Rachel Dolezal and the complexities of identity

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Race doesn't exist but it does. The strongest argument against Rachel Dolezal's African-American claims isn't that they're false. Everyone agrees race is a social construct. It's that for most African-Americans, race isn't a lifestyle choice; and it trivializes their often hideous experiences to treat it that way. Yet it's also an identity that people can willingly embrace, after the fact as it were, which can enrich or embitter (or even kill, as in Charleston last week). So there's an element of choice, even in extreme situations.

When I was a student in the U.S., I had a Jewish prof of American history, who lamented not being Black in such an exciting era. I was immersed in my own discovery of being Jewish, and thought he was nuts. Why go for Black when you already had Jewish?

But the identity drive itself -- to discover who you are and live it out -- is complex. I know a woman in her 20s, of mixed race (whoops, there it is) parentage, who had to explain: "Mom, I'm culturally white." She said it as a simple matter of fact.

I know high school kids who say, speaking about minorities at their diverse school, that Asians count as white. It sounds peculiar, and it may mess with the stats, but it's perfectly clear to them. When Rachel Dolezal put on that weird puzzled look, something in it rang true, not just busted.

The identity continuum. So even though race doesn't exist, it's nonetheless a component of identity, which does exist, yet is harder to define. The urge to identify symbolically with some larger group runs wide: countries, faiths, "races," Ford nation, Leafs nation. Could there even be something metaphysical to it?

Each individual is hewn organically from material reality and returns there eventually; perhaps the yen to identify with larger groups is a recognition that we're a momentary, transient piece of something bigger and more permanent; so we yearn to transcend our finitude and mortality. That's explicit in religions but extends along the identity continuum, even to sports. There are football fan clubs in Europe that mix in racism, leftism or calls to fight and kill the "other."

Years ago, when I was recovering in hospital from a bypass, I found myself obsessing over the Leafs and their chances. What was that about?

Freely chosen identities. But identities are also irrational and arbitrary. What's so compelling about the connection between the being that you are and previous or future generations of whatever groups you identify with?

In fact we seem to be in a time when identities are becoming more choice-driven and optional. You hear people say, I don't think I want to be that Jewish. Or, I'm exploring my heritage. Or, I'm spiritual but not religious.

In this respect, too, Rachel Dolezal was awkwardly on the cusp of something meaningful -- which involves identities but ones that are more freely chosen. When Martin Luther King Jr. said he dreamed his children would be judged not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character, he surely thought they'd identify as proud African-Americans (or in his terms, Negroes). But why insist on that? If the content of character counts most, why not transcend identities altogether?

Beyond identity. That would take our species far beyond its current state and usher in a new phase. It's hard to picture: human beings without group identities. I think it's what Nietzsche had in mind with his Overman or Superman of the future. Nietzsche lived in the heyday of European nationalism, which he loathed (despite the use the Nazis made of him); along with religious identities like Christianity.

He was prone to over-dramatization and self-importance and liked to describe these new humans as living high among the mountaintops, breathing rare air, and requiring great courage. The courage was needed since there would no longer be the consolations of living on immortally through some kind of group identification. His notion quickly dissolved into parody (not just by Nazis and libertarians but comics writers).

It's impossible to say whether it's even a logical possibility for our species, or a bridge that will always be too far. It would certainly be something completely different.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: madamepsychosis/flickr

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