Rachel Dolezal & The Limits of Empathy

BlackWhite-300x225No less than four op-ed pieces in today’s Times discussed the Rachel Dolezal story. The essays seemed to hinge on whether or not race is a social construct. Allyson Hobbs of Stanford writes of race as follows:

It is a fiction, a social construct based in culture and not biology. It must be “made” from what people believe and do. Race is performative. It is the memories that bind us, the stories passed down to us, the experiences that we share, the social forces that surround us.

And she is right. Barack Obama is the first black president in spite of the fact that his mother was white. He would not hold this distinction if race were determined, for example, by the race of a child’s biological mother. In our society, one is black if one has a black ancestor; we could just as easily have determined that one is white if one has a white ancestor.

But race in American society was constructed on the desire to preserve white purity against the infiltration of a darker-skinned race that had been imported as chattel and even after emancipation, still bore the marks of inferiority when judged by the whites in power.  It is this history that overshadows Ms. Dolezal’s claims. And recent events in Fergeson, Staten Island, Baltimore et al. demonstrate how far this shadow still stretches.  Not to mention the great disparity between whites and blacks with regard to poverty, incarceration, household income, unemployment, college education, and general quality of life.

Still, I cannot condemn this woman as a liar and deceiver.  I feel I understand her desire to be a part of something she believes to be a better life, a more honest life, a more righteous life than she could have as a white individual.   Charles Blow thinks differently:

Rachel Dolezal, a woman with no known black heritage, has apparently, through an elaborate scheme of deception and denial, claimed for years to be a product of black heritage.

And the reason I cannot condemn this woman is the same reason that Rachel Dolezal cannot simply choose her race. For white folks, empathy only goes so far. For all intents and purposes, Ms. Dolezal has chosen to become a part of black culture. But it is impossible for her to get out of that terrible shadow of American history. It’s not her fault; but that doesn’t make it not so.

I can empathize with the anger Mr. Blow has toward Ms. Dolezal; the reason I cannot feel it as strongly, however, is because I am also under that shadow.

We have inherited a terrible history of race relations in this country that has constructed how we identify ourselves. Until the work is done to eliminate the disparities between the races we’ve created, then we will have to face the fact that there will always be a barrier that makes total integration and equality impossible. The shadows are still so tall and thick. And empathy only goes so far.


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