The Destiny Is In The Details

Not to bore you with details, but a large thematic component of my novel in progress is based on family lore.

As part of my research I’ve signed up for one of those analyze your DNA/create your family tree websites.

Quick side note: My wife is a fan of the various TV shows—Who Do You Think You Are, Finding Your Roots—that traverse this same territory with well known actors, politicians, journalists, academics. I’ve watched several episodes, and while I get the intrigue, the discoveries hadn’t up to the past couple weeks scored an emotional hit.

Fast forward to now and my own revelations about the various family and DNA components that brought me here. I’m struck by the many, many stories that are knitted in my chromosomal past.

I’ve had to confess to my wife that I better understand the appeal of her favorites shows.

Another quick side note: Many of my ancestors were scrappers and farmers who fought for whatever necessities and comforts they could. I was part of the first generation to go to college, and I didn’t realize what a monumental feat that was based on my history. I took it for granted.

Looking over that familial history, it’s very difficult to shake the evidence - social class was destiny. Opportunities were scant. Education was always the one societal mechanism for potentially pushing that destiny aside. Many in my background didn’t or couldn’t use that mechanism.

Which leads me to my reaction about the college admissions scandal revealed this week. This is a class issue. It’s disgusting, it’s cynical and it’s ultimately not surprising. There are many others who have worked harder and suffered more for the their college educations than I have, so I won’t go there, but the audacity of entitlement that this scandal (which I’m sure has just barely begun to reveal itself) has exposed underscores what we all know and live:

There are those with means—those who have always had means—and there are the many who have to pick their way through corrupt systems and do their best to survive with whatever tools they have available to them.

Here’s to the scrappers.

Cisracial Like Me


DISCLAIMER: I began the below blog post before the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. The Rachel Dolezal media coverage borders on the ridiculous in light of such a horrific incident. Joan Walsh has a piece sympathetic to Dolezal in context of the Charleston event here. On with the post....

At the risk of adding yet another opinion to the Rachel Dolezal maelstrom, I’m compelled to respond.

Starting at the ending first: Couching Dolezal’s adoption of a black persona and the corresponding physical transformation in the language that a transgender person* might use places race, sexual identity and gender on an equal and interchangeable plateau that I’m not sure can or should bear the weight of these vital yet vastly different issues. That Dolezal could assume the identity and legacy of an African-American simply because she wants to is entitled - uniquely white and uniquely privileged.

(*After reading this piece in the New York Times, I learned that the term ‘transracial’ pre-dates Dolezal’s appropriation of the term. In my piece, I’m referring to Dolezal’s use of ‘transracial’ not its more valid context.)

That said, I understand and even relate to Dolezal’s choices.

Back in the early 1990s when I was in college, many of us liberal-arts-minded folks loved the higher education experience so much that we wanted to become university-endorsed artists and college professors. I, for example, watched my creative writing instructor rumble down the mountain to teach—often stoned—two days a week and then rumble on back up the mountain to get stoned some more, and I thought,

“That’s the job for me.”

A university writer/teacher seemed like the ideal career choice.

Alas, I’m a white male, and there were two movements blossoming in the 1990s that killed the dream – the university-driven literary world was expanding the ‘canon’ by actively seeking out and publishing the works of women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and post-Colonial displaced persons, while at the same time the broader university system was in the midst of rectifying centuries of societal wrongs by favoring the ascension of female, ethnic, queer, and displaced candidates into their academic ranks.

Setting aside for a moment how these twin movements affected my own professional trajectory, I do support both of these endeavors: expanding who we claim as part of a literary movement or who can teach at a university are the right things to do. Representation is vital.

But one of the unintended consequences was that you had writers and teachers (or writer/teachers) brandishing how much they were oppressed by the dominant white male paradigm as a means of cachet, as a way of getting promoted. The more checkboxes of your damage that you could mark off—the more ways in which you were hurt or wronged—the better your prospects.

Some of the folks who benefited from this victimhood system generated output that deserved this special attention, and some, perhaps many, did not.

Rachel Dolezal’s decision to transform herself from a racial-equality-advocating white woman to a—ta da!—black woman echoes my own experiences in weird ways. There is in higher education a kaleidoscope ceiling. And if you really, really, really want into that academic world, and if you’re only as talented as the other three hundred candidates vying for ever-diminishing positions, there are few ways to distinguish yourself.

This doesn’t mean that we white people don’t have opportunities or that we can’t find ways of getting at our goals – options that marginalized populations often don’t have. But we have to be honest that while it is not reverse racism, exactly, the university has caused damage in trying to repair damage. Favoritism always excludes someone.

Rachel Dolezal and her claim of being transracial is the result.

And Dolezal’s choices have to be viewed in this context. However wrong-headed the execution, Rachel Dolezal tried to reverse-engineer the system, to game it back into favoring her. All of this, again, driven by what I believe are her genuine sympathies toward African-Americans and their fight for racial equality.

Rachel Dolezal’s situation draws out complicated feelings of anger and understanding. A microcosm of our nation’s still despairing attempts at racial equality and acceptance. Adding ‘transracial’ to the dialogue, though, doesn’t get us closer to unity or to equality.