Theorist Stuart Hall suggests identity is better understood as identification. That is, our identities are not fixed as essential realities whether gender, or race or nationality. We are always living into or out of the ideas and representations of what these things are.
Rachael Dolezal apparent presentation of herself as black shows this to an extent. She is living into a people with whom she has seemed to identify with. But this process requires point of departure and a point of entry. You identify from a particular place and a particular body, and this is part of the process of negotiating your identity.
To act as if you have no point of departure is to persist in a delusion and re-enact Americas fundamental racial sin – to pretend there was no history before you arrived, then co-opt the resources of the land for your benefit. Perhaps her life had deep resonances with aspects of the African American community. But to really understand that community, to understand their history also has to be an acknowledgement of what her white body signifies in that history. To even say that one is mixed must be to confess the complicated realities of mulatto identity and colorism in American racial history.
By simply calling herself black, she bypasses the complications of a white history, a white body and the questions that inevitably arise about why she understands herself as connected to that community. She did not want to negotiate these complications, she wanted to possess something that was not hers.
There are plenty of people who identify with a community that is not theirs. But when you lie in order to feign a deeper connection or gain credibility or attain a position, that is something else entirely.
I have wondered why this story bothered me so much today when there are so many other pressing realities in our country. But then I realized… this story is important right now because we cannot oversimplify the idea of race as “social construction.”
There are too many people dying who cannot turn around and say “don’t shoot, I’m white!” And expect to live. These systems of oppression are circulating around complicated networks of representation, economics, and national belonging that are difficult enough without someone claiming an ahistorical blackness.
What would be complicated is Dolezal living into her identification with the black community, but from her point of departure – a white women’s body. In the end, we need to imagine a possibility that our particular bodies can speak new words. But to do this we still need to acknowledge our old language.