Thinking of myself in binary racial terms is disingenuous.
By now you’ve probably heard mention of Anita Ronge, AKA DJ The DuchAz, AKA Kasi Mlungu. She’s made a bit of noise claming to be black woman in a white woman’s body..
The question of racial identity has been brought up in a few forms in recent years. In 2015, we had Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who had literally passed as black for years. In 2016, Donald Glover satirized transracialism in his series Atlanta. In the episode titled “B.A.N.,” we meet a black teenage boy, who identifies as a 35-year-old white man.
The main response from liberals here and around the world is to decry transracialism as nothing more than cultural appropriation. But the question is more widespread (and far more nuanced) than the obvious examples.
I no longer identify as white… sort of.
I am a white Jew. I’m very white and very Jewish. I went to a white Jewish day school, studied in a white Jewish seminary, and did a very “white” creative writing degree. My first job came from a white Jewish contact, and I got paid far more than someone with no qualifications deserved.
And yet, over the past few years, I can’t help but feel that my cultural and racial identity has changed. See, my boyfriend is mixed race. He has four grandparents of four different races. In engaging with his racial realities, my eyes have been opened to things most white people are oblivious to.
I now understand racial issues on a much more personal level. I can now easily identify my own and others’ manifestations of white privilege. He has exposed me to the everyday reality of being singled out because of your race. At first, it came through in conversations about his experiences from childhood on wards and how they differed from mine. But it soon became apparent in our daily lives.
At multiple Kosher restaurants, waiters have forgotten to give him a menu or acknowledge him. Initially, I saw these things as simple oversights. Only, once it happened over and over again did I realize it had anything to do with race. And I began to feel these slights personally.
So too with the prejudices of family and friends. In the past, when someone made a racist comment, I might have called them out on it but would forget it fairly easily. Now, I feel personally attacked. Because they’re talking about the person I love, as well as the multiracial world I live in.
There are more practically pertinent examples. While his Muslim parents were in exile during apartheid, he was raised by his Catholic grandmother. Nonetheless, the name on his ID is Muslim. As a Jew, I never thought I would have a problem visiting Israel (or America, for that matter). But if I want to go there now, I have no guarantee my boyfriend will be allowed in (or at the least, that he won’t be harassed by security).
My point is that, as much as my white skin will always convey upon me a privilege not extended to non-whites, thinking of myself in binary racial terms is disingenuous.
Claudia Rankine’s (at times brilliant) Citizen contains an essay that made me question her racial identity. She writes about Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt against Marco Materazzi in the 2008 World Cup Final. Rankine claims that Materazzi said the words “Big Algerian sh*t” and “dirty terrorist.” She writes about his reaction as an actualization of the same unfairness that she herself feels in her daily life. The same as Serena Williams has experienced throughout her career.
Now, Zidane himself dispelled those claims years ago. Materazzi had, in fact, insulted his mother (or sister). It had nothing to do with racism. But what struck me was Rankine’s assumption that an Algerian Frenchman’s experience is the same as that of an African American woman.
There we have the problem with racial binaries. In order to accuse someone of cultural appropriation, you have to draw a clear line as to what black or Indian or colored culture is. You have to homogenize the experience of every member of that race. And once you’re doing that, you undermine personal experience. You create exclusion.
A white friend of mine, who now lives in the UK, has two adopted black kids. When they were in school in South Africa, they were called coconuts and oreos by the other black kids. But they never felt accepted by the white kids, either. A black friend of mine grew up ostracized by her black peers because her black parents only taught her English.
I also know a brother and sister who grew up in an orphanage in which they were the only white kids. They speak like the black kids there, dress like them, share their language and culture. None of these people fit into the binaries, and yet none are guilty of cultural appropriation. According to those outraged by Kasi Mlungu, they all end up among the excluded.
It’s easy to call out the Kasi Mlungus and Rachel Dolezals as appropriating black culture. They’re easy targets with their naivety.
They open their mouths and their obliviousness to white privilege pours out. But this needs to be a more measured discussion. Away from the hysterics of social media racism, South Africa really is advancing as a rainbow nation. The number of coconuts and wiggers (if that’s still a word) is only getting bigger.
Even I, an undeniably privileged white boy, am unsure of my racial identity……..