I usually tend to steer clear of celebrity news. For one thing, reliable information is hard to come by about people’s personal lives. For another, their lives are not really anybody else’s business. But finally, the very notion of celebrity rubs me wrong; I deeply suspect that most of the adoration that is heaped on these people is misplaced.
I’ll point, counter-intuitively perhaps, to Paul Krugman as an example. For a significant segment of the media elite, his arguments no longer matter. The very fact that he utters them places them outside the realm of acceptable political discourse. In a way, he’s earned this. He advocates Keynesian economics in an era when Keynesianism is widely, and at least partly unfairly, considered to have failed in the 1970s. But worse than that, he pushes back against a 400-year old ideology of austerity, which has never worked, but which our elites just can’t get enough of. As a result, Krugman has become subject to ad hominem attacks simply because he is Krugman. In some ways, Krugman has become more important as a subject of demonization than for his arguments and, for all the value in his writing, this hinders rather than facilitates conversations that our society needs to be having.
This, for me, is the problem of celebrity. The personality becomes more important than the accomplishment. Still, there are times when celebrities do things that call attention to social issues or to theories that may need better development.
Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner is, as I have argued, a flawed example. Her example is flawed because she is insulated from the serious risks that many transgender people face and because where some transgender people wind up in truly horrible circumstances, she stands to profit immensely.
But the transgender phenomenon is important because people don’t always fit into the nice neat boxes of male and female that society has for us. Queer theory, in fact, argues that most of us don’t fit in those boxes. Gender is a social construction, which is to say, a baby is born male not so much because he is born with a penis but because an organ in that region of his body resembles a penis and so we categorize that baby as male, or she is born female not so much because she is born with a vulva but because her anatomy in that region resembles a vulva and so we categorize her as female. This identification assigns the baby certain roles in our society—gender roles. Problems may arise when the anatomy is ambiguous, leading to gender misidentification. But they may also arise when, as is apparently the case with Jenner, a person really believes they are born into the wrong sex body.
Gender is far from the only social construction. Race is another one. With gender, it is often possible to examine the DNA and determine biological sex. But race has little or no basis in biology. We are born white because our parents are white, or Black because our parents are Black, or some other race because our parents are of that race, or of mixed race when our parents are of different races. The trouble is that the differences among members of any race exceed the differences between races; biologically, this completely undermines the utility of race for categorization. It also means that racist claims about, for example, intelligence are entirely bogus.
So now we have the case of Rachel Dolezal, “African-American studies professor, #BlackLivesMatter activist and head of the Spokane branch of the NAACP.” She has been passing for Black, but her parents outed her as white. “Please believe that a spray tan and a perm do not a black woman make. Plus, concepts of passing and wearing blackface have a long, tortured history touching on sore spots in the black community.” Oh, my.
One problem is that Dolezal appears to have been deceptive, “representing herself as something she is not, and creating a fictional past for personal gain. Apparently, she may have fabricated reports of hate crimes against her.”
I’ll grant that she may have created a fictional past. But if race is a social construction, the claim that she is not Black has to be considered problematic. And as David Love, whom I’ve been quoting, notes, there are a few examples of whites who have truly transgressed these dubious boundaries:
Rachel Dolezal should take a lesson from the late R&B singer, producer and songwriter, Teena Marie—who was technically white, but was functionally black. Once described by Radio One founder Cathy Hughes as “a black voice trapped in a white body,” Lady T had a love relationship with the black community unlike no other white artist before or since.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic after her death in 2010, Teena Marie demonstrated that blackness is cultural and not biological. She once said “I’m a black artist with white skin. At the end of the day you have to sing what’s in your own soul.” To the end she sang for black folks and of black folks, and never found crossover appeal. Whether it was “Square Biz,” “I Need Your Lovin’,” “Lovergirl,” “Ooh La La La” or “Fire and Desire”—her duet with Rick James—Teena Marie’s “whiteness” never really came into view. And in any case, more than a few black people actually believed she was black.
Love and—I’ll hazard a guess—the Black community at large would cross a line if they demand of Dolezal what they demand of very few, that she “needs to show the black public she has a black soul—if she indeed does—and help us understand the process that led her down this path to embracing us.” If indeed they do this, it seems to me that their demand should be tailored for an accounting for her past rather than being about her parents’ claim that she is white. Or alternatively, they should put a similar demand to such people as presidential candidate Ben Carson, former presidential candidate Herman Cain, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Or, we must claim that race has greater reality than gender. Or, we should modify the theory of social constructionism, a “[t]heory of knowledge holding that reality is not objective but is constructed differently by different people, largely through social interactions, according to cultural biases and historical conditions.”
The problem with a white passing as Black is that in our society, Blacks endure much that whites do not:
Black America is falling off a cliff, into the ocean tied to an anvil. Poverty is up and economic opportunity is down. When the police are not shooting or strangling us, they are molesting our teenage daughters at pool parties with the camera rolling. And fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, we are still fighting for our voting rights, as the Republicans are acting like it’s 1955.
In this, and in so many other ways, Blacks have an experience that whites cannot authentically claim. Race may be a social construction, but it carries with it an entire legacy of slavery, segregation, lynchings, and discrimination that the label social construction diminishes through abstraction.
Jenner isn’t off the hook here either. Not only is her transition a misrepresentation of much transgender experience, but as a Facebook friend pointed out, she has never endured menstruation and its attendant discomforts and inconveniences. More than that, women have an experience and a legacy of chattelhood, rape, abuse, and discrimination that men can never really take on. There is indeed a case to be made that Jenner can never authentically be a woman. And again, the label social construction diminishes by abstraction.
I am not inclined to discard social constructionism. It’s too important a way of understanding our social world. The trouble is that it is an abstraction, and abstractions inherently diminish even horrific experiences. This in fact is my major complaint about many post-modernists. Read Michel Foucault, for example, and you are treated to abstraction piled on top of abstraction. Get a few pages in and the abstractions are nested so deeply it is impossible to tell what he is talking about. Yes, I’ll grant he has important things to say. But reading his work is, for me, impossible.
So what’s needed here is a way of understanding social constructions that does not enable the cruelties of our society but rather exposes them. How we get to that and to the conversations that need to happen as a consequence of that is a question for which I do not have the answer.