Keynote for the 42nd National Conference & Annual Meeting
American Association of Access, Equity, & Diversity
American Association of Access, Equity, & Diversity
Rachel A. Dolezal
Race shapes who we are. Or do we shape what race is? The fundamental divide -between those who see race as a social or political reality and those who view race as a biological truth- couldn't have been more noticeable than when my name made headlines around the world last June. Debates about race, culture and identity exploded everywhere.
The conversations –especially online- were messy, with misunderstandings of words like transracial, passing, and blackface. Jokes, memes and cartoons poked fun at my skin color, hairstyle and appearance. Articles called me a fraud, a race-faker, a liar and worse. I was called “cracker” and the “N-word” simultaneously in some posts, where others strung racial slurs together with prefixes like trans to describe what they imagined me to be. Some of the debate seemed self-reflective, as if people were talking out loud about their own identity structures and definitions of race and culture more than actually referencing anything having to do with me.
Two days after the controversy over whether I am black or white erupted, I broke through the gridlock of media surrounding our house and drove my oldest son to the airport. He was headed here, to Washington DC, to do a previously-scheduled internship with the American Association for Access, Equity & Diversity. As a mom, I had mixed feelings about him leaving. I was glad that he could escape the local scene of media frenzy but also worried that his last name might make him a target for unwanted questions or scrutiny. I couldn't be happier with the ways in which the Association surrounded him with personal support, an accommodating environment, and professional experience. Thank you, to Shirley Wilcher, to Carmen Suarez -and all those who have shown my family the kinder side of humanity and demonstrated the real heart behind the work of access, equity and diversity.
So, I am here now -a year later- to share with you some of my thoughts about race, culture and identity. Is race a social construct or a fate we are born into? If race isn't biological, then why is racism so real? The heated exchanges last year revealed how varied the social definitions, experiences and conclusions about race really are.
Perhaps the only kind of race that is universally defined is the one my 14 year old son ran this spring as a first-time track star. Not unlike a foot race, in the racialized world there are clear winners and losers. We have to look no further to understand why than that race was designed by racism -the idea of white supremacy. Putting so-called "white" races at the top, all so-called non-white groups were ranked according to certain assumed connections between visible features and behavior. So powerful was the idea that race is biological and therefore this destiny we are born into, that the worldview of race was used to form a human value scale. And it was this worldview that was institutionalized in the Constitution’s 3/5ths clause, the US Census, and Supreme Court rulings like Dred Scott v. Sandford. This belief in differential value of human beings according to racial categories was used to justify enslaving African people and influenced the goals of eugenics movements like the American Breeder’s Association.
Perhaps in an effort to forget this painful history, or to make the majority feel more comfortable, we don't often speak of the extent of tortures that were endured under this regime of racial power and privilege. Our K-12 curriculum keeps it absent from history textbooks and it remains conveniently erased from our minds unless we seek out books or tune into the new Roots or Underground series.
Whenever discussing where we are and where we want to go with regard to race & identity, I think it serves us to remember what has happened historically and how it connects with our present-day conferences and conversations. African people were boiled in oil, quartered alive, eaten by birds, castrated & raped. And race as a worldview wasn’t just a Black and white issue. It justified genocide against Native people, the Japanese internment camps, and continues to fuel resistance to bilingual education and immigration reform. Although most of these atrocities are part of history, the system of classification that was used to justify these oppression stuck. In the most basic aspects of life, from going to school, going to the doctor, applying for a job, qualifying for a mortgage loan, and even registering a newborn baby's name, we are faced with it. And we are forced to participate in it.
"Check all that apply" some forms say, or others say "Check only one box." Are you Black, white or other? Are you white-Hispanic or non-white Hispanic? What race are you? Choose only one. "Under penalty of law, I agree that I have answered all questions truthfully and to the best of my ability." And yet, we aren’t even given a basic education as to what the differences between race, ethnicity and culture are before we are confronted with these forms. So, what is the truth here, since definitions of race and the number of categorical options vary from one institution to the next, state to state, nation to nation and even decade to decade? Is our race what we look like, what we were categorized as at birth, what we identify as or what someone else says we are? Perhaps there is no universal "understanding" of race –or even a fixed list of options to select- because, after all, we are one human race.
It would be nice if it was just that simple. It is but it’s not. Because, while the biological sciences have agreed that the singular human race doesn't genetically even meet the zoological requirements for separate racial categorization, socially & politically, race seems almost irreversibly embedded. Egregious race-based injustices continue to occur like police brutality, health disparities, disproportionality in arrests & incarceration, inequitable housing & education, not to mention daily microaggressions that some scholars say have an even more damaging cumulative psychological effect than more obvious acts of racism.
For all my professional career, I have worked to advance the causes of human rights, to create a greater degree of racial and social justice, to change the world into something better for my Black sons. But, after losing all my jobs last year and not being able to find access back into what I saw as the "real work" of activism, it left me wondering about another approach. After fighting for civil rights for two decades and seeing marginal amounts of progress that then take committed ongoing efforts to maintain, maybe this is an opportunity to not just treat the symptoms of racism, but to strike a blow to the very system of classification that has institutionalized experiences like racial profiling.
While racism can't be scrubbed from the hearts and minds of the masses instantly, ideas and behaviors can change -and changes in ideas and behavior often need to be encouraged by new laws & policies. I have been wondering what our society would look like if the racial classification system is dismantled? Who would it benefit? We know that the civil rights era brought much-needed access to facilities: laws and policies from that era granted the right to entry. But equitable treatment once inside those doors was not sustained. And when it came to broadening diversity, we have progressed to a degree, but diversity hasn't reach beyond tokenism in some institutions, and in most areas of real power and privilege, there remains a gap. So, what would it take to shift us into a higher gear, to get us over that mountaintop that MLK canonized, to create a Post-Racial world?
We all have a part to play, and there is plenty of room for many different styles and strategies to unify toward the same objective of achieving total freedom, justice & equality for all people. And while some say even seeing race as a social construct is an act of white privilege, anyone can acknowledge the non-biological nature of race without taking acts of racism lightly. In fact, it is because race is a social and political reality but NOT a biological one, that we must undo the inequities that have persisted from such a ranking structure while ALSO challenging the system of classification itself. How can we achieve new results with old thinking? How can we realize justice if we are clinging to the categories that justified slavery and standards like the one-drop-rule that defined Jim Crow?
In the ever-so-complicated work of undoing a several centuries-old idea like race, confusion is a messy part of the process. Some people will point to phenotypes and genotypes and continental ancestral groups as “evidence” of the biology of race, but none of those aspects of our DNA are the same as race. In fact, if we were to call ancestral groups our “race,” we would then need to mandate DNA tests and allow as many as 5000 boxes to be options to check on forms. It seems that, as soon as science underscores common homosapien ancestry in the continent of Africa, and dispels the idea that there are biologically distinct races, society goes right back to reorganizing in terms of separateness. Ancestry.com suggests that if we test our DNA, we can know whether we should be wearing lederhosen or kilts, and that we can even find out “what we are” and that our test results can change our identity. This further blurs race, ethnicity, culture and identity into some sort of singular concept. If our identity indeed is in our DNA, but race and culture aren’t in our DNA, then how do we make sense of these conflicting messages? Who are you? What are you?
And how do we throw out race as an idea while preserving culture? We have realized the richness of diversity and the empowerment of cultural expression, so how would we dismantle racism and race classification without losing the healing power of group bonding, pride and celebration of similarities in lifestyle, food, music and philosophy?
Cultural identity is indeed a healthy source of meaning, motivation and belonging. And, while culture is real, it is not biological. Geography and circumstance often place us from birth in one culture or another, and sometimes the cultural traditions of our childhood are meaningful, while other times we are nurtured more by the cultural landscape where we are as adults. Some religions have judged certain cultural traditions as moral or immoral, good or bad, and sometimes the hierarchies of the race worldview get copied and pasted to cultures associated with racial groups, but ultimately culture is amoral, morally neutral, and cultures are recognized as equal in value. Culture isn't institutionalized like race with categories and boxes to check on legal forms. Culture is celebratory. We don't have racial festivals, we have cultural festivals. While race comes with all the heavy baggage of historical oppression, culture is a place for common ground and empowerment.
So how then does identity find its place between race and culture? Somewhere along our human development, we realize there is a balance of independence and interdependence as we consider our identity structure. Even on our best days of asserting personal agency, we have to acknowledge that life isn’t always forged on our own terms; it is also a group project. Descarte’s claimed “I think, therefore I am,” 343 years ago. Charles Cooley suggested in 1992 that others are the mirror in which we see ourselves. Maybe it’s both; we identify ourselves and we are identified by others. Some of us may have even walked into this dinner and scoped out the room to take a sort of visual “inventory” in terms of whether our group is present or absent, and in what proportion to other groups.
If there is agreement between our own identity and how others see us, this sense of agreement will be experienced in social interactions. So that, if a person identifying as Black is seen as Black by others, or a person identifying as a woman is seen as a woman, or a person identifying as gay is seen as gay, then the individual is living with the expectation and experience of behaviors directed toward them being typically directed toward the group they identify with. If, however, society rejects the individual's identity and doesn’t see them for how they identify, but associates them visibly with another group, there is added dissonance and challenge in navigating public life.
Along with being categorized by others comes the problem of ranking, judging the value of someone’s assumed group, collapsing the history, status and destiny of that group with regard to whether the individual is seen and treated as majority/minority, privileged/disadvantaged, law abiding/law breaking, rich/poor, leaders/followers, valuable/disposable. Is it the categorization, the ranking, or both problematic if we want to realize a world where all people are treated with equal respect and dignity?
If you have ever struggled with your identity along the spectrum of race, culture, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, class, or age, or if you have ever appeared to fit into a box that you didn't identify with, then you know the difference between being the parts of yourself that are acknowledged and accepted by others versus living and being the parts of yourself that are rejected or not seen by others. Or, if you have discovered along life’s journey that you identify as a category other than what was listed at your birth, you may be more empathetic to people with a plural type of identity structure. But, because identities that cross traditional boundary lines of race are rare, society as a whole has not developed the widest span of empathy and access for those who identify as such. It is, in fact, tricky still for some individuals to live and explain themselves in ways that make sense to those whose identity falls more neatly within boxes on forms. Some might argue that, with pay equity still not being fully realized for women, and disparities in safety and justice still existing for non-white populations, we can’t focus on access for smaller groups with trans or plural identities. But, we have learned from history that equity for some isn’t equity at all.
So, what will a truly equitable society look like? Will we continue to add more boxes on forms to widen categories of "race," continuing to hope that people respect these categories as equal, or will we scrap the whole worldview of race and ban the race box on forms? Do we need to develop a more lengthy vocabulary for specific racial, ethnic and cultural identities or will we opt to simplify racial identity as members of one common human race? How do we acknowledge the construct of race while not promoting the type of colorblindness that signifies white privilege?
I believe we are at a turning point in history. We can retreat and reinforce the old habits, confusions and oppressions over race, culture and identity, or we can evolve and grow into a society that recognizes all forms of diversity and has truly equal and equitable access, opportunity and life chances for all people.
Let us not retreat due to what seems like an ever-increasing complexity, but instead may we boldly face this frontier with all the courage and optimism required to end racism and rid the world of the negative energies of oppression, suppression, repression and depression. Since humans created and defined the very inhumane structure of race, for the purposes of greed and in order to leverage power of one group over another, we as humans can recreate and redefine, so that our children and grandchildren will be able to live and love in a world where neither how they were born, nor how they look, nor how they identify is justified by society as a reason to shame, blame or disallow them equal access and opportunity in life. As Minister Shabazz said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
- Rachel A. Dolezal