Black and White?

It has to be one of the more bizarre stories of the year.  Rachel Dolezal, the pale-skinned former president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, has been accused of misrepresenting her race.  For years, she has claimed to be black, and has built a career on that reality.  Now her parents have come forward to say that her genetic heritage is European, with no black blood at all.  Indeed as a teenager she was blonde and freckled.  She has been labelled a “con artist” and accused of putting on “blackface“.

The genetic facts seem inarguable, and Ms Dolezal does not dispute them.  Yet she continues to consider herself black. On NBC’s Today show:

Interviewer: Let me just ask you the question in simple terms again… Are you an African-American woman?

Dolezal: (nodding) I identify as black.

In another interview on NBC, she said, “I definitely am not white.  I’m more black than I am white. That’s the accurate answer from my truth”.

How can this be?  Can white people simply choose to be black?  Plenty, from Ali G to Eminem, have adopted black character and performance traits, but Dolezal is going way beyond that.

Liberal instincts might lead one to say, “If she wants to call herself black, why should we stop her?”  On the other hand, a number of African-Americans have objected on the grounds that a white person should not just adopt a black identity for a while and then drop it when it’s no longer convenient.  “She says she’s black, but we don’t know if she’s always black. Is she black when she’s purchasing a home? Talking to the police? Or is she black only when vying for a role where lived experience would help her odds?” writes Jamelle Bouie in Slate.  Could a black person choose to be white when pulled over by the cops or seeking a mortgage?

But Dolezal protests that her choice to be black is a profound and irreversible one. “I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as first transracial,” she said.  So is this akin to people of one gender choosing to adopt another, a practice that has now gained widespread acceptance?  Is transracial the new transgender?  Could Dolezal spark a trend of race-swapping that might break down further the racial divide that still haunts America?

The fact that commentators are still debating Dolezal’s claims implies that this is not a clear-cut, black & white case.  More than a few seem to think she may have grounds for her self-identification as black.  Which suggests that it is not only Ms Dolezal’s reality that has been reshaped but the very meaning of race.

Magna Carta Reshaped

King JohnToday we celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta.  It carries great meaning for modern lawmakers: freedom from tyranny, fair trial, the rights of man.  The ideals of liberty and justice symbolised by Magna Carta underpin the US Constitution and have informed human rights campaigners around the world.  The historian Bishop Stubbs declared all English constitutional history to be “a commentary on Magna Carta”.  Lord Denning called it “the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.  This conception of Magna Carta is an important reality for us – it is very real indeed.

And yet it is not the original reality of Magna Carta, a document that was not called by that name, was not signed by King John (he used his seal), and which was repudiated by both monarch and barons after just a few weeks.  A last-ditch peace treaty between two upper class factions, the “Charter of Runnymede” is unconcerned with the oppression of the common man, freedom of speech or democratic representation.  Instead, it prioritises the interests of the Church and the (mostly French) aristocracy, focusing in the main on the specific grievances of rich landowners.  It is harsh on Jews (“If anyone has taken a loan from Jews, great or small, and dies before the debt is paid, the debt is not to incur interest for as long as the heir is under age”) and women (“No man is to be arrested or imprisoned on account of a woman’s appeal for the death of anyone other than her own husband”). About a third of the 1215 Magna Carta was rewritten or cut within ten years, and almost every clause has since been repealed.

It does seem odd that a failed agreement between one oppressor and a bunch of disgruntled lesser oppressors has come to represent the very essence of liberty and the rights of man.  And yet it has.  Its reality has been shaped — partly by John’s son, Henry III, and partly by 17th century Parliamentary spin doctors — into something powerful and very valuable.  A kind of historical alchemy, one might say.  To go back to the 1215 text and protest that it has quite a different meaning is to miss the point.  Magna Carta IS freedom and justice.  It doesn’t really matter what the words say.

1215 Magna Carta (British Library)