One of my oldest friends is half-Indian. His name is Rajeet, but when we first met, I just assumed that his mum was a hippy. Why? Because he doesn’t have the skin of his father – he doesn’t even have the halfway-house skin between his two parents, like I do – but the pale skin of his mum.
Is Rajeet white, Indian, a combination of both, or something else entirely? His ethnicity – his genes, what any kids he might have will look like – is open and shut: he’s half-Indian, half-white. But his race? Well, that’s harder to answer.
Am I black? That’s a question I find easier to answer nowadays: yes, of course I am. When I was growing up in east London, it was more complicated. Like most of my friends, I had a white mother who was present, and an ethnic minority father who was absent. To our black peers, we certainly weren’t black.
My teenage relationship with blackness was inextricably linked to my non-relationship with my father and other black students: it wasn’t interested in me, so I wasn’t interested in it.
But as I grew older, I realised this wasn’t the case. Regardless of what some of my schoolfriends thought, regardless of what I thought: blackness had a relationship with me, whether I liked it or not. That my experience of the Iraq war protests – and protests in general – were coloured by having darker skin. That for all I might only have been “half-black”, you cannot be stopped and searched by halves. That when I went for job interviews and people said I wasn’t “what they expected over the phone”, I didn’t, in fact, occupy a middle-ground between whiteness and blackness. To them, I was black.
The myth that some of my black peers at school bought into was that the mixed race kids had two passports: to the kingdom of the black and the land of the white, that we could interchange depending on what made our lives easier or harder. But the reality is, outside the hyper-diverse confines of an inner London school, one of our passports was revoked: mine to the land of the white, Rajeet’s to the kingdom of the black.
That’s the issue that the row over Rachel Dolezal, back in the news after securing a book deal to write about race, is really about. Dolezal says she “identifies” as black, and has done for a decade or more, eventually securing a job as president of her local branch of the NAACP, a job reserved for African-Americans.
One of the reasons why Dolezal makes people so angry is that we suspect that she has retained her two passports: that she has used the passport of blackness to secure a job at the NAACP, and the passport of whiteness when she is buying a home, or talking to the police. Or, in this instance, that she occupies the kingdom of the black when writing about race, but dwells in the land of the white when negotiating terms with a literary establishment that is still overwhelmingly white.
Are they right? Well, we simply don’t know, short of fitting a police officer with a body camera and asking them to stop Dolezal in the street, whether she is, as Jamelle Bouie puts it, “adopting the culture without carrying the burdens”.
Here’s another question: is Rajeet more, or less qualified, to write that book than Dolezal? Am I? Am I more or less qualified than Rajeet? If both my parents were black, would I be twice as qualified? Rajeet was once told that he couldn’t possibly be Indian as he was “too posh”, and, frankly, there are people who have watched their language around me who haven’t around Rajeet. Does he have a better or worse understanding of racism than I do, or just a different one? And where does Dolezal – who unlike either of us has been working on it for a decade as, among other things, a teacher of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University – slot in? What’s her level of expertise? Somewhat lower as far as the minority experience in one school in one part of London is, yes. But as far as what “race” means at a global level? That’s harder to say.
Because, yes, while part of the anger towards Dolezal is the suspicion that she has held onto two passports, another part is the anger that she has proved the border between our racial identities is wholly imagined. It’s not a coincidence that the charge against Dolezal – that she has enjoyed “the best of both worlds”, the benefits of blackness and none of the drawbacks – are the same as those levelled against mixed race people. At a conscious and unconscious level, Dolezal unnerves people because the very fact she spent a decade passing as black suggests that perhaps there isn’t very much in the idea of blackness, whiteness, or browness.
It seems to me that Dolezal’s central argument – “race didn’t create racism, but racism created race” – is a good one. Yes, it’s a less elegant variant on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ line that “race is the child of racism, not the father”. But I don’t believe it harms minority groups to have one more voice out there saying – and proving – that that is the case, however strange their rise to prominence may have been.