Our American culture values the concept of self-determination almost above all else: whatever else it might mean in the rarified strata of political theorizing and governmental policy, the concept of charting your own course forward, of being master of your own destiny, of living exactly as you wish to without regard for the expectations of others or attention to their wishes—these manifestations of the basic right to self-define according to your own lights are at the heart of what Americans understand to be the very definition of personal freedom. When the license plates in New Hampshire declare that its citizens would prefer death to being unable to live free, for example, it is to that specific aspect of freedom that I’ve always imagined them to be referring. It is certainly what Patrick Henry meant in his speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775 when he scoffed at those who would live as slaves if that were the price of living at all and famously declared, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me give me liberty or give me death.”
Traditionally, this much-cherished right to self-definition was understood to encompass all possible courses forward in life that one might popularly or unpopularly choose to follow. And so have we systematically worked in our country at demolishing artificial barriers in the academy and the workplace that served solely to thwart the best efforts of individuals to attend some specific school or to find employment in some particular field because of factors wholly unrelated to their actual qualifications for that school or that job. We have been relatively successful in this effort, but other barriers were granted a pass because they seemed to be rooted more in physical reality than in the inherent right to self-define. Our country, for example, is grappling with the apparently insurmountable problem of deciding what to do about twenty million or so aliens who reside here illegally…and no one has suggested that the problem could simply be solved by allowing them the right simply to self-define as Americans, much less qualifying the possibility of doing so as an inalienable right. That, clearly is not how it works! On the other hand, the recognition of the rights of gay people to self-define as such and then to be accorded the same rights as others regardless of that specific aspect of self-definition has been one of the more astonishing developments in our nation over the last decades. But the distinction between the two groups merely underscores the basic principle: gay people may self-define that way because they actually are gay; illegal immigrants may not self-define as Americans because they aren’t Americans…and because nationality is simply deemed too deeply rooted in legal status and personal history to be altered at will.
One of the more interesting features of the social history of the last several decades has been the slow evolution of attitude regarding aspects of personal status once deemed fixed in nature but now understood to be far more fluid than previously assumed. The whole Caitlin Jenner story has to be the most striking example of how public opinion develops in the light of an ever-maturing understanding of the human condition. Once upon a time—and surely within the lifetimes of all readers of these lines—she (or rather she in her former iteration as Bruce Jenner) would have been condemned as a freak or, more kindly, as a deranged person who, although obviously a man in every way, was nonetheless suffering from the delusion—pitiable but certainly not for that reason justifiable—that he was actually a woman. The whole concept of gender dysphoria—and the deeper issue of whether it is a mental disorder in the “real” sense of the term or merely in the sense that homosexuality was so listed by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973—is confusing to most, myself included. I feel sympathetic to anyone who feels ill at ease in his or her own skin, who feels that the only way to survive (let alone to thrive) in society is to suppress an aspect of oneself that feels basic and indelible. Whether the course society has adopted—to insist on relative certainty and then to endorse the concept of doing what it takes, including surgically, to “become” the gender one feels oneself truly to be—turns out to be the wisest way to address gender dysphoria remains, I suppose, to be seen. But the fact that we have evolved to the point at which the discussion is out in the open and is about whether gender and sex are distinct enough to be addressed separately in a physician’s effort to treat the whole person who is his or her patient—that itself constitutes a huge advance over the name-calling that would have attended any effort to discuss the matter at all seriously even just decades ago. And that, regardless of any other aspect of the debate, surely constitutes a big step forward for a society that wants to think of itself in terms of its moral bearing as continually evolving.
And now we come to race, the issue I would like to discuss in today’s letter. Race is, at best, a slippery concept in our culture. People self-define as white or black, but the issue itself is rarely actually thought of as one of self-definition and it would be the odd person out who would argue that black people are black because they self-define as such. On the other hand, being “of” one specific race in our society, for all it obviously to do with parentage, also has to do with appearance: the President of the United States is biologically as white as he is black, yet he is universally described, including by himself in his own books, as a black person. Similarly, the notion of being a black person who looks like a white person doesn’t compute in our culture: blackness is how you look, as is whiteness…so to argue that someone with none of the racial features of black people could somehow nonetheless be a black person makes no sense. And that brings us to the case of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP official from Spokane, Washington, who appears to have assumed the racial identity of a black person without having the parentage that generally goes along with that setting on the dial.
The details of her story are fascinating to consider. Born to two unambiguously white parents, her childhood pictures look like any white child with pale skin and blond hair. (She later claimed to have had a black birth father to go along with her white stepfather, but that appears not truly to have been the case.) Later she became a successful artist and also an outspoken leader in the struggle for civil rights both in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho (where she was the education director of the Human Rights Education Institute, a grass roots anti-discrimination organization founded when Idaho was home to the Aryan Nations white supremacist group, and a teacher at North Idaho College, a community college) and later in Spokane (where she was president of the local NAACP chapter and a teacher of courses in black history and culture at East Washington University). Somewhere along the way, she also began to self-identify as a black person, thereby presenting even her supporters with an interesting question to consider. Is there such a thing as racial identity by self-definition? American culture does not generally recognize that right with respect to ethnicity; no matter how totally familiar with Irish culture someone might be, that person cannot actually become an Irish-American merely by wishing it so. That sounds, at least to my native ears, rational: in our cultural milieu, an Irish-American person is someone who came here from Ireland or whose parents or at least ancestors did…and since it is a label rooted in immutable personal history that cannot be altered by wishful, after-the-fact thinking, it follows that it cannot magically be self-assigned. On the other hand, American society more than endorses the concept of conversion when applied to religion. I myself have assisted many non-Jewish people in their efforts to convert formally to Judaism and thus to become fully and really Jewish: we accept Jews by Choice in our community so completely that even that expression itself is only used to discuss the concept of conversion itself but never publicly to label individuals who come to Jewish life as adults or to single them out from Jews born to the covenant.
And so Rachel Dolezal has presented America with an interesting dilemma, and precisely as racial tension mounts in the wake of the recent incidents involving the deaths of unarmed black men and teenagers at the hands of police officers. There are many books that I could recommend that would be pertinent to serve as the literary background for the debate. Just two years ago, for example, I read the remarkable book by James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, first published in 1912. Johnson, who eventually became the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University and from 1920 to 1930 led the NAACP, had light enough skin to pass for white and began his twin careers in law and music as a white person, only eventually realizing that his blackness could only be ignored at the price of his own self-esteem and sense of internal integrity. The book, even after more than a century, is compelling and very interesting, and I recommend it highly as a strong case for the ineradicableness of racial identity. A similar case was made in Philip Roth’s 2000 book, The Human Stain, which presents the issue from the reverse direction: the book is about one Professor Coleman Silk, a black person who has been passing as white (and Jewish) since his Navy years. In between those two (at least chronologically) was James McBride’s 1996 book, The Color of Water, in which the author’s white mother is depicted as spending her life attempting, never fully successfully, to self-identify as a black person. All of these books are about the question raised by the recent controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s right to choose her own racial identity, and all are very worth reading.
When the Civil Rights movement was in its heyday during my high school and university years, I would never have imagined that all these decades later America would still be suffering over issues directly related to race and racial discrimination. And yet…here we are! Perhaps this whole incident will be justified—other, of course, than with respect to the intolerable infringement of a citizen’s natural right to privacy regarding her own life decisions—if it leads us as a society to reject both the notion that race is a function purely of biology and the fantasy that race is an assumable label to be adopted at will. Like all deep identities in our culture—and surely like Jewishness, which is the “ness” I personally know best—race is a heady mixture of things, at least some of which resist easy definition. We think of those laws that once attempted to legislate blackness or whiteness in terms of percentages as somewhere between creepy and funny. (The Louisiana legislature, for example, passed a law in 1970 defining as black anyone who had in his or her veins one thirty-second “Negro blood.”) But to sneer derisively as such oafish efforts to say who is and who isn’t black is one thing…but to say clearly what we actually do think race is—that is significantly more complicated. Perhaps the time has come to attempt to address that issue on a national level. To say what race means or should mean, it only feel rational to begin by attempting to say clearly what it is exactly that we think race is.