Overweening Generalist

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner and Self-Definition, "Passing" and the Myth of "Race"

Prefatory Remarks: This is Hot Stuff for the OG
With these two stories - Dolezal and Jenner - taking up so much public mind-space lately, I need to strike while the iron is hot and get in a jab or two, perhaps try to get in a mixed metaphor. Because this issue and ones that surround it fascinate me no end. It's got everything an overweening generalist can frolic in: language, social perception, biology, philosophical "essentialism" and reifications, the social unconscious/paideuma, libertarian and Nietzschean and pragmatic ideas about self-creation and realization, "reality", imposters, frauds, and mass contradiction. Just for starters. So I can only touch on a few topics before I bore the crap out of even my most fervent reader.

A friend brought up my blogspew on the Joe Satriani book, and I went on to confess that I read far too many rock star biographies and autobiographies, and that they're often so shallow and filled with omissions that I don't know why I read these books. I've probably read about 60 of these things in the past four years. It's my own form of "slumming" reading. I enjoy these books, even if they're not very good. As a library clerk I noted certain patrons read mystery novels as if they were their own form of crossword puzzles. Other intellectual types will read porn. (I do this too.)

In the past few years I've noted the rise of the phrases "hate watching" and "hate reading." I don't think I'm hate-reading these rock-star books. I have a background as a guitar player and teacher, and I told my friend I feel like I'm sort of "like" these people, I just never "made it." But I understand the worlds they inhabit. Or rather: I imagine I do. And then, internally and without saying anything, I'd suddenly realized I'd just given an account of part of who I "am" and what social group/subculture I feel like I'm somehow privy to. And, Dolezal and Jenner had been ricocheting through my consciousness as of late. This is something I think we all do: we sub-vocalize stories to ourselves about who we "are", who are "our" people, what tribe we belong to, etc. Often, we say stuff out loud. Lawd knows there are jabbering orifices in the media who are happy to tell all of us who "really is" who or if someone "really isn't" a "true" member of some group. We have a long way to go with this jit, and I'm frequently as guilty as anyone else.

Robert Trivers
At this point I could write 5000 words on the work of renegade, colorful genius biologist Robert Trivers, but will leave this for some other day. What he's written on the biology of deception, which requires self-deception in order to work well, has really blown my mind. Also: though he's a white guy who came from the East Coast and has had more influence on evolutionary psychology than anyone: he seems to "be" sorta "black." It's not just me. In David Jay Brown's intro to the interview with Trivers published in Mavericks of the Mind (found HERE), Trivers's colleague Burney Le Boeuf refers to Trivers as "the blackest white man I know." Trivers joined the Black Panther Party in 1979 and named Huey Newton as one of his children's godfather. He loves Jamaica and Jamaican women and rasta and cannabis, and says he's "Jamaican in my soul and spirit." Anyway...

Caitlyn Jenner
As far as Caitlyn Jenner goes, my joy is that many of us have evolved enough to just say, "Good for her! It takes courage." Other than that, it's her business, and let us not forget the vast accumulation of scientific social activity and research and technique that allows anyone to physically become more or what they feel like is their "true self." (When I was very young and Bruce Jenner won the Decathlon in the Olympics, he was my hero for a few months. I wanted to be a decathlete! Then, as a painfully skinny asthmatic, I picked up an actual shot - the metal ball used in the shot-put - and realized I might imagine other fallback positions. How he fell in with Kardashians I have no idea and probably will never find out...and sorta hope I never do.)

When it comes to Rachel Dolezal: what better story to expose those ideological positions of media people who don't seem to have internalized the scientific consensus on "race." Let me quote from the American Association of Physical Anthropology's statement on the biological aspects of race:

Humanity cannot be classified into discrete geographic categories with absolute boundaries. Partly as a result of gene flow, the hereditary characteristics of human populations are in a state of perpetual flux. Distinctive local populations are continually coming into and passing out of existence. Such populations do not correspond to breeds of domestic animals, which have been produced by artificial selection over many generations for specific human purposes. There is no necessary concordance between biological characteristics and culturally defined groups. On every continent, there are diverse populations that differ in language, economy, and culture. There is no national, religious, linguistic or cultural group or economic class that constitutes a race...there is no causal linkage between these physical and behavioral traits, and therefore it is not justifiable to attribute cultural characteristics to genetic inheritance.

And YET...we all, even those of us who have internalized the above scientific idea, "know" that race is a Big Deal in our lives. The 1928 Thomas Theorem in sociology holds, and fast:

If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

Almost all of us will want to tweak the Theorem by replacing "men" with "men and women" or just "humans." But this quote in itself is worth internalizing, if not memorizing, eh?

From the Former Lew Alcindor
So: I've been following the Dolezal story for my own purposes, and it's one that tells me far more about the commenters than Dolezal herself. And who comes along, in Time magazine no less, to articulate what my basic take is? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another one of my childhood sports heroes. Kareem knows race is a social construct yet most people don't know or act like it, and besides, who doesn't wanna be "black" every now and then?

Mezz Mezzrow
This reminds me of one of the most amazing books I've ever read: Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe. Not only does the jewish Mezz identify with what he perceives as the authenticity of the "Negro," but he gradually "becomes" one, officially: prison wardens honor his insistence that he be housed with the blacks and not the whites; the draft board allows Mezz to pass as black. Mezz passed, athough he didn't look black at all. I accept him as black as part of a Nietzschean self-creation which was so good, his black-skinned jazz colleagues accepted him as one of their own.

He married a black woman, lived as a black man, resided in an African-American mental culture, so thoroughly internalized the ethos of his black friends that he felt he "really was" "black." (Side Q: did J.K. Rowling get the term Mezz sometimes uses for cannabis, "muggles", from Mezz/Wolfe? Does Voldemort know about this?)

Mezz, as filtered through the canny writer Bernard Wolfe, identifies with all that is Dionysian in black culture, against the stuffy, stuck, miserableness of white culture. And New Orleans-style anarchic jazz is the epitome: a mind-meld of true consciousness flowing out of musical instruments. All Mezz wants is "authenticity" and to feel really good. We read 1946's Really the Blues for many reasons: the vivid depictions of the gangster underworld in Unistat during Prohibition, the anecdotes about famous jazzmen (it's why Woody Allen said he likes the book), about "jive" and the sociolinguistics of Harlem in the 1930s and 40s, tales of pot smoking versus alcohol and its "juice heads", and that damned opium that tore Mezz apart for awhile. It's also fanciful beyond belief, but we're never sure to what extent.

Something that I've discovered has been noted previously by others, but perhaps not well enough: passages in Kerouac's On the Road that discuss jazz? Kerouac was probably highly influenced by Mezzrow here. Kerouac didn't admit to reading Mezz/Wolfe, but Ginsberg remembers the book being around in his closest circle (of very very many circles!), and Kerouac was in that circle. Mezz/Wolfe: 1946. On the Road: 1955. FWIW...I know that my reading of Really the Blues took the shine off the pants of Kerouac's depictions of jazz ecstasy, and I'd read Kerouac first. Mezz really felt it, and though Mezz is talking about New Orleans-style jazz, and what Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are digging seems more be-bop? (Mezz famously seems almost retrograde in his aesthetic.)

Bernard Wolfe, like Robert Anton Wilson (their careers as writers have much in common), who actually wrote the book, went to Yale, was with Trotsky in Mexico, was guided into a career of writing porn by Henry Miller and Anais Nin: Wolfe needed something to pay bills and wanted to keep up his writing life, was influenced by Alfred Korzybski and Norbert Wiener and a psychoanalyst named Edmund Bergler, and wrote a science fiction book called Limbo, about which scholar Carolyn Geduld writes, "In its own way, Limbo may be as difficult a book as James Joyce's Ulysses. The latter imposes difficulties of form on a relatively simple narrative, while Limbo uses a simple form - the science fiction, antiutopian novel - to discuss very complex theoretical material."- from Bernard Wolfe, by Carolyn Geduld, p.73...Enough of this digression...

In short, I see Mezz's book "as told to" Wolfe - who makes a brief appearance as a character in the book - as one of those autobiographies that strike me as Wholly Other. But I do believe Mezz really thought he was black. And he gives his reasons. And I honor them.

                                Mezz Mezzrow, cannabis enthusiast, friend of Louis Armstrong,
                                "black" man. Photo by Wm. P. Gottlieb

A Philosopher of "Passing"
Daniel Silvermint is a Philosophy professor at the U. of Connecticut and writes interestingly about "passing" with regard to the Dolezal case HERE. Note well his second paragraph, in which he states his background and that he's "probably mistaken about much." This was for a time a "thing" among cultural anthropologists who wrote ethnographies. I feel such "disclaimers" would bring more light to almost all discussions coming from professors, and other culture writers, if only from a claim made from the very heart of the sociology of knowledge.

What turns me on is any attempt to create a proto-taxonomy of "passing." There's "reverse passing," which Silvermint objects to, as it assumes there's only one "natural" direction anyone would pass that would be appropriate, and he reminds us there's a remarkable number of social categories of passing and cases. People try to "pass" for something else for any number of reasons. We need to look at who is claiming what identity and what their personal circumstances and priorities are before making distinctions. But it's ultra complex stuff: we all carry around stereotypes and assumptions, but forget how fluid and arbitrary these identities seem. It seems to me that taking to heart the scientific findings about race quoted above, together with the gritty socially constructed world of "race" we must inhabit, is but a starting point.

Silvermint says some cases of passing are about wanting others to misidentify you. I often wonder how many times I've not noticed a really accomplished transvestite. There seems to be a notion of "trans" passing, but someone who's undergone sexual reassignment really "is" the new sex. Even with this, there seem to be infinite gradations. Just hormones? Hormones and surgery, but still dressing the way you did before you became transsexual? Etc. Far more interesting to me, and probably more pervasive, is what Silvermint calls "unintentional passing" or "passive passing": other people do a poor job of identifying what's going on. He gives examples: we see someone who's interracial and call them white. (Or with Obama: black.) Intersex people might be seen as male. (See Alice Dreger's recent book Galileo's Middle Finger for a tremendous elaboration on this idea.) Or, Silvermint suggests, we might see a gender nonconformist as a woman. I knew two brothers in Los Angeles, both very charming and funny, well-educated and polyglot. They were muslims from Afghanistan, but in Los Angeles after 9/11, they were okay with regularly being mistaken for being Mexican workers. And it's now an old joke that liberal Unistatians who traveled to Europe after Bush and Cheney started the Iraq war, sewed Canadian flags on their backpacks.

We seem to have a very strong need to put people in boxes, the "correct" categories, always forgetting we made all the categories up long ago and have reified them.

Other cases are the oppressed passing as the privileged. (What's with all the fancy cars parked in impoverished neighborhoods?) Or: privileged people passing as the oppressed. I recall a fascinating lecture from Anthropology professor Sam Sandt in which he said there are some groups that are relatively easy to access in order to do an ethnography on them: the nouveau riche are easy: they want people to know how great they are 'cuz they're now rich! The most difficult group is the Old Money people: families that have been very wealthy for a few generations. Often their houses are not viewable from the street, and they drive old beat-up cars.

Dolezal's parents, who outed her and showed the press photos of Rachel as a teenage girl who looks a lot like the beautiful and talented actress Laura Linney, think they've blown the whistle on their daughter and ended the charade. Had Dolezal adopted the "oppressed" position to gain advantage? To me, as of this date, it's not at all that clear. She, like Mezzrow, seems to truly see herself as "black." Again, I tend to agree with Abdul-Jabbar. Silvermint brings up the "mutually-beneficial" variety of passing. This might fit Dolezal, too.

Probably most of us draw the line at passing yourself off as the long-lost cousin who shows up with his inheritance due, like the Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn. That's just a straight con-job, right? At the same time, read about the life of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, "The Great Imposter," who once passed himself off as a surgeon, and when confronted with a necessary chest surgery, found a textbook on how to do it, crammed feverishly, and pulled it off! The patient lived! Demara's life as an imposter is truly amazing, and he had a proto-Erving Goffman-like theory about the presentation of self in everyday life, what's taken for "reality" and how to bend this reality. He's a criminal, yes. But also: some sort of Artist.

Here's another type of passing: Tania Head, the Woman Who Wasn't There. She had everyone believing her story about losing her boyfriend in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Why did she do it? There's a fascinating documentary about her. She seems like Demara to me, but less daring and artistic, but then my personal taxonomy of passing is still inchoate.

Silvermint's strongest point, to me, is this: "We don't normally think of racialized group membership as something one can genuinely transition into or out of, but perhaps that's as socially determined as anything else." I think he's right: how we carry on conversations with each other can reinforce socially-constructed categories.

All of this passing business seems complex-unto-vertigo, but it could just boil down to Robert Anton Wilson's maxim: Reality is what you can get away with. There are some readers here who know me, and they're "on" to my game. But to those who don't know me personally: that picture over to the side may not be accurate at all. This "Michael" guy who calls himself the "Overweening Generalist" just MIGHT be a 47 year old Latina lesbian. What do we really know, at this point?

Some Other Passing Examples To Think On
The Founder of the Nation of Islam lied about his "race."

Emperor Norton of San Francisco (mutually beneficial passing?)

Neo-Nazi Craig Cobb finds out his ancestors were black (Dolezal made this point: that we all came out of Africa at some point. I've often felt compelled to check "African-American" on bureaucratic forms, instead of "caucasian" -which most people would say I "am" - simply in protest that those boxes were there at all. But this idiot essentialist Cobb deserved to be blinded by science, no?)

The Cobb story reminds me of comedian Dave Chappelle's brilliant and hilarious bit on a white supremacist who's blind...and black. See it HERE. If you've never seen it, it's NSFW and 9 minutes of your life you really should make time for...

Jazzman Billy Tipton was really a female all along.

Two books on the subject: Passing, by Nella Larsen, and Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin.  Get thee to the library!

Three articles on Donezal I read closely:
"Rachel Donezal and the History of Passing for Black"
"Rachel Donezal's 'Passing' Isn't So Unusual"
"16 Key Takeaways From Rachel Dolezal's Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry"

I previously riffed on some aspects of self-identity back in 2011.

You'll notice I haven't said a thing about two of our favorite actor-Scientologists, John Travolta and Tom Cruise. And it shall remain that way.

Finally: I must recommend a wonderful book from 2012 by an Anthropologist named Agustin Fuentes titled Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You. Subtitled, "Busting myths about human nature." I found the official statement from the AAPA about race in his book. It's not the easiest of reads, but the slog was for me well worth my while, and it might be worth yours as well.

                                           artwork by Bobby Campbell


Bobby Campbell said...

Seriously outstanding!

Maybe I'm just reading the wrong sources, but everyone else I've seen talking about this has totally squandered the opportunity to get anything interesting or useful out of the Dolezal / Jenner double feature.

I don't normally get into it w/ people on these tabloid issues, but this one was interesting enough to draw me in just last night on twitter.

It's been weird seeing people who understand that gender is fluid, now for some reason, defending the illusory boundaries of racial identity.

Gender should be the hard one to get! Race is pretty easily shown to be an artificial construct anyway, but there are chromosomes & reproductive organs marking the apparent thresholds between genders, but good! They can see through that charade, but race is some sacred division that must be maintained? I find it weird.

I think what happened is people who wanted to argue against transsexual identity shifting tried to use Rachel Dolezal as a reductio ad absurdum, and instead of engaging in thoughtful and productive discourse about the similarities of these stories, they tried to take the easy way out by dismissing Dolezal, and consequentially ended up being on the side of reinforcing the racial divide.

Ah fuck it! Gender/race? There are far weirder boundary dissolutions coming down the pike soon enough anyways.

Surf's up!

michael said...

Yea man: when these two stories hit within weeks of each other, I felt there were almost too many ideas surrounding the stories, and finally just forced myself to blurt something.

I've had personal experience with people who apparently had quite fluid ideas about their gender, and have learned to just ask them where they are now, listen and accept whatever they say they "are" now.

The moment is rapidly approaching in the rear-view mirror, appearing ever-larger in the mirror: what about our personal/emotional experiences with robots?

I think you have a good point about those professed "freedom" lovers who are disgusted by transsexuals, and then use Dolezal as a reductio. We've so obviously done a horrible job of teaching biology in Unistat.

All our genes are amalgams from all over the glove by now. The phenotypes we see walking around and in media are expressions of those genes PLUS our brainwashing about what "really oughtta be" what.

I reject all that, and fervently keep present in mind the exhortations of a charismatic southern baptist minister's idea, when he implored us to judge each other by the contents of our characters.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I think in a sense Rachel Donezal is ahead of her time, and I think we'll see more of people "choosing" their race. I suspect some of the hostility against her is the perception that she "cheated," such as the business of mailing hate mail to herself so that she'd be "oppressed," just like "real" black people. If she had just used tanning substances and changed her hair, I'd be inclined to straight up defend her. Have you read my favorite Bruce Sterling novel, "Islands in the Net"? A skin cream is invented that makes it easy for everyone to become black, and that becomes a fad.

It seems like with white people, it's more common to be a "fake Indian" than a "fake black." Ward Churchill got some publicity a few years ago, and there's even a fake Indian in the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren.

When this Donezal stuff came out, I asked my wife if she had ever heard of Mezz Mezzrow. I need to get around to reading that book. And also finding out more about Bernard Wolfe, apparently, who I only knew before from his story in AGAIN DANGEROUS VISIONS.

Kim Gordon's new memoir is well above average as a rock autobiography.

michael said...


I still NEED (not want) to read Islands In The Net.

I've got a bunch of notes about writers who admitted they liked to identify with Native Americans. Maybe I should blahhhhg on that sometime?

I read your review of Kim Gordon's book at the Jackson Street Book Club. Honestly? I will probably read that before Sterling, even though I know Sterling is way "better" for me.

I wrote this blog on "passing" and all that, and went to bed thinking about the problem of the chasm between what we know scientifically, and what many people think is true about "reality." And I woke up, didn't look at email, Internet, or anything until around 3PM PST. And then there's this lost little racist in Charleston murdering black people in a church, because he thought "they" were raping his white women and "taking over the country." The Thomas Theorem, 1928: simple but all too true.

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific post. I wonder if you would enjoy Phil Lesh's autobiography. I enjoyed it, except when he talks about how he knows more about Ancient Egypt than the Egyptologists.

michael said...

Thanks for the Lesh suggestion, Eric. I was surprised how much Ed Sanders knows about hieroglyphics. I liked _Fug You_ a lot, though my much-worked-upon indexing/categorizing mental systems find it difficult to think of Sanders and the Fugs as "rock stars."

Eric Wagner said...

I would like to read Sanders' book on Chekhov.