Posts By David Landy

Rachel Dolezal – Signifying Monkey

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There is something compelling and disturbing about the case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who successfully passed at being black – so successfully that she headed up the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, before her parents outed her as white.

Let’s ignore the personal aspects of the story. The inevitable made-for-TV movie will cover this – the admittedly fascinating question of why did she do it? Even more compelling is the public reaction to her trickery. If Dolezal’s successful passing as black offers little more than a textbook truism that race is a social construct, the outrage and confusion that followed, once her trickery was uncovered says far more about the nature of racial politics.

The first thing to note is how messed up this form of politics is. A lot of black commentators are angry because, by claiming blackness, Rachel Dolezal took away speakerhood positions from black people. This is true and this is depressing. I’m reminded of my research a few years ago into US Jewish supporters of Palestine.  I once interviewed the head of a local Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapter – a thoughtful and very funny woman. About twenty minutes into the interview – I started asking her about her Jewish background. She laughed and told me she wasn’t Jewish, why did I think she was?

That floored me and I asked her awkwardly, well… why are you in a group like Jewish Voice for Peace then? Her reply was to tell me to be realistic, that she’d be taken much more seriously if she spoke – not as a Jew (which she never pretended she was) but as someone representing Jews. I couldn’t deny that reality. In the US, perhaps more than elsewhere, the claim to ethnic representativeness bolsters one’s claims, whatever these claims may be. Small wonder that other people than Rachel Dolezal ground their positions on this claim. Small wonder too that these people have reacted so angrily to her undermining their credibility to speak from ethnic personhood.

There is something fundamentally wrong about a form of conversation where your ability to speak – or rather, to be heard – is to a large extent predicated on your ethnic origin. I’m not slagging off the NAACP or black activists for this – they didn’t create this system and are merely trying to manoeuvre their way through it. This is known as strategic essentialism – the way that oppressed groups essentialise their identity for strategic reasons – in order to coalesce as a group and to provide a platform from which to fight these oppressions. This type of identity politics may well be the least bad option when fighting racial discrimination. But the question arises if some of the anger directed against Dolezal is because unwittingly, she exposed the pretences underpinning this strategic essentialism – the nakedness of this particular emperor.

For say what you like about Rachel Dolezal, but she has unsettled the easy racial categories. It’s disheartening to see article after article snarkily praising her for her hair, as if that was it. As if, once we can isolate and fix the feature that allowed her to be black – it was her hair – then the problem is solved and we can re-erect the racial barriers that keep us secure, if not safe. The problem is that it was no one feature, not her hair, nor her skin colour, nor her political claims which allowed her to be black. It was that she performed being black as well as any other black person. Recall, she wasn’t found out by her fellow black activists. If her mom hadn’t told on her, she could still be black today.

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After the Gaza Massacre and After the Marches, What Do We Do?

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The ceasefire between Hamas and Israel looks like holding up. It is a cause for celebration that the mass killing has stopped; the destruction of entire neighbourhoods is over for the moment in Gaza. It is hard to celebrate though when the siege still goes on, the occupation of Palestine with all its associated violence continues apace, and those who perpetrated the Gaza massacre have not been brought to justice. In the current bleak post-massacre crisis which Gaza faces, the work of solidarity organisations are needed now more than ever. The question is what form this solidarity will take.

On Saturday August 9th, between eight and ten thousand of us marched the all too familiar two miles to the Israeli embassy. It was the largest demonstration of Palestine solidarity on this island – a truly national demo with banners, placards and people from all the 32 counties, it was a joy to know so many other people cared and to be marching alongside these people. And now we know this, that so many people in this country are willing to make the effort and stand and march in solidarity with Palestine, what do we do next?

The simple answer I want to give is that we don’t go back to the embassy, instead we engage in boycott actions around the country, bringing the energy from the demonstrations back home and making it meaningful.

Why not march again? Marches mobilise us and they energise us – but if all they mobilise us to do is simply to mobilise yet again, then we are making the march about ourselves and how good we feel chanting pro-Palestine slogans and being in solidarity with each other. That’s not good enough.

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