Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Is it because I is black?

Rachel Dolezal is a black American race activist who hit the news recently when it turned out she was white. She resigned from the NAACP earlier this week, but claims a 'self-identification with the black experience...that's how I was portraying myself...on a very real connected level.' The interview on the above link shows someone for whom personal experience trumps reality. Her choice to identify as black equates to being black.

(I'm reminded, oddly, of goal celebrations by mercenary footballers. The more kisses they bestow on the team badge after scoring, they less likely they are to stay at the club next season if a better offer comes along. They self-identify as Chelsea on a very real connected level. For this season.)

We've been here before, but not in a serious way. Ali G turns out to be a prophet, as well as a gangsta.  It's an instance of the wider syndrome of personal experience and emotion trumping truth and reality. There is a logic to it - consumer choice (or at least, what we're told is choice) is at the heart of liberal democratic capitalism. Choice has evolved from a virtue to a deity. The prevailing liberal wisdom is that if x is freely chosen by a person, then it is right, whether x is aborting a child, sleeping around, shopping, sexual identity, or when and how to end ones life (preferably on the NHS). The campaign to legalise euthanasia, which the BBC gave another nudge to on Question Time a couple of weeks back, is usually cast in the form of stories, all traumatic and difficult, to make the argument 'who are we to deny people who are suffering so much the choice they most desire?' It's hard to feel sympathy for a generalisation, and equally hard to deny it to an individual. Generalisations deal with principles and argument, individuals deal in choices and personal meaning.

And if we can choose all of these things, rather than have them 'given' by society, culture or religion, then why not race too?

But choice isn't a level playing field. Liberal culture finds it easier to defend the choice of a woman removing clothes for the sexual tittilation of men than a woman who wants to cover herself so as not to be seen as a sex object. Especially if the latter has, God forbid, religious reasons. A recent paper on euthanasia in Belgium notes a change in culture since the law was changed: Social and peer pressure makes it difficult for those who oppose euthanasia to uphold their position in the liberal culture that has been developing. 

Our school ran a session on internet safety a few months back. One phrase which stuck with me was 'for children to be children, parents must be parents'. In other words, its a parents responsibility to set boundaries, to keep their children safe, to say 'no' when 'no' needs to be said. Children who grow up having all desires granted become adults who believe that every personal choice is a sovereign act. To be human is to be limited. Testing those limits is part of being human, living as if they don't exist is simply delusional. This is not the Matrix.

and before you say so, I know this isn't a coherent argument, just some thoughts I wanted to have aloud and see what happened to them. If I choose to blog these words but they make no sense, then who are you to tell me I'm wrong? ;-) Where exactly do postmodern people go to adjudicate between competing truths and choices?

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that there is a fundamental problem here with people getting their sense of self and how they understand the world and their place in it by trying to fit all the complexity and diversity in themselves, including their biological reality and personality, into little compartmentalised boxes marked "race", "gender", "sexuality", etc.

    I really hate the labels people try to put on me (admittedly not that mine do me much harm as such, with my privileged heterosexual WASP status), and the labels people put on other people in order to denigrate, oppress, or simply ignore them are worse. But I think by far the most insidious, dangerous, and foolish thing is to put labels on yourself. We then subconsciously view them as fixed and true descriptions of ourselves which then puts a limit on personal growth, and deny the glorious reality that we're all unique and beautiful for who we are, and not for the boxes we tick.

    The further problem we then face is we perversely try to live out our lives to fulfil the expectations associated with those labels, rather than what we truly are, as if the labels determine how we ought to act. We put on mannerisms and accents, choose jobs, partners, beliefs and hobbies based upon what people expect of us, rather than what we truly want.

    Rachel Dolezal believes that certain aspects of who she is don't really fit into the box she has called "white", and that they better fit the box marked "black", and so she wants people to identify her as "black" so that she can feel comfortable in her worldview. I believe the same dynamic is at work in others who feel like they don't fit within the socially constructed boxes that correspond with the labels that their biological reality has bestowed upon them.

    I strongly feel that demanding society reclassify us into the box of our choosing is a suboptimal solution, and that instead we need to resist the temptation to both see ourselves as the labels that are put on us, and to understand others in terms of the labels that either they or society places on them.