Jon Stewart recently called racism as one of “America’s most devastating and urgent issue(s).” This statement resonates with the recent controversies surrounding Rachel Dolezal and police brutality. It is certainly horrific to witness a police officer mutilating a Black child. The moral bankruptcy of this kind of systematic oppression requires no sophistication to understand. What of Rachel Dolezal? Could we put her case in the same box of rotten apples? In this essay, I will argue that her case must be considered as distinct from the systematic oppression of minorities.
If one browses through the liberal media, it’s easy to find articles either criticizing Dolezal or appealing to tolerance. Although I am more sympathetic to the latter, I do not believe that the call for tolerance is truly apt for addressing the demons this case brings up. I say so, for demons do not correspond to the us-them psychology that has plagued mankind with wars and racism. Instead, they coincide with linguistic laxity. i.e.– we do not care to know what ‘race’ is.
In our daily lives, we treat many as Black, White, Latino, or Asian. It is almost essential to constructing social niches and personal identities, yet we do not seem to care whether the demarcation is a valid one or not. For instance, when a man’s features appear as sub-saharan African, we call him Black, even if he is only a quarter African. As long as he can talk the talk and look the part, we do not care whether the name we refer to him by conforms to the bulk of his genes. We enjoy talking about the problems that arise from ‘race,’ but we do not enjoy distinguishing non-race from race. We do not partake in the rigorous linguistic clarification that Wittgenstein once asked of us. We have forgotten a valuable lesson of Longfellow’s :
In the days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.
Surely, one cannot demand the level of rigor that Wittgenstein practiced from all of us. Nevertheless, words as significant as ‘race’ must be put to the test. We cannot let laxity keep feeding us obscurity.
Despite the laxity displayed by the ordinary usage of ‘race,’ we have “wrought” some notions “with greatest care.” For example, ‘gender’ is now treated as a matter of social or personal identity, whereas its biological connotations have been carried onto ‘sex’ altogether. Such separation of the biological from the social seems to be the key to solving the confusions caused by our linguistic laxity. As I’ve noted above, our confusion comes from the failure to differentiate the social from the biological: a half-Black person would be considered as Black by many. It is not wrong to consider that person Black, if he truly identifies himself as such. However, we still need to hold onto the biological definition for medical purposes. Thus, comes the biological-social division.