The Strange Essentialisms of Identity Politics

“[I]f you think there’s some biological fact of the matter about what race people actually belong to utterly independent of what race they think they belong to, you’re committed to a view of racial difference as biologically definitive in a way that’s even deeper than sexual difference.”—Adolph Reed, Jr. “From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much,” Common Dreams, June 2015.

In his dissent in Plessy, 163 U.S. 557, John Marshall Harlan writes, “Every one knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white people from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons.” He continues: “The thing to accomplish was, under the guise of giving equal accommodation for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep to themselves while traveling in railroad passenger coaches.”

In 1892, in Louisiana, Homer Plessy, a man who passed as white, took a seat on a whites only car. He was told to take a seat on the black car because he was not legally white. To put this another way, he was compelled to remain in and be judged by a state-imposed racial category. He refused and was arrested. The case wound up in the Supreme Court where the justices (save Harlan) used it to establish legal justification for Jim Crow segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) thus lent constitutional authority to the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

In back of segregation is an ideology constructing race as an actual thing such that a person who does not look black could be classified as black on the basis of his ancestry, a test that requires in its policing not only a profound invasion of privacy but also a profound restriction on the right to self-determination. Some entity not only wants to know what persons are—as if there really are races—but insists that people be this thing. It is not that Homer Plessy wanted to be white. He was, like Rosa Parks decades later in challenging segregated buses, a participant in a contrived test case to challenge the 1890 Separate Car Act. But had Plessy wanted to be white, as his skin suggested he was, he could not be. It was this imposed identity that determined which train car he could ride in. In this day and age, would progressives allow Plessy to be white?

One might think that if racial categories are used to discriminate against people, in light of the fact that race is a construct of racism, an ideology that holds that the human species can meaningful be divided into varieties with different aptitudes and sensibilities and ranked accordingly, the abolition of race would be at the heart of the movement for equal rights. Yet despite having abolished de jure segregation more than half a century ago, many, if not most insist on keeping race as a classification system, one that must be imposed even on those who may wish to be a race other than the one identified on her or his birth certificate or entirely raceless. If race isn’t real, why does anybody have to be a race at all? But at the very least, why can they not identify as the race they wish?

“Please understand me. I’m not a white woman with black skin and African hair. I’m a black woman with heart and soul. Getting more and more the body of a black woman is so a wonderful and liberating feeling for me. I don’t want to offend anyone! But I’m not only outwardly a black woman, I’m also with heart and soul a black woman, I swear that by God!” Those are the words of Martina Adam, a German woman whom who transitioned from white to black.

If there is no such thing as biological race, if a black person can be born and raised in Germany, and if a German person can transform herself into the gender she believes she should be, then why can she not also transform herself into the race she believes she should be? I know, asking this question risks an accusation of transphobia. But I have heard the question but I have not heard an answer. To be sure, people think they have provided an answer. Understand, my point here is not the problematize transgenderism. It’s to problematize transracialism.

Based on her words, Martina might be diagnosed with a form of body dysmorphic disorder. Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP leader from Spokane, Washington, “outed” as white, describes the same anxiety. Both believe they are black. They are changing the way they look to belong to the group with which they identify. They want their outsides to match their insides. Is it discrimination when that group doesn’t accept them for who they really are?

Rachel Dolezal, Who Pretended to Be Black, Is Charged With Welfare Fraud -  The New York Times
Rachel Dolezal

Are transwomen women, as the slogan says? Perhaps this is not perfectly analogous because gender has a clear biological basis, whereas race does not. While human populations may not be divisible into races, they are into sexes. Anomalies aside, the species is composed of two distinct genotypes, XX and XY. Chromosomes are not arbitrarily selected.

However, it is one thing to not accept transwomen as women, on the hand, and to destroy a transwoman’s career and life because she used to identify—or be identified—as a man. To be free means to determine for oneself which imaginary community with which one wish to identify. The headlines told us that Dolezal “pretended” to be black, deciding for her with which race she is allowed to identity. Can you imagine the uproar if the headlines told us to think in a similar way about Caitlin Jenner?

Jessica Krug, associate professor of history at George Washington University

Three more women have been outed or have come forward to reveal themselves as white. George Washington University recently suspended professor Jessica Krug after a blog post was published claiming she has, in the words of the news stories surrounding the case “pretended to be Black.” She also went by the name Jess La Bombalera, an activist persona in the Bronx. Krug grew up Jewish but, in her words, “assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.” She claims to have “gaslighted those whom I love.”

Krug’s outing is triggering a string of what the media is calling “race fakers.” A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student, CV Vitolo-Haddad, who identifies as non-binary and goes by the pronouns “they” and “them,” resigned from from teaching role after admitting to lying about being black. She admitted to being Southern Italian and Sicilian. Then community activist Satchuel Cole admitted to posing as a black person for years in Indianapolis. She was a member of the Indy10 Blacks Lives Matter organization. In 2017, she was spokesperson for the family of Aaron Bailey, shot and killed by police in a traffic stop.

There are many other examples if, falling short of claiming to be black, have acquired a black appearance via surgery, deep tans, and makeup. Critics even identify artificial and textured hair as part of the ruse. The term used to describe such practices is “blackfishing.”

Our society does not give people the choice of picking their race. It popularly, and in some cases legally, insists on maintaining a caste system. So, while you can leave the working class for the capitalist, and you can leave the identity of a man for that of a woman, you cannot leave the white caste for the black caste without being declared a fraud or mentally ill.

This is made all the more interesting given the spectrum of human variation along lines of color and other relevant phenotypic features leads to misidentifying the race of people. Podcaster Dan Bongino, who is Italian, is asked if he is black or has black ancestry. While Bongino does not appear to see advantage or esteem in being perceived as black (it angers him to be mistaken for black), Krug obviously did. She wanted to sit on that car. But because she is not a person of color, she has no right to the advantage and esteem she sought in a different identity. She was riding on the wrong car. I wonder about blacks who “pass” for whites and whether their outing would feel the same way. Were they seen in the Jim Crow days as fraudulently accessing the advantage and esteem of the white car?

Which identities may be taken up and which are forbidden? Who makes these rules? Who polices them? For what purpose? Race is a social construction, yet there are those who work very hard to police it. This suggests that there must be benefits that accrue to it.

There is a politics at work here. Leftwing identitarians exposing individuals passing redefine selected white ethnicities—Arabs and Jews—as nonwhite. The present case is particularly interesting given that Krug is of European Jewish ethnic ancestry. For some purpose here, she is white. Leftwing identitarians will even define a religion as a race when it’s convenient to do so. Christians aren’t a race. Muslims are.

All this progressives have in common with rightwing race identitarians. And we know how that goes. Elizabeth Warren is a “fake Indian.” People are upset when Trump says this. But we didn’t see a lot of people defending Ward Churchill when folks were saying he was a “fake Indian.”

But what is real in any of these things? Should we follow the blood quantum rules (the rules that the folks who saw to it that the University of Colorado fire Churchill denied existed)? Or is it enough that Dolezal’s parents are white to wreck her identity? If we are going to assert race is a real thing, then how shall we determine its presence? Since race is not a biological thing, DNA testing will only tell you a person’s ancestry, not her race.

What does it mean to condemn interracial adoption because white parents can’t teach the children their heritage? I get it that there is asymmetry in group power, but just imagine white people arguing that black people adopting white children is problematic because, “Who will teach the white child his heritage?” For white people, heritage is racism. Maybe we should ask the cops. They seem to know for sure who is who.

There is a strange essentialism at work in identity politics. It draws a hard line at race. The Washington Post pitches in by making sure their readers know Dolezal is a “white woman who posed as black.” She is not a transracial person. That’s not even a thing. (Actually it is.) Consider if she were also transgender. What would the headline be then? Are there white brains and black brains? There’s no want of people asserting it or trying to find it. She fails the blood quantum test? Or is Dolezal white because the social and cultural rules demand white stay in their lane? Are we permitted to make this claim about other identities with reputation intact?

One of the reason Dolezal is so hated is because she moved among black and white populations without anybody knowing. They believe they know race when they see it. But not a single person had a clue. It took her hateful mother to rat her out. She was upset because Dolezal was a race traitor. Dolezal is the one wrecked and gaslighted.

Bottom line, if Dolezal passed, what’s the big deal? Who would have known? Why does it matter? What we are witnessing is selective suspension of belief on the terrain of social construction. The problem is one of reification. It matters to a particular system of imagination. It’s racecraft.

Here’s an idea: stop caring about how people identify and turn your attention to the problem of economic inequality and social class. That’s where you will transverse the terrain of the real.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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