American Express

The recent story of Rachel Dolezal, the (now former) President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, being outed as white is fascinating and sad to me. She has been accused of posing as a black woman which, given her heretofore leadership position at the NAACP, makes her quite controversial.Dolezal’s choice to identify as a black woman had journalists investigating her family for some revelations. Her racial heritage was exposed, which called into question cultural experiences and expressions, and what constitutes valid expression of identity.

As this story exploded over the weekend and continues to unfold, many are more disturbed by her being a fraud, than by her choice of identity. Still, many find her identity choice rather curious, and further evidence of white privilege.

I find the issue fascinating as it brings to the forefront the cultural constructs we have for race, while pretending that it’s merely biological and physical. Moreover, it relates to how we have been stuck in tribalism. Even the word tribe conjures up traditional societies, often with biological origins and/or ethnic ties that have been distinguished from other political/socio-economic entities. Modern nation states consider themselves beyond the tribal wars of earlier eras or distant locales, but the tribal instinct seems to be universal and eternal.

If we are to truly evolve, we have to look at our own tribalism. Even when we identify with a particular ethnic group, or regional culture, we may inadvertently clutch in such a way that reinforces our identity by clinging inwardly and asserting that belonging is not a choice. It’s ethnic and historic, and one’s actions are not as significant as one’s biological and historical roots. Membership has it’s privileges: Others are excluded, and possibly ridiculed or disparaged (or worse). Sometimes, the identification with the particular ethnic group or tribe is more important than anything.

Except it isn’t. We’ve seen Balkan wars in Europe; tribal wars in Africa; Sunni and Shia in the Middle East; genocide, ethnic cleansing, segregation, and separate subcultures across modern democratic societies that have become increasingly insular, despite social diversity and acceptance of differences in an ever more diverse and globalized world.

There is still a lot of insider-ness by those who descended from those of outsider status. The MOT (Member of the Tribe) conversations among Jewish people is often nothing more than acknowledging someone’s Jewish heritage, but the very existence of the acronym MOT is troubling to me. I understand the reflex toward tribalism and identifying with a group or sub-culture. Ultimately, though, the inherent exclusion that comes with that identification is what triggers negative reactions regardless of tribe or social or ethnic group.

Americans pride themselves on self-expression. We profess individual freedom and the right to express oneself, but we rarely face our own tribalism, and the ways in which that gets expressed.

Different histories of repression and privilege seem intrinsic to our identifications.Physical features certainly provide the most obvious characteristics to link to a lineage and history and culture. We profess not to judge individuals based on their physical features, but we quickly identify individuals with a group.

Our politics is so tribal. Our institutions claim to be at least legally beyond tribal, but usually exist with sub-cultures and divisions. We may self segregate (or be forced to segregate due to historical policies that ensured certain divisions even if they are no longer legally mandated). Americans are not comfortable looking at the realities of our own tribalism and the ways in which we exclude and degrade—regardless of status. We understand our history of racism, but we are still clinging to group identities that we claim supports our own expression.

So the story of Rachel Dolezal is fascinating and sad to me. Her story raises so many questions about American expression of tribalism and individual choice and circumstance, as well as the convoluted situation of race that we are currently struggling with so profoundly. Perhaps her story, which is unique as it pertains to her specific life and family, is also one that highlights our American tribalism. Our American expression of freedom is always diminished when we retreat to our tribal instincts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s