“… each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other.” — James Baldwin, Here Be Dragons
If Rachel Dolezal got the idea that racial identity was more a sensibility than a matter of skin colour, that it was as much cultural as biological, well, it didn’t come from nothing.
From ancient times to the present, from politics to literature to pop culture, the search for identity is an essential human journey, its expression often complicated, its essence sometimes fluid.
The Oracle at Delphi advised that the first order of business in living well was to “know thyself.” Who am I? What shaped me? How can I become the person I wish to be?
For Dolezal, the white woman turned black activist, and to a lesser extent Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic decathlete formerly known as Bruce, they are the most recent manifestation of the grief and gratification that can come from answering those questions.
Of the two, Dolezal, who until outed by her parents led a Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP, has been the most controversial. Jenner, after all, was not the first person to undergo gender reassignment, merely the first 65-year-old, one-time Olympian to end up posed on the cover of Vanity Fair in a corset.
Throughout history, the issue of identity has often been less than clear-cut. Mythology is full of hybrid creatures — centaurs, fauns, mermaids — that mix human and other traits. Indigenous peoples frequently adhered to an animism in which animals, plants and inanimate objects had spiritual essence.
Down the generations, men and women have imagined and experimented with inhabiting another’s skin. Tales of altered identity have captivated mankind — from Romulus and Remus, the twins of Roman legend raised by wolves, to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper to the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd film Trading Places.
In her aspirations, and her claims to be a white person of fundamentally black identity, Dolezal has spiritual forebears in American culture.
In his classic On the Road, Jack Kerouac said: “… I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver coloured section, wishing I were a Negro …”
Wasn’t the blurring of colour lines foreshadowed in the TV sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Air, when the black character Carlton Banks — cue Tom Jones — owned a sensibility of palest white?
And what was author Toni Morrison saying when, in 1998, she called Bill Clinton America’s “first black president.”
By that, the Nobel laureate didn’t claim he had black skin. She said Clinton, in his background, tastes and spirit, displayed “almost every trope of blackness.”
Robert Wald Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., gets the allusion.
Last year, Sussman wrote The Myth of Race: The Troublesome Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. In it, he contends that most of the research produced by anthropologists, biologists and geneticists over the past half-century supports the idea that race is primarily a cultural creation and identifier rather than biological reality.
As a species, humans are, genetically, extremely homogeneous, he says.
“Race is a cultural definition, not a biological definition,” Sussman told the Star. And it is especially so in race-haunted America. “If you go to a different culture, let’s say Brazil, it’s a very different concept of what race is.”
Dolezal may have done the country a favour in provoking a new look at race, he said, even as the U.S. is racked by the reaction to police killings of young black men in numbers of communities and a mass murder in South Carolina.
“Everything’s sort of coming up at the same time,” he said. “Something has to start making a difference.”
As in most things, the United States is a study in conflict on the business of identity. Almost by definition, arrival in America meant personal reinvention. Newcomers were assured they could become anything they set their mind to. The poor could become rich, the obscure could become famous. But the defining divide was, and remains, race.
Yet in The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, Christine Kenneally writes: “Race is an imprecise and ultimately unhelpful notion in biology … ‘race’ is one of the shiftiest words in language.”
By shifting hers, Rachel Dolezal brought a world of contempt and abuse down on her head. But if her struggle for identity turned painful in a society that prefers a black and white outlook, she no doubt took counsel and comfort in James Baldwin.
“You have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you,” he said.
His choice of verb was instructive.