I sat down on Wednesday to put in writing my own thoughts about the roiling debate over Rachel Dolezal’s decision to “pass for black.” Now the murder of nine African Americans in church by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, has made incessant analysis of Dolezal’s identity seem less important. However, there are ways that events in Charleston and Spokane can be linked. In both instances there are two themes being debated: the social construction of race and how whites can be allies to communities of color.
Most of what we’re hearing from academics who’ve studied race is quick to point out that race is not “real” biologically,” but that it’s “socially constructed.” The best commentators will add that the consequences of conscious decisions to categorize people along racial lines are very real in everyday life ... but nobody ever just says “race is real!” It’s a sociological, rather than a biological reality. To observe that it’s socially, and I would add politically, constructed does not make it any less real. To be socially constructed merely means to be human-made. The medium through which you’re reading this now, the mode of transportation you use in your travels, the clothes you’re wearing, were all constructed by humans, but they’re real, right? We should hasten to add that race was socially and politically constructed to impose the domination of one racial group over other groups based on how they looked. Supplemented with the attendant racial ideology (white equals civilized, industrious, intelligent; black equals uncivilized, lazy, dumb), racial categories work pretty well. Ask the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the victims of the Charleston massacre how well race works in subordinating and oppressing people of color.
My beef here with my fellow social scientists and cultural theorists is that we are anxious to posit that race isn’t biologically real as a way to argue for ending racism. Unfortunately, we tread lightly over the fact that it is a very profound social reality, with mostly tragic human consequences. Cultural conservatives who don’t want to talk about racial inequity, or who insist that society should be colorblind, hold onto the “race is not (biologically) real” piece and forget about the sociological complexities of the conversation. In the name of “keepin’ it real” we owe it to society to hammer away at the fact that race and racism are realities and continue to have very real consequences for life-chances in our society.
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On How to be a White Ally
Although there are outliers, most of us who are racial justice activists and scholars encourage whites of good will to take an active part in the work of achieving racial equality in this country. Speaking for myself, I believe that we cannot realize that goal without the active participation of white Americans. The tragedy of Rachel Dolezal resides not in being a traitor to her race, but in her effort to be something that she isn’t.
The way in which people fit into racial groups are fluid, and some of us have a range of options, or boxes we might check. But as unsettled as those categories may be, the vast majority of African Americans do not have the luxury of deciding not to be “black.”
The social and ideological construction of race based on physical appearance works well enough that it limits the racial options available to the Trayvon Martins and the victims of Charleston. The disproportionate killing of black and brown people by the police and the stunning re-emergence of white supremacist violence beg for white America to stand up and say “no more.”
But you don’t have to misrepresent yourself like Rachael Dolezal. The role that whites play “as visibly white” in the racial justice movement can be a huge difference-maker for the kind of society in which I want to live. First of all, whites can demonstrate to communities of color that to be white is not to be irrevocably racist. Secondly, anti-racist whites can be a powerful role model for everyday white people who consider themselves to be good people, but don’t see themselves as political activists. These “representations” of whiteness are important components for societal transformation in the post-Ferguson era. My dear white friends, now is not the time to remain silent and immobile. After all, people of all races are just trying to be comfortable in our own skins.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vernon D. Johnson is director of the Ralph Munro Institute for Civic Education and professor of political science at Western Washington University.