In the first days following the news of Rachel Dolezal’s ruse, there appeared to be some real hope emerging that, at long last, the deadlock of identitarian politics might finally be over. Compelling voices spoke up to acknowledge the simple truth, that identitarianism is essentialism, no matter how much its defenders will ornament their essentialism with the acknowledgment that race is, in the end, a social construction. No one said it more compellingly than Adolph Reed, Jr., who seemed almost poised to become the progressive voice of the new political moment: one that pays attention to serious things.
But then, yesterday, yet another racist attack by a homegrown terrorist took place, and even before the crime scene had been cleaned up we Americans were being scolded for having considered the possibility, for a moment, that racial categorisation (and the essentialism that flows from the practice) is something we might hope to move beyond. Right away, people were being referred to, in the identitarian manner, as ‘bodies’ instead of as people. And the fact of ‘being a black body’ was reinscribed back into the natural order of things. As Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, closing off the Dolezal affair, "The existential question of who is black has been answered in the most concussive way possible: the nine men and women slain as they prayed last night at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, were black."
But the existential question needs to be asked again and again, and the belief that there is a simple answer to it is part of the reason America cannot overcome its murderous pathology, cannot really end the Civil War. Rachel Dolezal grew up in a society that told her, constantly: "You're white, you're white, you're white," and she seems to have thought to herself, "Really, now, can it be so simple as that?" Dylann Roof heard the same refrain, and said, "Why yes I am!" It worked its way into his brain like a worm. I’ll take Dolezal's response to the myth of whiteness over Roof's any day, as we all should, and I refuse to feel bad about the supposed frivolity of the possibilities Dolezal's life seemed, for a moment, to open up. Since when is there a moral duty to remain faithful to the accidents of your birth, and to accurately report your vital-statistical information to the whole world? I'm with Dolezal: I don't give two shits what my ancestors say about who I ‘really’ am (unless it happens to agree with me, which in my case it mostly does). I'm not interested in whether there's a pathology behind it in her case. We all have the right to reinvent ourselves. That's freedom, and it should be spread more broadly still, not condemned and pathologized and restricted.
I recently clicked on a link that brought me to the blog of a young Canadian identitarian. On her ‘about’ page she noted that she lived on unceded First Nations territory and was thus a settler colonialist; that she was white but of a low-income background; and that she had some ancestry from Southern and Eastern Europe that in the recent past would have marked her out in North American society as a target of discrimination. Now where have I seen this before? I thought. Who else spells out their ancestry in their very first presentation of self? Oh I remember: it was in the personal ads on the Stormfront website! (I have an anthropologist colleague here in Paris who introduced me to this dark world, and who is working, in a broadly Foucauldian vein, on American white supremacists; he thinks all Americans are bonkers when it comes to race, and likes to cite a TV show he saw during his fieldwork that featured Snoop Dogg trying to guess, from a panel of candidates, who was genetically the most African.) The white supremacists state these supposedly self-defining ‘facts’ as points of pride, rather than as a sort of helpful identification key for others to place you on the privilege map, but the implicit theory of selfhood is the same. Dylann Roof shares with the young identitarians, purportedly of the left, the same fantasies about how it is we come to be who we are. I am with Reed and Foucault and Dolezal: a motley group of course, but all at least united in their rejection of essentialism.
Again, don’t take this as an expression of fixation on what was ultimately a frivolous media spectacle. I mean it: until Americans overcome their essentialism about race, their inscription of the Black-white divide into the basic ontology of the world, Charleston is going to keep on happening. It is in the interest of white supremacy that this divide be maintained, and the left, for as long as it continues in its identitarian errancy, is being duped into helping to maintain it.