During these past days there have been two events that have made me question my own perception of race. First the Rachel Dolezal case in which a person of white ascendancy chose to be black; and second, the shooting of nine unarmed black people by a white supremacist. Both cases happened in the US but were widely discussed beyond its borders becoming a topic of massive opinion on social media. Beyond the specifics of these cases and their moral evaluation, I am mostly interested in understanding why race is an uncontested “reality” even for media channels and even for the so-called “international left”. I am intentionally not defining this “international left” because I do not want to bind it to any particular ideology, movement, party, or personality. The ideological trends exposed here are not necessarily fact-based but fairly well-founded.
The only piece I could read that opened the discussion on the concept of race and the “color codification of power” was by Hamid Dabashi in Aljazeera. The rest of the media channels put forward a number of opinions that contributed to vilify Rachel Dolezal without unlocking the door for further discussion. On the one hand, Charles M. Blow in the New York Times was pushing an aggressive piece that not only described her as a dangerously deceitful person, but mocked her as a regular costumer of a local tanning business. On the other, the more “liberal” or “leftist” sources were not very different in their approach. In a humorous tone Jon Stewart’s team adopted a condescending attitude stating that the black community needs allies, not replacements. The Young Turks questioned her mental state and closed the small opening for nuances with the charges of impersonation and blackfacing. A bit more profound is the opinion of Syreeta McFadden in The Guardian who explains the differences between ‘transracial’, a person brought up in a different racial context than his or her natural one, and the plain identity thievery of Dolezal that reinforces racial discrimination. Zeba Blay in The Hufftington Post goes on claiming that the case of Jenner Caytlin, a transsexual sport icon, and Dolezal case were intrinsically different because trans identity is inherently true while Dolezal was using black identity as a commodity and could re-whiten herself.
The roundtable of DemocracyNow! was particularly worrisome given its position as a representative media of the “alternative let”. It not only reinforced the opinion of Dolezal as an identity thief but because no one questioned race as a category for social interaction. I found very significant the participation of a Lacey Schwartz, the writer and director of an autobiographical documentary “Little White Lie” (2014). Schwartz was born and raised in a white upper-middle class Jewish family and, despite the darker shade or her skin compared to her family and friends, she did not know that her biological father was black until she was eighteen. Interestingly, her skin color is rather similar to that of Rachel Dolezal who, contrary to Schwartz, was raised with black siblings and self-identified very early with black culture (whatever that means). To my surprise, Schwartz was not only blacker than Dolezal, but Dolezal was not black at all. After this discussion I was left thinking that being black is not only determined by the color of your skin, you also need a pedigree.
As a European I lack depth on some of the debates on the social composition of the US and conceptual categories that are just taken for granted within popular knowledge, for instance race. The racial history of the US goes, as far as I understand, from slavery, to liberation, legal segregation, legal equality but practical segregation, and ends up in affirmative action and negationism of racial discrimination. However, as an ignorant European, the scientific proof that race is not a biological category, I thought, was enough to dismiss it as invalid to understand “reality”.
And here is where the second case enters in the debate. The shooting of nine black unarmed persons by a white person in South Carolina draws our attention back to race. The shooter wore a vest with the flags of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, two well-known segregationist states which indisputably connects this killer with white supremacist ideology and makes the black skin of his victims as the cause of his actions. To make it more obvious the church where the shooting happened is a symbol of the black struggle for equality. This was a racist attack.
However, does race exist per se?
The conceptual context
During the last decades we have witnessed the political engagement of the so-called “international left” with several social and academic categories for the broadening of free spaces for collectives and individuals. As a result, several social categories and conceptual frames of reference changed their meaning or became a space of social struggle for equality.
First, during the anticolonial wars, nationalism became an instrument for the colonized to rally against the colonizers using the very same tools provided by the “civilizing mission”. The states became the borders within which peoples imagined their social ties and nativized their legitimacy to rule themselves. However, in post-colonial times, nationalism became a discourse for the elites to manipulate the popular sentiment and strengthen their abuse of institutions inherited from colonialism. Today, nationalism is either rooted on anticolonial grounds or questioned as reactionary ideology to legitimize internal power struggles among different political cliques within a country.
However, nationalism could never exist without nationalist. In other words, nationalism, understood as the political mobilization of collectives for the materialization of a nation, is totally dependent on the individual choice of participating on such ideology, feeling, or social project. Nationality, on the other hand, is mandatory, or at least theoretically. The result of colonialism and the nationalist anticolonial independence movements made of the state system a global political network where every individual must have a legal identity necessarily attached to a state. However, this is changeable. Due to residence, affinity, marriage or other legal procedures, individuals can change their nationality permanently or even accumulate them in dual nationalities. Furthermore, there is a general tendency in the so-called “international left” to shift the political loads of nationality to citizenship, which is less bounded by birth and more accessible by personal choice.
Second, gender identities are also put into question. The dichotomy man/woman and the distribution of roles according to patriarchy is fought against by denying the space for any cultural distinction except those purely biological which, consequently, are thought of as opportunities for the construction of equality by socio-cultural, legal and political means. The longstanding arguments of the division of labor and the genderized spaces of the public and private have been (generally) overcome. That is why affirmative action is institutionalized in zipper electoral systems, paternity leaves, quotas, etc. In the same line, symbolism has become an important instrument to neutralize the inequality endured by women making of language, imagery, and social behavior a battlefield for equality.
Third, although there is still a long way to go, sexuality has already been accepted as a personal choice. And this includes not only preferences on practices or partners, but also biological change of sexual attributes. Today, a person born as a man can turn into a woman through surgery and still be accepted as a human being. The strategy to fight against sexual and transsexual discrimination varies from a deeply conceptual approach, in which sexual identity is thought to be a cultural dichotomy and not an actual defining identity, to the proud parading of voices claiming a public space to introduce and accept the queer into normality. Furthermore, while there are trends that connect sexual orientation to biological determinism, the actual practice and public recognition of such identities are left to the individual as the only rightful person to decide on his or her life.
And fourth, ethnicity is probably the most problematic category as it is located somewhere between cultural and physical difference. I truly thought (or wanted to think) that ethnicity was a fancier and more elaborated way to talk about race because race itself was just an old paradigm that troubled humanity just too much. And it seems that I am not the only one. The confusion between both terms of some of the writers and presenters previously mentioned suggest that race and ethnicity are so interrelated that their definition becomes part of the given political stance to be put forward.
Interestingly, the concept of ethnicity is not used on the white-black divide in the US, but on the differences with all the rest to the so-called “minorities” (which stands for non-WASP ascendancy), whether South Asian, Far East Asian, South and Central American, or Middle Eastern. In other words, ethnicity is used for those populations that are not black but not quite white. And this is where popular culture touches right to the core of the issue. Hummus, a paste made of chickpeas and sesame, is labeled as ethnic food while pizza is simply Italian food. Curry, sushi, and tacos, are other examples of ethnic food while chicken wings are soul food and bagels a New York culinary tradition. The selection of the attributes for the self and the differentiation with the other are always flexible and open to interpretation, especially with such a trivial topic as food.
Nevertheless, ethnicity is also used as a classificatory concept of peoples worldwide, especially in conflictive regions, which colors the conflict with tones of immemorial and biological grounds. In the Balkans, ethnicity is mixture of religion, language, and nationalism resulting in Serbs, Bosnians, Kosovars, etc.; in the Middle East is mainly a difference between religions and religious denominations, and sometimes also languages, which results in Shias, Sunnies, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, etc.; in Darfur, it comprises language and socio-economic activities; also in Europe the Romani people constitute an ethnic group due to their socio-economical activities and sometimes language; in Rwanda-Burindi, the Tustsi-Hutu divide is purely a genetic definition. Consequently, ethnicity is that conceptual frontier between the cultural and the physical that at once replaces and legitimizes race a as a biologically bounded categorization of humanity.
Race, thus, in the echoes of ethnicity is still accepted as a conceptual tool to analyze collective and individual identities that do not constitute a choice for the bearer. This is understandable in a society with a deeply rooted racial history such as the US. However, when we broaden our analytical horizons and try to use a global category, race just does not hold.
Manuel was born and raised in Spain, a one-color country where migration was only felt during two decades after 1990s. His father is Palestinian-Jordanian and Manuel received not only his genes but also Arabic language and Jordanian nationality. Manuel went to Jordan recently for the first time and found out that his hybrid identity allows him to “go native” or “play the foreign” depending on the situation. However, at the moment of looking for a job he had to present his Jordanian passport to avoid the requirement of a working visa as a migrant worker. The result was not only that he really found it hard to find a job in Jordan as a Jordanian but, when he actually got the job, his salary was inferior to that of his colleague, whose name is Matt and speaks German. Whether the difference between Manuel and Matt is racial or ethnic is a conceptual matter, however, what appears to be obvious is that white privilege goes beyond the US and the West. In fact it is in the non-white-only societies where white privilege stands out as color difference is more obvious.
However, and this is the paradoxical turn of events, Manuel is thinking of migrating to the US and he would not have problems in identifying as a Hispanic, thus being eligible to some minority affirmative actions, despite the fact that he does not feel any special attachment to Latin America or any migrant disadvantaged community in the US. Interestingly, a Portuguese person, who was born just few kilometers away from the place where Manuel was, whose culture and language is for the most part very similar, and whose families are related due to cross-border marriages, would not be eligible to tick the box of Hispanic. Manuel’s racial identity is a good example of the nuances of this category and the flexibility of self-identification as he is white in Spain, Arab in Jordan and Hispanic in the US.
Another interesting example is that of a Rasha, a woman born in a wealthy family in Pakistan, where most of the people are brown and Muslim. She received a world-class education abroad in an IB school and afterwards she registered in a top university in the US. Consequently, she reads and writes English much better than she does in her “native” Urdu. Later on she entered as a consultant in an UN job and is now considering applying to a top-world school for her postgraduate education. She is part of the global system of affirmative action that secures spaces for underrepresented and underprivileged peoples in international and intergovernmental institutions. But how underprivileged she really is when at her family house there are more than the double of domestic workers than members of the family? How representative she is of her home country/culture/ethnicity/race when she has difficulties with her own written language?
With these two examples I do not question their professional or intellectual capacities. They are both brilliant students and engaged workers that overpass the rest of their colleagues. Nor it is my intention to put into question the system of affirmative action that, in most cases, helps individuals to achieve personal goals that are especially difficult to reach due to discrimination endured by the social collective and context in which they are immersed. The whole point is to call attention on the apparent fixity of race and the volubility of category that in theory is biologically determined but practically negotiated.
Of course race is a matter of difference, and difference a matter of context. When there are two persons, one is white and the other is black, it is obvious that this difference exists. But there are many other differences that are not talked about such as height, weight, hair color, age, etc. Now, when the context is the US where a deeply rooted history of racial discrimination surfaces daily, race is the elephant in the room. However, I still struggle to grasp the usefulness of the concept of race, especially when considered in a contemporary world that is changing at a very fast pace not only technologically but also sociologically.
Global migration and interdependency has always existed, but today it is intrinsically different as destinations are very likely to be only temporary; communications facilitate further mobility as well as cultural exchange; international communities (either diasporic, expatriate, or plainly migrant) are sizable everywhere in the world, though primarily urban. Difference is so likely to occur now that soon there will not be any difference but an amalgam of physically heterogeneous individuals.
Taking all this into consideration, there are two questions that pop up and I am unable to answer. The first one is related to the issue of performativity, particularly in academia and other fields of production of knowledge. Building up on a text by Cooper and Brubaker I ask myself about the usefulness of the concept of race and the unintended consequences derived from its employment. Does its use as an identity category in an attempt to explain social interaction contribute to the reproduction and reification of race as a “color codification of power” and consequently to the further racialization of society? The color-blind approach is not really an option as this would legitimize the reproduction of systems of privilege and domination while completely failing to understand social interactions resulting from a racialized context. Thus, is the concept of race, in an academic context and for the time being, the lesser evil that helps us to struggle against racist practices?
The second question revolves around the rigidity of race itself and the attitude of the “international left” in order to expand the limits of individual freedom and choice. Building on the hypothesis that race actually exists as a category of self-identification and considering that is malleable, how can we enable and enhance the possibility of individual choice bypassing biological determinism as it has already be done with national, gender and sexual identity? One could argue that, while race could be subject of interpretation in some particular cases, in others it is actually impossible to turn black the white, or vice versa. Hence, why would we be interested in keeping, using, and strengthening a category of self-identification if there is no possible alternative to the naturally given one? In other words, why bother if there is no choice? Or more importantly for the Dolezal case, why not bother if there is a choice?