The mass murder of nine African Americans in a landmark church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, allegedly by a racist supremacist sporting a fleece decorated with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa is the tragic framing of the case of Rachel Dolezal and the spiralling issue of faking her racial identity, which is so rich with irony and paradox that it is bound to preoccupy the racially charged North American environment for quite some time to come.
The Charleston case marks the continued carnage of vicious racism in the US, while the Rachel Dolezal case points to the urgency of revisiting the dominant discourse of the social construction of race in this country.
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A civil rights activist, Dolezal was the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Washington. She is now at the centre of a controversy regarding her racial identity, accused by her family members to have invented an African-American identity for herself to advance her career.
The internet is abuzz with critical commentaries examining it from various angles. Paramount in most, if not all, of them is the presumption that there is a human being called “white” and another human being called “black”, and then here we have an impostor “white” who has been passing herself as “black”.
Opinions may vary whether she did so out of opportunism or solidarity – but the presumption that she has crossed a thick dividing line between white and black people is mostly common in these commentaries.
“This is about privilege,” Charles M Blow sums up the position of many critical of Dolezal’s actions, “deceitful performance and a tortured attempt to avoid truth and confession by co-opting the language of struggle, infusing labyrinthine logic with the authority of the academy, and coat-tailing very real struggles of transgender people and transracial adoptees to defend one’s deception”.
This indeed may be the case. But the question whether or not this is an individual case of opportunism or active solidarity pales in comparison to the larger question of some existential difference presumed between the thing called “black” and the thing called “white”.
Today African Americans are as much trapped inside that binary and refuse to let go, as are the whites – both of them categorically incapable of allowing the successive shades of new migrants confuse their colour lines.
There is, of course, no difference between these two colours: Except for a prolonged and murderous history of racism in the US – as indeed in much of the rest of the world – that has entrapped both those who identify as “white” and as “black” people into this binary.
Colour codification of power
One quick look at the criminal record of police brutalities in Ferguson, Baltimore, Texas, as indeed the rest of the US immediately clears that no one can go to an African American today and say the ideas of racialised identity is merely a social construct, a manufactured proposition.
Manufactured or not, the racist terrorism that so-called “whites” have systematically perpetrated on the presumably “black” has a long and terrifying history. If as a teenage Rachel Dolezal were in that pool party in McKinney, Texas, she would not have been treated the way that young African-American teenager was by that racist police officer for just looking the way she looked. Without sharing that historic injustice, she has banked on its moral authority.
This fact however must be placed within the larger frame of a more abiding social fact.
Racism is the colour-coded relation of power as patriarchy is the gendered ordering of the selfsame power relation. Racism is not predicated on any colour. It is a social relation of denigration and domination that is colour-coded, as it can be gendered, as indeed it can be made into banal bigotry of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.
What the vintage trajectory of racism in North America consistently conceals is the fact of that racism under the phenomenon of its colour codification. A fact so paramount on the racialised discourse that successive waves of immigrants confusing that colour line have failed to change the discourse.
In the North American lexicography of racism, when new waves of immigrants entered the scene and did not quite match the binary of “white and black”, the white supremacist racism designated the term “sand nigger” to assimilate the newcomers backward into what it knew. I first heard the nasty slur “sand nigger” in the 1970s as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where the nascent waves of new immigrants visible in the student body had occasioned the term among the racist fraternities.
The colour codification of power in North America has been so deep-rooted that W B Dubois once famously said: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour-line.”
This was and remains true only to the degree that the US remains entrapped inside its racial history entirely oblivious to masses of new and incoming immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Disregarding the shades of other “colours” that keep coming in by both the self-designated “white” and the manufactured “black”, fetishises a particular instance of colour codification of power relation and confuses it with that power relation itself.
To be sure, that colour line continues to be the marker of rabid racism in the United States long after an “African American” became its president and thought himself the sign of a “postracial society”. However, without awareness and an active theoretical and social integration of successive waves of newer immigrants who no longer fit the received binaries of that particular colour line, the naked brutality of racism can never be exposed and dismantled.
Colour line continues to be marker of rabid racism in the United States long after an ‘African-American’ became its president…
It was under specific historical circumstances, as historians tell us, that race-based (as opposed to faith-based) slavery became definitive to early American economy.
“In the Caribbean and Latin America,” writes Peter H Wood, the author of from Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America, “for well over a century, Spanish and Portuguese colonisers had enslaved ‘infidels’: first Indians and then Africans.”
But that meant if they were to convert to Christianity they were to be freed, a proposition that the ruling economic elite was not ready to entertain.
Shades of new immigrants
“So by making colour the key factor behind enslavement, dark-skinned people brought from Africa to work in silver mines and on sugar plantations could be exploited for life. Indeed, the servitude could be made hereditary, so enslaved people’s children automatically inherited the same unfree status.”
Today African Americans are as much trapped inside that binary and refuse to let go, as are the whites – both of them categorically incapable of allowing the successive shades of new migrants confuse their colour lines. It is not the racially fabricated colour of their skin, but the gift of self-transcending grace attained through their historic trials and tribulations, that makes a people a people.
Though the sustained impact of institutionalised racism continues to bleed across the US, its discourse is alas still woefully trapped inside the black-and-white binary generated from the earliest stages of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement.
It is long overdue that the factual evidence of successive generations of immigrants from the four corners of the world into the US – categorised as “sand niggers” by white supremacist racism – enter the wide and widening space in between the fictitious colour lines and dismantle the racist supremacist power that seeks to sustain it.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.