Follow-up: On Membership and Privilege

[I’ve been trying – very unsuccessfully – to stop paying attention to the Rachel Dolezal story. It has been very difficult, because it keeps popping up in my Facebook news feed, and then I see comments on my posts or other friend’s posts about the story that I feel compelled to respond to. I’ve heard critiques from friends aout how we shouldn’t be spending time talking about this stiry when there are other leaders of integrity whose stories could be getting told and other pressing issues to address; I can understand and respect that critique. At the same time, rather than trying to make myself feel bad about how I’m processing this, I’m going to go with my own flow, and explore the questions about it that I need to explore. This post is an exploration of one of those questions.]

I’ve seen a number of articles and posts about the question of whether race is/should be fluid, whether the idea of someone identifying as a different race should be equivalent to their identifying as a different gender, etc. Jelani Cobb’s article in the New Yorker is by far one of the most sophisticated and nuanced commentaries on the question that I’ve read, walking a pretty decent line in addressing both the problems with Dolezal’s racial identification and the problems of racial identification, period. Even so, I feel like he doesn’t quite touch on one aspect of this “fluidity of race” question that bothers me every time someone brings it up.

As I mentioned in my last post, race is very specifically a tool for the definition and maintenance of white privilege. This means that, as history has shown, race is indeed fluid – but only in that people who are white get the privilege of determining who else they let into their club, as well as how they label and treat everyone who isn’t a member. It’s not fluid in that I don’t get to pick and choose how I want to identify if I’m not a member of the club. And it’s important to note that Rachel Dolezal does have the privilege of white membership, which is why she gets to choose. (I’m not going to get into it in depth here, but yes, people with non-European ethnic heritage who are able to “pass” as white are also benefitting from white membership, which they obtain as a result of skin color privilege.)

As a result, Dolezal’s story ends up highlighting a fascinating double function of the “one-drop” rule: it can simultaneously be used to exclude anyone defined or perceived as non-white from white spaces, while also giving white people a way to crash non-white spaces whenever they decide they want to. [Update: I just read a fantastic article going into this point in more depth.] This is a critical dimension of racial oppression: never allowing people of color to have safe spaces. And it’s a demonstration of the power that comes along with privilege: white people can and vigorously do police their spaces to deny access to people of color, but the right of people of color to do the same is challenged and/or denied outright.

It’s not just around race that you see this. It happens when men cry “reverse sexism” at the existence of women’s college or gyms. It happens when the cultural artifacts of groups that have been marginalized get appropriated by dominant groups; whether it’s the vigorous defence of the right of the Washington football team to continue using its current name and logo despite how offensive it is to many Native Americans, or this example that I recently read about the appropriation of vogue culture from queer spaces. And you can find so many examples around race, from the modern “reverse racism” cry around wanting to pick leaders of color for orgnizations serving people of color to the violent destruction in the 19th and 20th centuries of black towns and black farm cooperatives in the South whenever they managed to create some semblance of residential or economic security. Whenever a group experiencing oppression seeks to create a space for its own self-preservation, healing and power building, the dominant group will use a variety of tools from infiltration to extermination to bust up those spaces.

While the right of resorting to violence to undermine spaces for people experiencing oppression is always retained, today’s most prominent tools tend to be more subtle: the language of “diversity,” “inclusion,” and cultural sharing. This article does a great job of explaining how that language gets used to reinforce oppression rather than dismantling it; I quote it at length here, but you should read the whole piece:

“Inclusivity” and “exclusivity” are politically meaningless without context and divert attention away from specific power dynamics. In common use, they are assigned inherently positive and negative values without specifying who is being included or excluded. This is why you might see a group proudly promote itself as being more “open” and “inclusive” than a group which is intentionally exclusive to create a safer space for a specific marginalized group. This is because de jure segregation is so strongly associated with racism. Still, segregation is not racist in and of itself. It is racist depending on a history of white supremacy, depending on who is enforcing segregation, and depending on the material impact of said segregation.

While after a history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, fighting for desegregation was obviously necessary, but that progress is not inherent to diversity and inclusion. They are only valuable insofar as they reduce a white stronghold on power … [For organizations providing space for and run by marginalized people], diversity and inclusion whitewash and undermine the very basis of their value for racial justice and feminism: providing access to resources, representation, and power to identity groups that lack them. Not only is “inclusivity” politically meaningless, but to frame the benefits of stronger representation of marginalized races, genders, etc. within “diversity” gravely strips the progress it provides of its power and political significance. There is then danger in uncritically advocating for—or even just discussing power dynamics in terms of—diversity or inclusivity.

Closed spaces for marginalized identities are essential … Any group, whether organized around a shared marginalized identity or not, will by-default be centered around the most powerful within that group. For example, cisgender white women will dominate women’s groups that aren’t run by or consciously centering trans women and women of color. A requirement for all groups to be fully open and inclusive invites the derailment and silencing of marginalized voices already pervasive in public spaces, preventing alternative spaces of relative safety from that to form.

And perhaps it is that distraction from discussing issues of power and privilege that is one of the things that bothers me most about the Dolezal story. I can already see how people are using it to bring up the “colorblind,” “we’re all one race” arguments that try to undercut focus on race-based inequities and injustices. We already have enough issues discussing power and privilege, or the need for reparations to address historical injustices, or the ongoing ways that organizations purporting to “serve” people of color replicate oppression through paternalism and suppression of the leadership of people of color. We already have too many white people and white-led organizations inflitrating or taking over safe spaces for people of color, in order to advance their own psychological and material benefit.

I believe that Rachel Dolezal – like so many white people and white-led organizations – was sincere in wanting to help communities of color, and I also believe that she did some good things while she was in her positions in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. At the same time, how one does these things matters, and oppression can’t be fought by sweeping issues of power and privilege under the rug. In an unusually breathtaking way, Dolezal was unwilling to confront and deal with the reality of her white privilege, and she carried and used that privilege in all the spaces she occupied while trying to serve. Her privilege helped her to dominate and become the center of those spaces. And that pattern, no matter how well-intentioned, must be named and disrupted.

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