On Categories, installment no. 1:

Being material and multiple at the same time

One perspective on #RachelDolezal and what it might mean to be-multiple

I have been intending for a long time to write a series of discussions on categorization and categories as a way of understanding social life. The current controversy over Rachel Dolezal and what everyone seems to think it means to be ‘a race’ presents an incredibly visual example of what I think is part of the key problem in any sort of human categorization: materiality versus expressivity.

Interestingly, a lot of commentators on national and even international newsmedia (and in the comments sections everywhere) are comparing what it means to change race with what it means to change gender, especially in relation to the recent Vanity Fair cover of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

These arguments focus a lot on ideas of ‘truth’ or ‘fiction’, of the extent to which something is a pre-determined (by ancestry, by sex) as one’s body or when it might be a ‘social construct’. Then, arguments follow on how all of these are fluid — potentially even more fluid than we can normally imagine — but, often in this commentary, how racial experiences are more rooted in embodied flesh, and the experiences that flesh enables, than gender.

I would love to change the direction of this conversation away from skin or genitalia as the tangibly embodied focal thing, and towards a more general, and less thorny, idea of materialities of bodies, and the capacity for those materialities to be multiple.

There’s no point to arguing which sort of physical difference is more pre-determined than the other, or which experience is more ‘truthful’ to embodiment. What is more useful in moving the conversation towards materiality is thinking about how these fleshy embodiments get put out into the world, how they become practiced and rendered material through the ways we engage them. This is not far from Judith Butler’s argument about performativity, using different terminology that is not only focused on gender: I’m talking about recognizing that physical materialities of bodies — and therefore the categorizations that they seem to determine — are never pre-configured, even when we perceive and assume them to be material ‘realities’. Yes skin tone exists; yes sex exists; these are both physical attributes of bodies that our human brains are able to easily perceive. In and of themselves, they mean nothing.

That is not to say that the way these materialities come to create categories does not have broader consequences, as Allyson Hobbs pointed out on NPR yesterday, in the form of economic and social divisions and disadvantages that get attached to something like skin color. But, at the same time, like David Oyelowo described recently on Fresh Air, a categorizing ‘groupness’ like ‘blackness’ (which occurred, for him, in the United Kingdom) does not and cannot equate ‘having’ a skin tone with ‘being’ something specific. It involves both perceptions about where, when and to whom a skin tone belongs, and how people practice those distinctions:

In the UK, the reason I was being called a coconut is because to be black in the inner-city school that I was going to was to be abusive to the teachers, to be getting as many girls pregnant as you possibly can, to be, you know, in trouble with the law. These were all things that were badges of honor where I grew up in north London. And so to be a kid who wore his uniform correctly, who was respectful to his teachers, who put his head down and did his work, you know, somehow I was trying to be something other than what I am supposed to be. And you’re right, it really confused me because here I am literally having just come back from the so-called motherland, and I had other people who looked like me saying that I was trying to not be what it is to be black. But that’s because they had taken on a false notion of what that should mean and what that does mean. But it was also a notion that was being projected onto them by the society in which they live. You know, criminality is somehow linked to being black. Teenage pregnancy is linked to being black. You know, things that are negative are linked to being black, and they were taking it on. And I absolutely refused to do that because I knew it not to be true. And that’s what I basic — well, that’s why I would refer to it as a minority mentality. It’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of being the thing that the larger society says you are. And, you know, to a certain degree, you have a bit of that in American culture as well, unfortunately.

Oyelowo might be praised for denying his ‘blackness’, or might equally be vilified — like some did of Sidney Poitier — for ‘acting white’. If we focus on how how ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ are categories materialized through particular patterns of embodiment, not categories determined by patterns of embodiment — or the ancestral lineages they seem to imply — then we can start to productively explore how those categorizations become powerful mechanisms to create and maintain (often problematic) distinctions, rather than blaming the individuals who seem to violate them.

I hope that the conversation about Rachel Donezal, leaving aside what she may or may not have fabricated about her history, can provoke dialogue like what Gene Demby (from the phenomenal NPR Code Switch team) said:

Even though she may be a sort of imperfect fulcrum for those conversations, we are having conversations very candidly about the messiness of these identities that we all are choosing to some extent. It’s not just Rachel Dolezal who’s making this decision, though she’s making the decision in a very specific way, that we’re all sort of choosing to be part of these categories.

I would add: we are all also, then, capable of being multiple.

** find Installment no. 2 now here