It seems so easy for me to recognize inequality.
I glare at it, letting it foment in my self-righteousness, until such a point that it’s out of sight or I explode. I’m not alone in this. There isn’t that pause of, “Hmm, ok, now what?” The formula is simply See it, Get angry, Act; a visceral emotional reaction.
This is not one of those times.
It must suck to be Rachel Dolezal right now. Her statement stepping down as president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane listed off some of the things she and the organization feel she accomplished in that position. Unfortunately, her accomplishments and the work she’s done for equal rights is a footnote to the conversation, much in the same way the public’s strange and divided reaction is a footnote to the conversation, one which is more worthy of examination than Dolezal’s identity.
For all the discussion about her actions and how they pertain to race, equality, privilege and America’s shifting sense of social justice, what we’ve really been given is not another scandal to rail against, but an opportunity to examine our own motives and reactions to race, identity, and equality. The conversation has hardly been as divisively divided as many others to which I’ve been party, nor have the arguments and discussions been full of the angry vitriol indicative of political and racial discussions in the past. The civility is a good sign, indicating that all sides feel conflicted and confused, and most people are unsure whether to be angry, sympathetic, or simply indifferent.
Perhaps I’m reading too deeply, but I see a lot of other reactions, ones I didn’t expect, hidden beneath the surface. Some supporters of Dolezal, who argue that she should be able to choose her identity or, to a greater degree, her race, have smatterings of hope: hope that race is on its way to losing its significance; hope that people can be accepting of all lifestyle choices; hope, selfishly yet reasonably, that they can rise above their own societal hurdles. On the other side, detractors show elements of caring and preservation, often arguing not exclusivity, but a culture of respect.
What’s most fascinating to me is that both sides, despite differences in what they say on the surface, are arguing for equality.
Dolezal’s situation is only the latest in a string of events that seem to highlight questions of what equality actually is in the last few months, both publicly and personally for me: The pop culture fervor around rape in Game of Thrones (for the second time, I might add), the disappointing takeover of the Hugo Awards by the Sick and Rabid Puppies, the odd and unnecessary backlash against the minimal feminist tropes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation and the subsequent reaction (especially the Daily Show’s prescient commentary), and, most prominently, the discussions of public outrage in relation to the rioting in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray.
All of these things, to differing degrees, has added to the question of what equality truly is. Is it the right to the same opportunities? Is it the right to have things your way? Is it the ability to be on equal ground and receive equal treatment? Is it the right to choose your place in the world, whether that means changing who you are to match who you feel you are, even if doing so can only be done because of your privilege?
I want to posit a truism, that we aren’t all born equal–that our genetics, our economics, our location, our situation–is inherently our own. I also want to differentiate equality from uniformity (and cite the wonderful Vonnegut short story Harrison Bergeron in the process). But in the end, neither advances the conversation.
Instead, I’d like to bring up the question of intent. With regards to Dolezal, the majority of arguments are making assumptions about her intent: whether her choices about presenting herself as black gained her an advantage not intended for her or disadvantages traditionally foisted on blacks. While slowly mounting evidence means we can discuss that for a long time, I think our own intent is even more important. Why are we arguing one side or another? What do we get out of the discussion? And why do we care?
I’m making an effort to enter into discussions, conversations and arguments with intent rather than playing devil’s advocate. More and more, I’m finding myself unsure of the right and wrong of seemingly binary arguments. Though not all the situations I’ve mentioned are like this, there are reasonable, kind, and just arguments on both sides of Dolezal’s case.
In those cases, like this one, where I’m not sure where I stand, I cannot, in good conscience, enter into the conversation with intent. Instead, I find myself listening with intent, both to others and, more importantly, to myself.
Until I figure out where I stand, and I honestly may never figure that one out, I will continue to listen with intent.