gu­ments. I’m not say­ing I con­done her be­hav­ior; like most peo­ple, I find it of­fen­sive. I’m sim­ply say­ing that this be­hav­ior is in­evitable given the cur­rent so­cial and lin­guis­tic codes of the worlds in which Dolezal lives. We cre­ated those in­cen­tives and so we’ve cre­ated this be­hav­ior.

Tyler Tjom­s­land Associated Press

RACHEL DOLEZAL heads the NAACP in Spokane, Wash.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.