A few years ago, I wrote the short story-turned-novella “Riding the Bullet”.
Riding the Bullet is the story of a young woman’s trans-Pacific bullet train
abventure to New York City in a postapocalyptic near-future.
Of particular interest is a humorously-depicted feature of her fashion and style that seems to have predicted a debacle raging over social media in the past day or so.
Excerpt below (glad to note great strides in fiction-writing skill since then):
“Yup, tonight I’m Blackinasian. You’re Whitetina? Rock. And Jens is what? Beige? Again? He was beige at the Black party last month. Well, you know what they say… reminds me, I’ve got to drink this crazy ganguro potion — stopped especially to get it at 109 in Shibuya. No, not that kind of potion. I want to get a little darker before the party.”
Digging into the bag, a plastic bottle screamed its electric blue letters against a black background. “U-Polish! Give it To Ur Skin!” shouted the bold, uppercase letters of nonsensical Japanese Engrish. A few shakes and a twist of the cap opened the bottle. Wincing at the slimy texture, a third of the oily, sludgy substance was downed in one shot. Artificial melanocytes began their journey of diffusion from digestive organs to the largest organ of the body, the skin, evenly darkening by temporarily and naturally increasing the amount of pigment across the body’s surface.
Excerpt from Riding the Bullet, original novella, 2012
A news story has exploded in certain corners of journalism and even bleeds into pop-culture commentary. The story has a hashtag, and that hashtag is a person’s name. Her name is Rachel Dolezal.
The Internet shame-and-scorn game has gone into overdrive, of course, as its attention- and stimulus-starved denizens tend to do constantly nowadays.
You can read more about the controversy here (click here).
At the core of the issue is a deceptively straightforward question: Can a person switch racial identification if they feel a deep, personality-level affinity for that racial identity?
Mythology Meets Science Fiction: Race in Present and Future
In the novella Riding the Bullet, the main character is an Asian woman who darkens her skin for the sake of fashion and personal style.
Rachel Dolezal seems to have taken on a completely new identity as a black American woman, even to the point of marrying a black man, adopting four black children, and disacknowledging her (Caucasian) parents (given the fact that her parents were the ones who so gracelessly “outed” her to the mass media, she may have had good reason for wanting to delete them from her life).
In that sense, Dolezal has become part of a black family — as the popular term now would have it, her “family of choice”.
Many reactions have questioned the possibility that she could change her racial identity.
Questions and objections include:
1. Rachel Dolezal is engaging in “blackface” and most be stopped by any means necessary, especially via Twitter-based ridicule!
Actually, Dolezal is a legitimate civil rights advocate who teaches courses on African-American culture and is the president of her local NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. That is about as far as it gets from being a stereotype-wielding “blackface” performer or entertainer.
2. Rachel Dolezal is profiteering from affirmative action through a diabolically clever and fiendishly perverse reverse-race incentive scheme!
Affirmative action exists because of structural inequality in American culture. By definition, a white person would have an easier time building a career by claiming to be white — that’s the whole reason why affirmative action exists. The logic of a white woman taking financial advantage of “passing as black” is inherently self-contradictory.
3. Rachel Dolezal is “crazy”.
If someone cannot fathom an idea, they will often try to discredit the person instead of the idea. For LGBT people, this meant decades of psychiatric torture, chemical castration and psychologically disastrous “conversion” therapy practiced by religious fundamentalists. Now we have the same defamatory reaction leveled against Rachel Dolezal. “She is different. I don’t understand and don’t care. Hence, she is ‘crazy’ and somehow therefore eligible for ostracism, shaming and bullying.”
Rachel Dolezal may have other psychological problems. That is not the issue here, nor does it diminish the questions that her case raises regarding race and identity.
4. Black people can’t “transition” to become white, so it’s not fair (and therefore not possible) for a white woman to change her racial identity, either!
In fact, many black people (including biracial people) do not have dark skin and may be as light-skinned as Rachel Dolezal. This may be true even before tanning or other skin-darkening treatments as Dolezal seems to have undergone. Also, many peoples of the world have “black” skin: Thai, East Indian, and Aboriginal Australian among them. Therefore, skin tone or stereotypically “African” features do not determine race in any way.
How can this be true, if so many people believe otherwise?
In the tradition of hard sci-fi (science fiction based on plausible science), we can look at what scientists have to say on the topic.
What they say is conclusive: The notion of race is itself has never been scientifically validated. There is only one “human race”, and scientifically we humans all belong to a single species named “homo sapiens sapiens”.
Race, like, gender, is a not a biological attribute. Gender is behavior, not biology — and perhaps the same is true of racial identification.
Japanese Identity: Bicultural, Biracial
As noted above, many peoples of the world are black, even though they are not directly of African descent.
In the sci-fi novella “Riding the Bullet”, our protagonist chats with her friend about playing with race and ethnicity due to advances in pop-culture norms and technology-driven capabilities.
The idea drew real-life inspiration from a phenomenon in Japan known as kuro gyaru (“black girl”) style, in which teenage and mid-twenties girls deeply tan and darken their skin for the sake of beauty and style.
There is also a less extreme trend in Japanese hip hop culture whereby young women practice “B-style”, or “Black style”. The goal there is to imitate black American female hip-hop artists and music video girls.
Are these girls trying to become black? No. They are still Japanese. The deeper point is that, for example, a biracial person like Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto, looks similar to the “gyaru” and is as black as two-term American president Barack Obama. Although she is very much Japanese, Miyamoto has faced a wave of racist sentiment from other Japanese people because a person who looks like her “just can’t be” from Japan. This makes the question far more ambiguous than it might seem at face value, both literally and figuratively.
The Relationship of Race and Gender
Meanwhile, another non-traditional identity is that of the transgender person. Many people have recently begun to accept that a person can experience what is clinically called “gender dysphoria” — a sense of having been born the wrong gender. This dysphoria, for some, leads to a desire to change physical attributes in ways that align more closely with the person’s self-perception. Examples of “passable” transgender people include couture model Andreja Pejić, actress Laverne Cox, and performer Carmen Carrera.
If gender can be changed, why not race?
Advances in surgery, endocrine/hormone treatments, and behavior change make it possible to completely transform a person’s appearance to match their self-image. As time passes, these procedures are becoming more and more refined. Within a generation, the question of gender may soon be more a matter of how far you can afford to take the process of body modification in order to attain a desired appearance. Society has also begun to accept that although a person may be genetically male or female, their (cultural) gender identification may legitimately differ.
If there is such thing as “gender dysphoria”, why not “racial dysphoria” as well?
Rachel Dolezal lied about her race, but she also seems to geniunely want to exemplify an ideal of activism and scholarship. If she had been accepted for what she feels herself to be, perhaps the lies would have been unnecessary. This is exactly the same as the plight faced by transgender people every day of their lives; the parallel is direct and unmistakable.
Not So Black-and-White After All: Welcome to the (Trans)Human Race
Feminism is often thought of in terms of “women versus men”, when that is not the case. Is race a simplistic binary distinction of “black versus white”, or are there more degrees of freedom in self-image and the viable construction of social persona?
In the near future, people may realize that race, like gender, is a social construction, not a biological certainty determined by birth or genetics. Just as gender dysphoria does not mean that a person is “crazy”, racial diversity may become recognized as having an intrapsychic dimension as well as a social one.
We don’t need to reach for far-out futures like the one depicted in “Riding the Bullet”. We don’t need to classify diversity as some kind of science fiction (or worse, derisively refer to human beings as “science experiments” by way of dimwittedly degrading both a person’s humanity and science itself).
One day soon, we may witness the acceptance of individuals who are free to live their lives as they see fit and express their personal identity as they imagine themselves to be. Maybe science fiction can help point us toward that eventuality a bit sooner, or at least give us a playfully serious occasion to consider alternative possibilities.