Monday, June 15, 2015

Race is allowed to be complicated

Rachel Dolezal has recently made news for allegedly misrepresenting herself as black.  Note that I am not a newspaper, and I don't necessarily keep up with every single update, and my opinions are subject to update pending further details.  What I know is that she is a leader of a NAACP chapter.  She has four black adopted siblings.   Her two estranged white parents recently came forward saying that she has been misrepresenting herself as black.

Probably the weak point is the story is, has she really been representing herself as black?  The NAACP still seems to support her, saying they accept leaders of all races.  When asked directly by journalists, she gave a dodgy answer, which suggests that she tells people it's complicated, rather than telling people she's black.

I don't really know what it's like to be black, although from a half-Asian perspective I find the treatment of black/white boundaries in the US to be rather... black and white.  There's this one-drop rule, where if you have even a little black ancestry, then you're just black.  And there's hardly any discussion of black culture or the black community as separate from blackness itself.  I'm not saying that the way we think about blackness is wrong, I'm just saying that it's not the only logically coherent way to think about it.

Here's what I know about my own experience:

In college, I somehow ended up in the Filipino retention program (they had similar groups for most minority ethnicities) and I had to awkwardly tell my assigned mentor that I'm not really Filipino.  Sweating, I launched into an explanation of how I probably told the university I was Filipino, though I didn't remember it, and how my mother immigrated from the Philippines but she's ethnically Chinese, but it's not like I lived in the Philippines personally so I guess I'm just Chinese, I mean, half-Chinese.  I was also born in Korea but that doesn't make me Korean.  The mentor told me I was in the right place, but I wasn't sure and felt uncomfortable about it most of the time.  But now I think she was right.

Honestly, I've felt pretty white most of my life.  I am white, or half at least.  I've felt more Asian in recent years mostly due to having a white boyfriend.  We find our respective family's practices to be bizarre at times and I'm getting a better sense for Asian cultural markers in my experience.  These days I understand that English is an official language in the Philippines, and Catholicism is the main religion, and that's why I missed out on some of the more obvious aspects of being a second generation Chinese immigrant.

In short, race is complicated for me, and I sometimes identify as Filipino despite not having any Filipino blood.

I don't know what it's like to be black in this country.  There are some completely different things going on, with opression more closely attached to perceived race than to immigrant culture.  There's also a much more severe history of opression and appropriation.  There are probably good reasons why black and white groups are treated in such black and white terms.

But when there's one individual who says her experience is complicated, there's nothing inherently ridiculous about that.  I can certainly think of problematic motives for such a stance, but it's not necessarily wrong, and honestly how would I know?

Instead I would defer to people who know much better than me: the NAACP.   The NAACP has been supportive of Dolezal, and cites her impeccable track record as an activist.  That's good enough for me until such a time that NAACP changes its story.


I also heard from news sources that people on twitter are talking about Dolezal in terms of transraciality and comparing it to transgender.

Transraciality is one of those things that tumblr haters constantly hold up as an obviously ridiculous identity, in complete disproportion to its prevalence as an actual identity.  So I don't see the point of talking about transraciality, since no matter how good or bad it is, it's already been the subject of far more hand-wringing than it could possible deserve.

There's also the really obvious issue that without any clear group of proponents of of transraciality, there isn't any good way to verify the accuracy of its characterization.  You can attack the motivations of transracial people all you want but it's kind of pointless if I don't know whether it's their actual motivations.

In fact, how the hell do I know that purported transracial people are even identifying as transracial?  That's basically what's happening here, since to my knowledge Dolezal has never identified as transracial at all.  This entire line of argument is just taking all the internet stupid and smooshing it together.