I had a piece in yesterday’s LA Times on the Rachel Dolezal affair that you can check out here.
The reaction to the piece has been overwhelmingly positive, but there’s been a few people who have accused me of writing an anti-“political correctness”, anti-identity politics, or similar piece. I find that idea very frustrating. That’s not the text of the piece; that’s not the intent of my piece; that’s not how my editor and I discussed it. The piece is not a complaint about political correctness. It’s not a complaint about academia. It’s not a complaint about activism. Anyone who represents it that way is lying to you.
The very central argument of the piece is that Dolezal manipulated theories and ideas that I agree with, and she did so for perverse reasons I was trying to think through. Since I apparently wasn’t clear enough, I believe in the social construct theory of race. But as I’ve said several times since this story broke, I also think that social construct theory is really complicated, and we need to talk about it with care and with understanding for those who don’t immediately understand. (Update: Jamelle Bouie has a piece that could serve as a model for just this kind of compassionate but unflinching discussion.) And we have to recognize that people like Rachel Dolezal — who I think is some combination of dishonest and traumatized and deserves sympathy along with condemnation — are going to find ways to manipulate a complex set of theories like that. That’s not an insult to social construction theory. It’s just a recognition that no theory, in the history of politics, has ever been perfectly functioning with all of its parts working in pristine coordination. If that statement itself has become impermissible, I don’t know what stance is left other than blind agreement and keeping our heads down — which is how we got Rachel Dolezal in the first place.
If there is one complaint in my piece, it’s this: that we’ve mistaken the necessary sensitivity and deference that we work into our engagement with these issues, given their great political and emotional weight, with a refusal to have the hard, frequently-uncomfortable conversations we must have. That’s what I’m arguing: that Dolezal was able to play in the spaces where many are afraid to go, because we mistake our duty to be careful and sensitive with a duty to not ask or answer tricky questions.
My disagreements with many people stem from a simple mistake. The discourse that we call intersectionality or identity politics or one of many names contains many ideas I agree with and some I disagree with. That discourse was first pioneered largely by people of color, women, and other marginalized groups. But it has in recent years been adopted by many people who come from our country’s demographic of power: white, affluent, educated, urban people. Many times, they use this discourse in ways that I see as illegitimate. In particular, they want to borrow a kind of rhetorical power that has been granted to that discourse, in a few small and idiosyncratic spaces, for their own ends. Rachel Dolezal is not the first person to borrow blackness. She’s just one of the few to do so as nakedly and with as much risk as she has. Every time you find some white professional writer who was raised in upper middle class comfort and who was educated at Brown appropriating intersectional discourse for professional or personal gain, as they do whenever their work is criticized for any reason, you can see the same bare logic. Could I be wrong about that? Sure. Is saying that many people misuse this discourse out of self-interest the same thing as dismissing that discourse? No. It’s just not.
I think, quietly, there are a lot of people who have noticed an unhealthy appropriation of discourses of marginalization by those who are not marginalized. But they’re afraid to point out this appropriation for fear of having that same discourse turned against them. Dolezal’s story has, in an absurd and sad way, made this dynamic real. If I can’t say that such behavior is wrong without being forced into some “anti-PC complaint” narrative, then I’m not sure what space is left than just the inherently apolitical stance of total acquiescence.