Tag Archives: Racism

The Fine Line Between “Identity” and “Identification”: Debating Appropriation in the Case of Dolezal

A friend of mine recently sent me an online version of an op-ed piece that the retired NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabar penned for Time magazine. Entitled, “Let Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be,” the article is a tongue-and-cheek response to the righteous backlash the former head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP has received for lying about her racial identity. In it, the former Lakers player engages in a thought experiment about the possibility of living a lie with regard to his towering frame as a means to make an argument about the arbitrariness of (racial) identity and the ways in which we can convince ourselves and others of our social location through the power of repetition.

“Although I’ve been claiming to be 7’2” for many decades,” he writes, “the truth is that I’m 5’8”,” adding, “Just goes to show, you tell a lie often enough and people believe you.”

Good point? Not so sure. Last time I checked, no one ever believed, nor is there a chance that anyone ever will believe, that Abdul-Jabar is 5’8”. Not to mention the identity politics of race is far more nuanced, complex, and complicated than those of height–at least in terms of the present debate.

Judging by the evidence against her—from allegations of receiving a full scholarship for Howard University’s MFA program under false pretenses to those of cultural appropriation so as to legitimate her involvement in various causes for racial justice—Ms. Dolezal has woven a masterful web of deceit around her self-identity that has allowed her to commit what amounts to a crime of cultural theft and, ultimately, an abuse of White privilege. Only recently, with the stir caused by her parents’ outing Dolezal as White, has she come under the proverbial gun of scrutiny—and rightly so.

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In opposition to Dolezal’s critics, however, Abdul-Jabar, an African American by ancestry, offers a sympathetic interpretation of her situation—one that he renders through the unstable metaphor of his choice to claim himself shorter than he is. The point he is making through this dubious analogy is that race is a social construct. Therefore, if this White woman, who claims a deep-seeded commitment to the African-American struggle for existential, social and political freedom, wishes to identify as Black it is damn well her imperative to do so. This is the case, Abdul-Jabar argues, particularly in light of how much Ms. Dolezal has contributed to the Black community through her involvement with the NAACP as well as her role as instructor of African-American studies at Eastern Washington University and her chairwomanship of a police oversight commission in Spokane.

I think Abdul-Jabar is right to remind us that race is merely a social construct. Indeed, sociologists and cultural anthropologists have gone to great lengths deconstructing categories of race, gender, and sexuality, revealing to us how fluid such identity signifiers actually are. The wonderfully compelling thing about the controversy surrounding Ms. Dolezal’s act of willful appropriation is that it provides a contemporary case-study by which to reconsider fixed notions of race because of how easily it can be adopted and performed (Dolezal a prime example).

After all, as Abdul-Jabar makes clear, race is not a biological reality. It is something we inherit culturally through discourse—that is, as a matter of shared values and social practices—that is not bound to or by genetic makeup. Its only tie to biology lies in the fact that it is used as a way to classify people according to phenotype, or skin color. An historical account of race meanwhile reminds us that it is an invention of White colonialism which ushered in the slave trade and, with this, a systematic ordering of people according to a hierarchy of being predicated on prejudicial assumptions about the supposedly inferior relation of non-Whites to Whites—the latter forming the top of a social pyramid into which we, as a global society, are still locked today.

While it may be true, as Abdul-Jabar writes, that “[w]hat we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another,” it is also true that the cultural histories and social conventions tied up in the physical characteristics used to classify individuals according to race are imbued with a specific politics that, for people who are actually Black or non-White, carries the weight of centuries-long oppression. In light of this burden, Blackness, even if an arbitrary construct, cannot be taken up by cultural outsiders simply by dint of waking up in the morning and deciding, “I am Black.” Especially not with the same hypothetical ease with which Abdul-Jabar imagines himself as shorter than 7’2”.

Indeed, his conceit does not hold up in large part because race cannot be so easily transcended or dismissed in a society where people are still being targeted as victims of violence based on the politics of skin color. The recent terror of the #CharlestonShooting as well as the spate of historic Black church burnings offer us horrific and sobering cases-in-point.

The problem with Abdul-Jabar’s logic, furthermore, lies in the fact that he fails to account for the ways in which Ms. Dolezal has in fact overstepped the boundaries of appropriation through her spurious claim of Blackness as a matter of “identity” rather than as a “politics of identification” (see Sharma, Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness, 2010: 234ff). The distinction between “identity” and “identification” here is important (more below).

By claiming Blackness as a her racial identity when she is in fact White, Ms. Dolezal has assumed a heritage of historical burden that she has never actually had to live down—despite her claims of being discriminated against (apparently, she has alleged, as the target of anti-Black and anti-White racism, which reveals further the contradictions of her past and present social locations). While it is clear, as Abdul-Jabal notes, that she has committed herself to the struggle for Black enfranchisement and has at least ostensibly aligned herself with Blackness as a kind of political ideology that signifies solidarity with the racially oppressed, her actions reveal an overt misrepresentation of the very people with whom she has taken up a co-conspiratorial relationship in the cause for justice.

Not only has she misused her White privilege in manipulating the boundaries between races through a destructive kind of border crossing, she has also perpetuated the problem of White Supremacy by abusing her privilege to claim ownership of a cultural heritage tied up in experiences of racial oppression for which the very Whiteness she has at once eschewed and taken up (to cross borders) is responsible (riffing on the insights of Beja of the White Noise Collective; see “On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame,” 2015). She is, in sum, a walking contradiction of herself.

Furthermore, what she and, it seems, Abdul-Jabar, may deem an act of cross-racial association is really nothing more than a reinscription of an essentialist notion of race—the same notion she is supposedly attempting to disrupt, ironically, by donning a Black mask—that defeats her superficially altruistic purposes of taking up the Black fight for liberation.

By denying her racial identity as White and playing into a performance of Blackface that relies on a questionable appearance of phenotypic Blackness (i.e. Blackness by way of skin-type)–a Blackness fetishized in the White racial imagination (Dolezal’s to be precise)–she is enacting a politics of racial identity that capitalizes on a fetishizing conception of race which views it as a categorical difference rooted in skin color, thus associating Blackness with a kind of skin-deep essence that can be integrated as easily as picking up and putting on a facade for a theatrical display.

Despite Abdul-Jabar’s shaky comparison of Dolezal’s pitiful act to the potentially anti-racist Blackface of late entertainer Al Jolson, she deploys an identity politics that reinforces stereotypes of Blackness as a biological marker of identity and difference. She therefore seems to be at cross purposes with herself, at once reproducing (consciously or unconsciously) a racist construct of Blackness as a biological reality through Blackface at the same time that she is advocating for a more anti-essentialist conception of Blackness that informs her highly questionable commitments to the hard work of racial reconciliation.

Put another way, her masquerade of Blackness, replete with frizzy, Afro-curled hair and darkened skin tone, falls back on a White imaginary of lampooned Blackness that maintains a caricatured depiction of the racial other—an act she used to convince people on both sides of the “color line” (Du Bois 1903) of her status as a minority so as to further an ulterior agenda for professional advancement that works in irreconcilable tension with her professed value system.

Truth is, she is not a racial other and her motivations for appropriating Blackness prove dubious if not duplicitous.

With all this in mind, her act of cultural appropriation functions as a form of “othering” that decontextualizes, dehistorizes, and depoliticizes racial difference (Sharma 2010: 237) between Whites and non-Whites. She lifts Blackness out of the context, history and politics with which it is has been wedded since the dawn of the Euro-American slave trade (read: modernity) and thus silences, or reduces to invisibility, the historical realities that created Blackness as a social construct in the first place. The paradox in this is that her act of “appropriation as othering” is about both “‘love and theft’” as it “[works] through positive stereotyping, such as in the idealization or exotification of the other […]” (Sharma 2010: 240). In Dolezal’s case, it appears that her destructive engagement with appropriation happened as a matter of possessive love through thievery.

The sad thing in all of this is that she could have engaged in appropriation to the advantage of the people to whom she has purportedly dedicated her work. As race theorists recognize, appropriation is multi-directional (Sharma 2010:236); it flows back and forth across racial and cultural lines.

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That being the case, appropriation does not have to be a bad thing. It depends on how one positions oneself in relation to those cultural formations with which one is associating his or herself. There are ways to engage in the act of appropriation constructively and with dignity, honor, knowledge, and respect for the cultural other that is informed by an awareness of the histories that have shaped the culture of the so-called other (Sharma 2010: 271). We see examples of this in White jazz musicians who contributed to the push for desegregation of clubs (Jones 1963; Sharma 2010:  264) or in White rappers who were socialized by the Black nationalist sensibilities of the crews they grew up listening to. Hinted at above, in contradistinction to the act of appropriation as a form of “othering” is that of “appropriation as identification” with the object of “othering” (Sharma 2010: 237). In this instance, appropriation signals solidarity with the cultural practices of the other rather than a colonizing co-optation of the other’s life-world—as we witness in Dolezal’s confused and delusional self-association with Blackness.

Seeing appropriation as a means of identification, however, first requires that we rearticulate the terms and politics of identity that police acts of appropriation. In so doing, we get out of thinking that appropriation only and ever equates to stealing or inauthentic borrowing (Sharma 2010).

For sure, the question of racial authenticity as it pertains to the issue of appropriation and the boundaries of cultural ownership is a tricky one to answer. Yet the fluidity of race as a concept calls us to find new ways to engage the tired politics of racial identity, challenging us to break ties with strict adherence to cultural mores around race and racial authenticity that ultimately prevent cross-racial fertilization (Sharma 2010). To sample hip hop studies scholar Nitasha Tamar Sharma: “When ‘culture’ is considered to be ‘owned’ by a demarcated group it is rendered static by trapping individuals within fabricated categories that reaffirm the logic of racism based on naturalized differences” (281).

The traditional script of racial identity politics relies on fixed, or essentialist, notions of race to say, for instance, that any non-Black performance of Blackness is racist and should therefore be dismissed as inauthentic. In recent scholarship on the matter, cultural theorists—riffing on the concept of racial formation (see, for example, Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United Sates 2014) which recognizes race as a social construct—encourage us to consider the ways in which appropriation does not necessarily equate to either fraudulence or inauthenticity; “theft” or “colonization” (Lott 1993, Lipsitz 1994; quoted in Sharma 2010: 264).

As Black sociologist John Jackson goes at length to discuss in his book Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (2005), racial authenticity claims, specifically in terms of Blackness, run the risk of “ossifying race into a simple subject-object equation, reducing people to little more than objects of racial discourse, characters in racial scripts, dismissing race as only and exclusively the primary cause of social domination and death” (15). In saying this, Jackson argues that sincerity should function as the real litmus test for cultural membership. A shift from an emphasis on racial authenticity to racial sincerity works to engage the interior motivations of those involved in acts of appropriation and gets us to consider the possibilities for coalition building through multiracial deployments of an anti-essentialist Blackness, in particular, and race, in general. In this way, race can function not as a cause for domination and death, but for mutual empowerment and life.

Again playing on Sharma, this shift in approach beckons us to interpret appropriation according to a comprehension of actors’ ideologies (238). Given the amorphous nature of race and the effortlessness with which we can find ourselves in the act of cultural borrowing, to the point of assuming a racial identity other than our own, it is crucial to interpret acts of appropriation through a contextual lens, as Sharma would have it, so as to “dislocate authenticity from the body” (Sharma 2010:272) and focus more on the issue of identification in terms of one’s approach to to Blackness, for instance, rather than on the Blackness of one’s identity (sampling Sharma 2010: 215). 51L1XZai8NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

This is to say that, following the dual lead of Jackson and Sharma, our understanding of appropriation must be informed by an awareness of the political, ethical, and moral commitments of those who appropriate rather than their bodily identity. In this way, non-Black actors can, as Jackson and Sharma suggest (see also Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity, 2003), identify with Blackness as an ideology and/or epistemology—that is, a way of knowing—and of being in the world that is tied to a conscious awareness of the history of racialized oppression against Black bodies as well as an intentional dialogue with the various Black cultural responses to said oppression that find expression in books, music, and political activism. In this way, appropriation can function as a form of flexible “identification” with the racial/cultural other.

“Appropriation as identification” in the meantime refuses to flatten racial difference—a flattening we see in the neo-liberal adherence to color-blind “multiculturalism” that actually diminishes the non-White other to the status of non-entity through its misguided celebration of sameness. We see a variation on this misguided discourse of “multiculturalism” in Dolezal’s claim to be Black inasmuch as she attempts to transcend the fact of her Whiteness by becoming Black. Her act of appropriation therefore falls short of identification in her own concern for assuming a Black identity that in fact reproduces the old script of racial politics which, unchecked, operates according to ossified articulations of race as bounded and secured. Indeed, Dolezal has locked herself into a Black identity in her act of racial crossing that, though she may believe signifies a gesture of identification, is an ironic repetition of a racial politics which says one has to be Black in essence in order to be Black in worldview–or taken further, one can assume a Black racial identity, dismissing the reality of difference, simply by adopting a Black worldview. This is not to get overly caught up in identity politics, which would be to fall into the very trap that scholars like Sharma warn us to avoid, but to reiterate the distinction between constructive and destructive forms of appropriation–a distinction that Dolezal ceases to make in act of over-identification.

Instead of either melting racial difference into a “post-racial” goop which implies a disregard for the atrocities that created racial difference in the first place or “ossifying” racial difference into a fixed dichotomy of “us” and “them” that shuts down the possibility for cross-racial exchange, “appropriation as identification” recognizes that there are specific histories to be accounted for in light of how the non-White other has been raced, or racialized, by Whites, at the same time that it seeks to create a dialogic of shared worldviews across the racial-cultural divide. This demands a practice of critical memory that resists the temptation to amnesia we see in gestures of multiculturalism; in those mistranslations of what it means to be transracial (echoing Lisa Marie Rollins; see “Transracial Lives Matter,” 2015); and in those acts of appropriation that co-opt the other’s identity wholesale while foregoing the possibility of dismantling one’s own Whiteness in self-critical rather than self-shaming ways (see “On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame,” 2015). Ultimately, what “appropriation as identification” calls for is a critical recognition of difference at the same time that it invites us to intercultural and interracial bonding.

In the case of Ms. Dolezal, she had an opportunity to employ appropriation as a form of identification. However, she overstepped her bounds by going so far as to appropriate Blackness as an identity that she never had the rights to claim. In this way, she “othered” the very ones she sought to relinquish from the burden of “othering” and ultimately confused the political ideology of Blackness as her racial identity—taking up “everything but the burden” (Tate 2003) from those with whom she says she most identified internally. 5178xVxtybL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

In this, she unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, leveraged her Whiteness to gain access to a commodified Blackness (hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” 1992; quoted in Collins, 2015) that resulted in an ultimately poor and insincere—which is to say, inauthentic—act of appropriation, discrediting all of her purportedly pro-Black advocacy and revealing a skewed racial logic that has subsumed her identification with Blackness into a Black identity itself.

To play on the insights of a colleague of mine who wrote some pithy responses to this incident on his facebook wall last week, Ms. Dolezal’s experimentation with her own Whiteness offers those of us who are White and who consider ourselves committed to the cause of decolonizing Whiteness, an invitation to become race traitors ourselves (thinking here of Noel Ignatiev’s “The Point is Not to Interpret Whiteness But to Abolish It,” 1997)—not in a way that would lead to an unwitting act of “appropriation as othering,” and therefore wrongful treason against our brothers and sisters of darker hue (à la Dolezal), but of “appropriation as identification” with those brothers and sisters and their plight as the objectified targets of racial terror. In this way, we can involve ourselves in the work of deconstructing Whiteness, committing an act of rightful treason against White Supremacy and the various and insidious manifestations of it both at the level of systems (the “macro”) and everyday interaction (the “micro”), so as to rearticulate it according to a discourse of anti-racism.

I believe Ms. Dolezal’s racial insincerity prods us to consider the fine line between Blackness as an epistemology and Blackness as a racial identity; between “appropriation as othering” and “appropriation as identification.”  Insofar as she claims an investment in the ideology undergirding the Black freedom struggle—with Blackness as a political worldview informed, though not solely, by resistance to oppressive systems and structures that target racial minorities—yes, I agree with Abdul-Jabar, let her be “as Black as she wants to be.” However, insofar as she has never actually had to endure the heaviness of the historical burden that is racial Blackness by dint of her unexamined Whiteness, yet has proceeded to strip Blackness of its contextual content and meaning through identity theft and fraud, I say: “Step back, Rachel, and slow your roll.”

A Shook Dungeon: Letter to Myself in the Wake of Berkeley Looters

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.–James Baldwin, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” The Fire Next Time (1963)

Christian non-violence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of man (sic). It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of man with himself, man the person and man the human family (sic). –Thomas Merton, “Blessed are the Meek,” Faith and Violence (1968)

There’s much power in anger, but love’s a bigger banger! –311, “Omaha Stylee,” Grassroots (1994)

Re-reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time for a class I’m presently teaching on African-American cultural criticism, I am reminded that the cause for racial reconciliation begins with me. I am a white male who, in spite or perhaps because of my privilege, sympathizes with the plight of the racially oppressed, embodied by Baldwin’s 14-year-old nephew to whom he addresses “My Dungeon Shook”—a public letter written in 1963 on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation.

the-fire-next-timeKeeping Baldwin in mind, racial reconciliation requires a radical self-acceptance which is neither a hasty defense of a falsely-perceived innocence nor a misinformed admission of guilt, but a “fruitful communion with the depths of [my] being”—a task to which Baldwin calls white people in his essay: “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.”

Taking Baldwin further, racial reconciliation is a matter of seeing myself as I really am: a sinnner. I do not say this in a self-flagellating way nor with the weight of an unhealthy shame that only serves to perpetuate sin. No. I am a sinner inasmuch as I do not love myself.

I sin in the conviction that there is an irreconcilable inner deficiency, a fundamental lack of wholeness at the center of my being, a space in my experience of being alive where loves does not exist. It is this kind of sin, understood as a skewed conception and willful ignorance of the original dignity of my own humanity, which gives justification for a sense of self-hatred that has dire social and political consequences. Indeed, in the conviction that I am somehow unlovable and therefore unloved merely by virtue of being me, I warp the way in which I relate to the world—responding to others with envy, lustfully coveting what I do not believe I already posses, when invited to humility.

I sin in jealously guarding my inner insecurity with anger, harboring a disease of self-doubt that blinds me to the humanity of the other, whoever that may be. For so long as I am convinced by my own unworthiness to be loved, I cast a shadow upon my brothers and sisters wherever they be located on the social map. So long as I do not love myself, I make of the other a slave to my own insatiable need for gratification—the gratification of power, status, privilege, and supremacy that betrays a deeply embedded anxiety about the actual status of my own existence in the world. It discloses an insidious pride, a compensatory arrogance that says this world exists for me, this world exists to satisfy an existential longing for love that I have been unable to locate within myself, that I have been unable, or unwilling, to identify as constitutive of what it means to be me, to be alive, in the first place.

If the history of racialized violence against black bodies in the United States is any indication, and I believe it is, we live in a society predicated on self-hatred that manifests systemically as white supremacy and all the privilege and power that comes with it. It is self-hatred masquerading as prestige that lusts after the possession of classed and black(ened )bodies for profit and, in this, the increased strength of the behemoth State—what 20th Century Trappist monk Thomas Merton would call Fatman, a metaphor for the despotic will to power which operates at all levels of society. It is Fat Man, drunk on his own gluttony for material security, who turns a blind eye to the facts of human history which detail a disorder in the human heart. A global pandemic that manifests as the prejudicial scapegoating of the demonized other, burdened with the weight of a projected self-hatred that manifests as oppression.

America has over 500 years of racialized oppression—including slavery and its treacherous effects in the ongoing socio-economic and political disenfranchisement of blacks by way of outsourced labor, the ghettoization of urban life through government neglect, and the racialized violence of police brutality—to prove that this predicament is very real. Such disorder is testament to the “inhumanity and fear” of the racist whites about whom Baldwin speaks to his nephew, warning his brother’s son that he was “born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being,” that “[y]ou where not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity” (21). This follows Baldwin’s more urgent call to awareness which is the thematic thrust of the letter: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger” (18).

Against this threat of social death, Baldwin reminds his nephew that the worthlessness which has been foisted upon his black male body is in fact reflective of white worthlessness. Knowledgeable of the danger that his nephew may indeed internalize such “inhumanity and fear” as lies at the heart of white racism, Baldwin bestows upon him a monumental task predicated on a radical self-love:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you (sic). The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them (sic). And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. (22)

This is the kind of love that infuses the spirit of the Christian Gospel. It lies at the heart of Christian Beatitude and is a fundamental tenet of Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence which sought, by way of conversion, to awaken the oppressor to his own blindness—to in fact heal him of his blindness to a history in which he is trapped, as Baldwin notes, a history he will not understand until he sees it through the eyes of those whom he has oppressed.

This kind of reconciliation is impossible without love. It is a love that is costly, demanding a willing surrender of the will to power that implicates all of us—black, white, brown, or yellow—in a necessarily disorienting process of decolonization by which we dispossess ourselves of the jealous need to possess. Only then can we go about the work of change.

Though a highly charged and strikingly visual display of frustrated anger—especially righteous if it is coming from those whose waking existence is in constant surveillance of the watchful and disciplining eye of the law—protest and rioting will only go so far, if at all, to change how we learn to be human with each other. This is especially the case when those “anarchists” parading the streets displace the matter at hand—that is, the racialized violence of police brutality—by what church pastor and civil rights activist Michael McBride calls a “manufactured anger.” It represents a disingenuous cry for revolution which has more to do with a concern for their own image and place in the world than it does with those whose lives, they proclaim, matter.

I am of course referring to myself when I offer this critique–a riff on a range of voices I’ve been “hearing” via social media in the days since the Eric Garner decision. In recognizing my own “manufactured anger,” I cannot but implicate myself in the critiques of misguided provocateurs. For I am no less guilty than the disillusioned looter of letting my misdirected hostility distract from what I would like to believe at heart is a sincere concern for the ones who are actually suffering.

Instead of cultivating into love the anger I feel at the injustices wrought on black bodies, I unleash spiteful and what one colleague would deem “polarizing epithets” against Fat Man where my rightness, righteousness, and anti-authoritarian “coolness” might be put on public display—be it on my facebook wall with the juvenile hashtag #FuckCrookedCops, a reactionary response to the unaccounted for deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among countless other unnarmed black men (and women), at the hands of white officers; or in a mutually aggressive verbal altercation with a city cop outside of the Berkeley Police Department Headquarters this past Saturday night after I was admonished for impetuously walking inside of a police barricade on my way home from dinner with a friend.

In each instance I have failed to acknowledge the disorder in my own heart, refusing to withdraw the shadow of “fear,” the terror of worthlessness, I have projected onto the demons I’ve made of the other—in this case, “the system,” or the “crooked cops” who represent it. In this way, I have failed my brothers and sisters of color who are really suffering, whose bodies are the target of the violence I decry but in fact perpetuate, my housemate reminded me after telling her of my brief brush with police, by my own frustrated and reactive anger—a rage informed by hatred rather than love.

Thus Baldwin’s challenge to his nephew is no less a challenge to me, as a self-proclaimed white ally, to consider seriously how my own sense of worthlessness—that sin of self-hatred—is part and parcel of what keeps Fatman in power as a social system structured by a discourse of deficiency. His is a language of lack which blinds us to our in-born capacity for love and the responsibility to love that this entails. Indeed, Fatman’s gluttony is my own. And until I accept myself as I am—a sinner in need of love—I will only contribute to a cycle of violence that pits “us” versus “them” rather than loving in a way that will “force [my] brothers and sisters to see themselves as they are” (24): beloved children of love who, in their sin, are in need of love. It is a love that resists definition, that is beyond comprehension, but which exists in each of us as the source of life itself.0811201015

Taking up the task which Baldwin bestows upon his nephew, I ask myself: What in me is in need of acceptance so that I may accept the demonized other—whoever that may be? What is to be gained by recognizing my own culpability in a system of self-hatred, owning my projected self-hatred, and transforming the anger I feel at the injustices I see into love for the ones who persecute? I believe a lot is to be gained, namely the freedom to end my participation in the cycle of violence which makes of racial reconciliation nothing more than the impossible dream of a soft utopian idealism.

With Baldwin, I recognize that “[o]ne can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical in the face of destruction and death, for this is what most of [humankind] has been best at since we have heard of [human]” (19). And with Baldwin, I likewise hold to the qualification that “most of [humankind] is not all of [humankind]” (19). If I didn’t believe that, I would not be writing this—an attempt at reconciling with that demon self-hatred within which, when so easily projected onto the other, aborts all possibility for calling the oppressor to historical consciousness. For calling him to a self-critical awareness of his own status as victim to an ill-conceived innocence which, Baldwin rightly notes, “constitutes the crime” (20).

As a self-appointed advocate for the racially oppressed and a self-proclaimed nephew to Baldwin, to say nothing of my location as a human being, I can  do nothing to change the system without love. So long as I resort to violence in word, thought, or deed I submit to what I’ll call the white man’s disease of “niggerism”—an unreconciled sense of inner deficiency, an original self-splitting wound of separation, that refuses to love because it cannot believe that it can be loved, yet which can only be redressed by love, in love, through love, for love.

Hence Baldwin’s closing remarks to his “truculent” recipient in “My Dungeon Shook”: “We cannot be free until they are free” (24). Riffing on this profound insight, I’d add that the dynamic works both ways: “They cannot be free until we are free.” So long as we believe we are unlovable and therefore unloved, we will not be free to love those who would have us believe in the fiction of human worthlessness—who are themselves victims of the conviction to worthlessness.

Instead, we will fester in our loathing and react in ways that do nothing to convince either our “true selves,” echoing Merton, or each other of the dignity we share by dint of being human. Let our protest, in the spirit of Baldwin, Buddha, Day, Gandhi, Jesus, Merton, Mohammad, King, X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Parks, Tubman, Douglass, Mother Mary, The Beatles, Sun Ra, Tupac, Cohen, Dylan, Lamar and so on be one of love. This is no small matter. Indeed, it is a very grave matter—a matter of life or death, freedom or slavery—that implicates every single one of us in an act of becoming. Not over and against each other, but in reciprocal appreciation for the fact that we are in this place together—saints and sinners within ourselves—who come to know love by being loved, who come to being loved by loving.

For my part, as one who claims identification with Baldwin’s nephew, as one who considers himself an adopted nephew of Baldwin in his own right, I cannot persist in hating the hater for, as Baldwin makes clear in “Down at the Cross,” to debase others is to debase oneself (113). To debase others is diabolical behavior symptomatic of an already debased sense of oneself. It is as Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation: “Instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed–but hate these things in yourself (sic), not in another” (122). Thus, the cause for racial reconciliation begins with me.