Monday, June 15, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Passing, Privilege, and Working for (Real) Justice

My first encounter with the phenomenon of "passing" was a literary one, during a Harlem Renaissance class I took in college; we were reading Nella Larsen's novel Quicksand, which describes the friendship of two women who identify as Black, but can "pass" as White*, and Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun, in which the protagonist wrestles with the question of whether she can give up what she knows to be true about her identity just to gain social advantage.  Though I had some understanding of the complicated ways in which Blackness gets defined in the U.S., I remember thinking about how arbitrary our classifications are, and yet, how much they seemed to matter, even then, in the enlightened 1990s (!), how real they could be when we made them so.

In recent days, we've been reading a lot about Rachel Dolezal, whose story about "passing" as Black has gone viral since her reporting of false hate crimes.  It's raised a lot of questions for me again about why someone might do this (beyond "she's crazy," which would never be said about someone "passing" in the other direction), about how we claim identity and how it is imposed upon us, and about how we work for social justice.

I've been reading Claude Steele's Whistling Vivaldi recently, which is the assigned reading for our incoming freshmen this year.  The book tells the story of Steele's work on stereotype threat, which is (to do the injustice of summary) a condition of experience in which people worry about confirming negative stereotypes about their group; e.g. a Black person who is afraid of confirming that Black people aren't as intelligent, a woman who is afraid of confirming that women aren't good at math, a White person being afraid of confirming that white people are racist.  Stereotype threat, as Steele describes it, is complicated; the people most susceptible to it are the people who are actually least likely to confirm the stereotype applied to they group with which they identify under normal circumstances, but who care enough about subverting the stereotype and feel so anxious and distracted about their performance (in most cases, given some real cues from the environment) that they end up underperforming.

It's interesting to me that Dolezal chose to attend Howard University, a historically Black institution of higher education; at that time, she still identified openly as White, and apparently sued them for discrimination, which suggests to me that the experience was not entirely a comfortable one for her. When I started my first graduate program and began to pursue comparative American "minority" literatures (reading African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American writers), I thought a great deal about my role as an ostensibly "White" woman in a field dominated by "non-White" scholars.  Yes, I was raised in a family that drew traditions and culture from Latin America, and yes, I had experienced racism in a comparatively minor way when I was growing up, but by the time I got to grad school, I was classified by most people as "White." Would I have any authority? Would I be able to address my privilege sufficiently as part of my work? I didn't end up writing a dissertation in English, but I suspect that if I had, I would have--even if I had written with the most pure intention and greatest sensitivity and positionality I could muster--worried about doing the hard work of contextualizing my scholarship fully enough. Perhaps that worry would have been productive, keeping me constantly mindful as a scholar. Certainly, I think that I could do it better now than I could have as a twenty-five year old.

I don't believe that what Rachel Dolezal did was right, at all.**  She was a practiced liar who fabricated all kinds of things about her childhood experience; hers was no sin of omission. And it's not even clear to me that her motivations were pure (e.g. that she did it because she wanted to work for social justice). What she did feels almost like fetishizing.  Other people have called it appropriation.  In either case, I think about the students affected by her lie, students who may have seen her as a mentor or a role model, who had the rug pulled out from under them, and wonder: how did they feel when they learned that her story was all a lie? And more deeply, did it make them wonder who they were, too, and how tenuous identity is? What does it mean to be Black?

Moreover, I'm not sure that working for social justice as a White person posing as a Black person is progress; to me, doing so simply reifies privilege. (Edited to add, recognizing Mel's point below: this approach also tries to create change without building trust, and change without a foundation in trust is shaky at best.)  Brown or black bodies can't "choose" race as Dolezal did***; that act is highly problematic, especially given the fact that she was, presumably, trying to do "the right thing."  For someone working against racism, that choice is a betrayal.

So why not work for justice as the person you are, without claiming a category?  If you are aware that your voice and experience is the dominant one, why not make a point of ensuring that other voices and experiences are heard, no matter how you may identify?

Dolezal's decision to pass, regardless of her motivation, is one answer to that question.  Why not work for justice as the person you are?  Because it's easier not to.  Because, as Angela Goffman did, you may become alienated, and no longer feel like you belong anywhere.  Because it's easier not to say anything than to worry about saying the wrong thing. Or to say the wrong thing in disguise. And in the other direction, because it's also actually possible to gain even more privilege by working as a privileged person on behalf of a group seen as "less privileged"; maybe you want to reject that privilege, too, but don't know how to do so.

Blackness in this country, as Dolezal has so clearly demonstrated, is a fraught category: constructed, and yet vital to understanding our history and fighting for a more just future. But passing doesn't begin to do any of the really difficult work. Steele's book offers a few alternative suggestions: foreground/affirm people's competence and worth; make sure that there's critical mass of everyone in the conversation, to the degree possible; and create situations in which learning (through intergroup conversations)--even if you begin with the understanding that race and gender and a host of other identity categories are constructs--becomes acceptable.  None of these are easy fixes.  And the book isn't a panacea, by any means.  But we have a mountain to climb, and it's about time we got started somewhere.

*  I use the categories of White and Black here, knowing that those categories are as complicated as the words are reductive.
**I'm not even going to get into the issues of blackface and mimicry, which have a long and terrible history in the U.S.  
*** Dolezal could stop being Black any time it really became inconvenient for her to do so, because she didn't need to do so to survive, and she may even profit from her story: perhaps, as one Tweet suggested, "the ultimate White privilege."

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  1. This post makes me reflect on some data I saw about student learning. The data focused on "solo"s, how were students part of a minority compared to the rest of the class. Be it they were female, gay/queer, Black/Latino, first-generation, transgender, etc. What was found was two-fold. First, even if the students were able to "pass," meaning that the rest of the group did not identify them as a minority, they experience high levels of stress which greatly impacted their learning. Second, when in a group setting, the tended to perform based on the stereotype for their identified group. Hence if they were expected to do poorly at math, they would always defer to the majority even if they were correct and the rest of the group was wrong or they felt pressure to get the correct answer if they group considered them the expert.

    The discussion that occurred during this meeting really suck with me as it made me realize that I have to help break this pattern and allow solos a way to integrate into the group in the classroom. In other words, my classroom has to be a safe space for them where they don't always feel on edge.

    The issue is identifying those you are "passing." And it's so hard to do because there's so much wrapped up with those who are pursuing this route. Outing them can be very traumatic.

    Rachel Dolzal's case makes me go a step further. After all, I believe there was harm done by her actions. Making me think more about student psychology.

  2. Yes to this: "What she did felt almost like it bordered on fetishizing."

    It's a very strange thing. I'd not previously been exposed to passing (that I can recall) and this is all fascinating. Her doing it, the comparison to Caitlyn Jenner (in my mind, there's a big difference) and all the opining around it -- so interesting. People are endlessly fascinating.

  3. The whole thing is mystifying and fascinating.

    My brain goes not to Caitlyn Jenner but fraudulent memoirs of the Holocaust and such. Or stunt memoirs like My Life as a Man by Norah Vincent.

    On some fundamental level aren't we all the characters we choose to be when we wake up in the morning? We live with or resist the social categories of race and gender placed on us.

  4. Wow, that's bizarre. It's interesting to read about these kind of things on your blog because otherwise I might not know or think about them much. It makes me think about how much we choose or don't choose our identities, and what that actually means in our contemporary society.

  5. I've been thinking about this situation all weekened and how much we need to trust one another. And how easily that trust can be abused, and in turn, destroyed. What do the people who connected with her do now? How do they trust after this?


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