Love, Hate and the Rhetoric of Race
The heinous shooting of nine innocent African Americans in Charleston South Carolina by Dylann Roof and the strange story of former Spokane, Washington NAACP Director, Racheal Dolezal living life as a “Black” woman have put race at the center of the national conversation. Two people, who are classified as “White,” have in many ways defined their lives around African Americans. Dolezal and Roof’s preoccupation with “Black” people led the former to fully immerse herself in the created identity of a black woman and led the latter murder Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel L. Simmons, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson inside a South Carolina church.
Dolezal’s life as a black woman, adjunct Black Studies professor, and NAACP chapter president existed unchallenged in Spokane, Washington until her biological parents “outed” her through local and national media. Further investigative reports discovered she sued Howard University, a historically Black university, for discrimination against white people. But at some point since that lawsuit, she adopted the appearance of an African American woman and began identifying as “Black.” Her physical transformation via darkened skin and frizzed hair begs the question is it this the worst form of appropriating a culture for personal gain, or is it possible to cross racial boundaries?
Initial defenders of Dolezal attempted to make the comparison between her racial transformation and Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transformation Jenner’s recent declaration of womanhood, and Vanity Fair photo cover has been the primary cause for this comparison. The argument is simply, if Jenner has identified as a woman since childhood and Dolezal has claimed to identified with “black people” since childhood as well, then why can’t Rachel be accepted as “Black?” Some disagree with this argument on the basis that there is a biological connection for transgender identity, which makes it different from transracial identity.
Nevertheless, Dolezal’s outing as a white woman identifying as “black” has ignited a discussion about what is race , how do we define it, and whether or not we get to choose what race to identify with? Historically, U.S. southern states adopted one drop rule laws, where individual states defined race based on the amount of “African blood” in a person’s lineage. Terms like quadroon (1/4th Black) and octoroon (1/8th Black) were commonplace in the 19th century and early 20th century. More recently, the increased number of “mixed blood” Americans has resulted in people being able to choose multiple racial categories on a Census form to identify themselves. These questions of race and idea exist in the large part on definitions. Is “black” biological or cultural or both?
The definition of race was apparently clear in the mind of Roof. His killing of innocent people stemmed from his belief that race not only exists but that African Americans are inferior to the dominant “white race.” He viewed himself as a white soldier defending “white womanhood” by initiating what he thought was a needed and inevitable “race war.” Roof’s hate crime was rooted in the idiotic beliefs of various white supremacist groups that advocate that African Americans, Jewish people, and Middle easterners were the root of all evil. Yet in the manifesto that has been identified as Roof’s, the conflict within white supremacist groups over the definition of clear racial boundaries is apparent. Roof notes the struggles of creating an appropriate category for Jewish people. The manifesto states,
Unlike many White nationalists, I am of the opinion that the majority of American and European jews [sic] are White. In my opinion the issues with jews is not their blood, but their identity. I think that if we could somehow destroy the jewish identity, then they wouldnt [sic] cause much of a problem.
Roof adheres to the idea of race but “identity” gets in the way of determining who should or should not be considered a problem. We also see a contradiction in his assessment of “Hispanics:”
There is good White blood worht [sic] saving in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and even Brasil [sic]. But they are still our enemies.
His logic derails because he applies the broad label of “Hispanic” to these countries despite the presence of “white blood.” It will be too difficult for him to determine what is white.
The examples of Dolezal’s love and Roof’s hate center on is the “squishiness” of our social construction of races and identities. Rhetoric scholar Mark Mcphail argues that “the concepts of race and racism are interrelated” and both are rooted in language. In other words, race was created through language in order to divide and rank people in racial terms.
Both Dolezal and Roof created ideas of what is black and made assumptions from those ideas. Although their actions were very different, both were very disturbing.
If you want to know more:
- For more info on rhetoric and race see Mark Phail’s book Rhetoric of Racism Revisited and his explanation of “complicity theory.”
- Another interesting text on the history of race is the History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. Painter traces the history of the terms such as Caucasian and explores the science used to justify racial categories.