When I enrolled my daughter for kindergarten some years ago, I had to fill out the typical enrollment form, name, date of birth, address, and so on. About halfway down the page, it asked me to identify her ‘race’ using the standard US categories: White, African-American, White Hispanic, Hispanic non-white, Native American, Asian. I hesitated, because these categories did not describe my daughter. Finally, I checked White and African-American (a more accurate, though still not quite, category would have been Afro-Caribbean). I took my form up to the registrar and she looked it over.
“Which race is she?” the woman asked me.
“She’s more than one,” I said, adding helpfully, “you see, I’ve checked the boxes.
The registrar looked up at me wearily. “You can’t check more than one box. So which race is she?”
“She’s both,” I insisted.
Rolling her eyes, the woman circled “African-American” with her pen and crossed out “white”.
“We get more money for them if they are African-American,” she said, “so that’s what I’m going to put.”
Thus in one pen stroke, both my daughter’s white and Afro-Caribbean heritage were erased, and she was given a new (semi-legal) identity. It is an identity that (at least according to the registrar that day) earns the school district advantages, so I have to say that this part of my and my daughter’s history came to mind when the Rachel Dolezal story began circulating late last week. Dolezal “identifies as black” (see her tell Matt Lauer this on NBC’s Today show here: http://www.today.com/news/rachel-dolezal-speaks-today-show-matt-lauer-after-naacp-resignation-t26371). In the Today Show interview, Dolezal says that one of her sons told her, “racially you’re human and culturally you’re black.” Other people call what Dolezal has done “political blackface,” especially since she once sued Howard University for discriminating against her whiteness. Dolezal does seem to use our hesitation to talk about the idea of racial categorization to her benefit. Her actions are the cynical outcome of a society which has institutionally and legally categorized people by race for hundreds of years, giving some economic and social advantages over others based on that categorization.
The economic and social advantages linked to racial categorization have played a role in children’s literature as well. I could spend the whole blog discussing the inherent status afforded to white characters in children’s books, status that is so ingrained in American society that it goes unnoticed by most readers. But instead, I’d like to highlight two particular cases that I think have similarities to the Dolezal case because they led to the question of who is allowed to gain advantage from racial identification.
Note the award sticker on the book . . .
The first is a book that first appeared in 1976, The Education of Little Tree. The original publishers, Delacorte, said that the author, Forrest Carter, was “Storyteller in Council” to the Cherokee Nation. The book was promoted as the memoirs of a young boy growing up during the Depression with his Cherokee grandparents, and was highly praised by environmentalists and multicultural literature proponents. But in 1991, it was revealed that Carter was not only white, he had been a white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member. He was even a speechwriter for infamous Alabama governor George Wallace. Although Carter-the-author denied he was Carter-the-white-supremacist in 1976, he died before the controversy really took hold in the 1990s, leaving people uncertain about how to approach the book. Oprah reluctantly pulled it from her “shelf,” the publishers relabeled the book as fiction—but the book remains in print and available as an account of Cherokee life for child readers. Native American writer Sherman Alexie sums up the unease the book causes when he said, in 2007, “‘Little Tree’ is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden white supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a white supremacist” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/06/AR2007110601431.html). Whether or not Carter was cynically playing on white liberal ideas of the Noble Savage or acting out a sort of atonement for his white supremacist past, it is certainly true that he would have made far less money on the book (if it had been published at all) if he admitted his past involvement in white supremacy.
Who is allowed to talk about your hair?
The other book I want to highlight that has faced controversy over race and privilege is Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair (1998). Unlike The Education of Little Tree’s author, Herron’s “right” to author a book about a girl with “willful, intentional naps on her head” is not in question. Herron, who has a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the book about her own hair and her own childhood. But the book itself has been controversial. In December of 1998, a newly-minted white teacher who wanted to “make a difference” in the lives of children, requested a transfer after being criticized for reading the book to her African-American first graders. She received public threats of bodily harm after sending photocopies of the book home at the children’s request. Some African-American parents at the school (not all of whom, it must be said, had children in Ruth Sherman’s class) objected to a white teacher using the word “nappy” which they felt was a racial slur. Following the controversy, Herron herself was asked not to come and speak at schools in Queens and Brooklyn because it would be disruptive (http://articles.latimes.com/1999/mar/25/news/mn-20855). Sherman felt bitter about her experience because she felt sure she had been doing the right thing, connecting children with “their” heritage. She certainly did not read the book to gain economic advantage over others. But the controversy over Nappy Hair highlighted her own inherent position of advantage due to her ‘race,’ and suggests again the unease that Americans (of any community) feel about the racial boxes into which other people put them.
It is difficult (as Shakespeare once said) “to thine own self be true”; but the challenge set before us as humans is to do just that—without using that true self to take advantages away from other people. We won’t be able to meet that challenge until we stop relying on boxes and start listening to people’s stories.