Is All Identity a Social Construct? Towards a Political Taxonomy of Rachel Dolezal

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The #RachelDolezal story has sent social media into a tailspin. The details of the story are covered well in this original article from the local Spokane, WA newspaper where Rachel is based. We learn that Rachel Dolezal, a black woman artist and activist, married to a black man with adopted black babies and leader of an NAACP chapter in Spokane, WA — is actually white, posing as black.

The story is a lot to get one’s head around and everyone is baffled. I want to trace the immediate ideological positions people are taking to it, because in them, I see some important contradictions. If, as many on the left like to claim, identity politics is a thorn in our side, it seems to me that the Rachel story pricks us fairly deeply.

So, we ask, what made Rachel want to do this — why would she choose to be black — and by doing so, is she expressing intimate solidarity with black people, or is she acting on the same basis of hundreds of years of white supremacist power over black bodies? Is Rachel Dolezal a new, more insidious form of appropriation of black identity?

Her parents have assumed that she made a trans racial cross-over out of a deep solidarity that she has with the black struggle. They also feel that she would have had more impact on the struggle if she would have remained true to her white identity. Which is worse? Is identity still caught up in the question of authenticity? Hasn’t Judith Butler pushed us further along than this? Why aren’t we post-identity politics on the left?

I can understand the feeling that some activists have that such an embrace is offensive because the truth is, there is a very naturalized element to black identity that such an act fundamentally disturbs. But what precisely does her act disturb? Well, yes, in fact, racial identity is live and real and systemic oppression is still a result of it. Let’s not go down the road of showing how such an identity is malleable – we know that it is already. Look at Eminem, for example. Any such appropriation is in fact always destined to power, oppression and to getting it wrong, quite simply because you can’t choose this.

However, the elephant in the room question, which of course the right has already been posing on Twitter, is:  how is Caitlyn Jenner different from Rachel Dolezal? Explain yourself, they demand!

The right is thus now offering a counter argument to the authenticity critique of the Dolezal affair. You claim identity is not authentic and can be chosen – well, stay consistent damnit! The right is thus claiming that all race is in fact a social construct and they claim, the left is refusing to admit it, remaining caught in an inconsistent framework. Race is an exception to the postmodern malleability of identity. It is not that malleable you see, because race, and blackness is tied to a real struggle that white people have for centuries abused.

Towards a Limited Taxonomy of Views on Rachel:

  • The militant-liberal identity politics puritan view: Rachel has co-opted a struggle that she doesn’t have the right to co-opt and she is a joke.
  • The white do-gooder liberal argument: Rachel would have been a better advocate if she would have stayed true to her white identity.
  • The neutral liberal argument: Rachel shows America that we are indeed post-racial.
  • The sympathetic apolitical argument: Rachel should be given sympathy because she chose a form of solidarity that went all the way.
  • The right wing reactionary argument: Rachel proves that the left is opportunistic and inconsistent.
  • The leftist, anti identity politics view: Rachel is uninteresting and simply points to the distracting category of identity and is merely a hyperbolic example of America’s insane and highly individualized culture.

I’m definitely in the first category and in the last category – the problem is that there is very little chance of bridging these two divides because for anti-racism activists and so on, race is an exception to the “all identity is a social construct” argument.

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