Blow and Kristof

In “The Delusions of Dolezal” Mr. Blow says her performance of blackness may have been born of affinity, but was based on a lie. It’s a spectacular exercise in hubris, narcissism and deflection.  Mr. Kristof, in “Malachi’s World,” says this year’s win-a-trip journey starts with a stop in Baltimore to look at some of the challenges presented by poverty here at home.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Rachel Dolezal, a woman with no known black heritage, has apparently, through an elaborate scheme of deception and denial, claimed for years to be a product of black heritage.

This has sparked a national conversation about how race is constructed and enforced, to what extent it is cultural and experiential, and whether it is mutable and adoptable.

If this were simply a matter of a person appreciating, emulating or even appropriating the presentation and performance of a race other than the one society prescribes to her based simply on her appearance, it wouldn’t be a story.

But this isn’t simply that. This is about privilege, deceitful performance and a tortured attempt to avoid truth and confession by co-opting the language of struggle, infusing labyrinthine logic with the authority of the academy, and coat-tailing very real struggles of transgender people and transracial adoptees to defend one’s deception.

This is a spectacular exercise in hubris, narcissism and deflection.

And we have been distracted from real conversation about real things in order to try to contextualize a false life based on a false premise. For a moment, blackface seemed to matter more than actual black lives.

On this issue of appearance, Ezra Dolezal, her adopted brother, hasdescribed her transformation as a form of “blackface.” When Matt Lauer asked, “Have you done something to darken your complexion?” she responded, “I certainly don’t stay out of the sun.” (TMZ reportedWednesday that according to their “tanning sources,” Dolezal was a “loyal customer at Palm Beach Tan in Spokane” and “was a fan of Mystic Tan…a brand of spray tan.” Make of all that what you will.)

Dolezal added: “This is not some freak ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level.”

Full stop. Let’s just marvel at the efficient catchphrase saturation in those sentences. She takes the whole universe of possible attacks and issues them in her own tongue as a method of neutralizing them. It is a clever, if calculated, bit of argumentation, the kind that one might practice in a mirror.

But Dolezal didn’t stop there. She also told the MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, “I have really gone there with the experience, in terms of being a mother of two black sons and really owning what it means to experience and live blackness.”

Yes, but she did so by choice and with a trap door. She was always aware that she could remove her weave and stop tanning (assuming that’s true) and return to what society registers as whiteness. People of actual black heritage don’t have that option. Her sons don’t have that option. And make no mistake: Having that option is a privilege.

The whole notion of “transracial” as it has been applied to Dolezal is flawed in part because it isn’t equally available to all.

Whiteness in this country has historically been incredibly narrowly drawn to protect its purity, and this was not simply enforced by social mores, but also by law. Conversely, blackness was broadly drawn, serving as something of a collecting pool for anyone with even the most minute detectable and provable Negro ancestry. If you weren’t 100 percent white, you were black.

This meant that society became accustomed to blackness presenting visually in an infinite spectrum of possibilities, from pass-for-white lightness to obsidian darkness lacking all ambiguity.

This means that the way Dolezal was able to convincingly present and perform blackness as a light-skinned black woman is a form of one-directional privilege that simply isn’t available to a black person starting at the other end of the melanin spectrum.

Racial passing has been a societal feature probably for as long as race has been a societal construct. But it was more often practiced by a person who was not purely white by heritage passing herself or himself off as such. In some ways, this may have been understandable, even if distasteful, as these people identified as white in a society that privileged whiteness and devalued, diminished or attempted to destroy — both spiritually and physically — others.

Choosing a life of privilege over one of oppression must have seemed particularly attractive to some, particularly to those whose parents are different races and who, one could argue, could make the most compelling case to identify with whichever parent’s heritage they chose.

But Dolezal wasn’t passing in that sense. She was commandeering and concocting a biography of burden to obscure the shift and lay claim to authenticity.

According to a report in The Washington Post, however, the transracial-adoption (“when a child of one race is adopted by the family of another”) community has not taken kindly to being linked to Dolezal’s deception. Kimberly McKee, the assistant director of the Korean-American Adoptee Adoptive Parent Network and a professor at Grand Valley State University where she studies transracial adoption, told The Post, “You’re turning something that is a historical experience into something that’s almost being made a joke.”

A letter signed by McKee and 21 other scholars and advocates made the point even more forcefully: “We find the misuse of ‘transracial,’ describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of ‘blackness’ in order to pass as ‘black,’ to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.”

Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find scientific support for transracialism, as it is being applied for Dolezal’s deception and identity, as a legitimate area of serious inquiry beyond a sociological phenomenon.

How can one be born discordant with a racial identity if race is a more socialized construct than rigid, biological demarcation and determinism? In other words, how can one be born discordant with an experience one has yet to have?

At best, this appears to be an issue of having an affinity for a culture that grows around a social construct. That is because, to my sense of it, cultural race identity has more scientific grounding than biological race identity, and those cultures of racial identity are in fact a response to the structure itself. Some people perform in response to their privilege and others to their lack thereof.

In that regard, one can not only like and want to emulate the look of another racial group (though, one must be ever-questioning of oneself as to what motivates this, making sure that it isn’t the outgrowth self-hatred), but one can even prefer the culture that developed around that look.

But changing appearance and even cross-cultural immersion doesn’t alter the architecture of race that gave birth to and reinforced those differences in the first place.

Dolezal’s performance of blackness may have been born of affinity, but it was based on a lie — one she has never sufficiently recanted — and her feeble attempts to use professorial language and faux-intellectual obfuscations only add insult to the cultural injury.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Baltimore:

Meet Malachi, a charming toddler I met here.

The first puzzle was that Malachi, at the age of 2 years and 4 months, still doesn’t speak. He says only two words: “no” and “ouch.” He doesn’t say “mom” or “dad.”

That leads to the second puzzle: Where are his mom and dad?

Candace Williams, 26, Malachi’s caregiver, seems to be doing a fine job. She says that Malachi’s mom, who lives in York, Pa., has 11 children and a drug problem and left him with her.

Williams says the mom periodically asked her to look after Malachi but then wasn’t very diligent about picking him up. “I would have him for months at a time,” Williams recalled.

Then, on the boy’s second birthday in February, Williams dropped by to wish him well. She says she found food and knives on the floor and the house in chaos. At that point, she says, the mom handed her the boy. As far as Williams is concerned, Malachi is now her child to raise, although she has no papers to document that.

And the boy’s father? He is in prison for a drug-related offense, Williams said.

As for his inability to speak, that may be because he has tested positive for lead poisoning — an echo of Freddie Gray, the black man whose arrest and subsequent death sparked the rioting in Baltimore. As a child, Gray also suffered from lead poisoning.

It should be a scandal that lead (mostly from old paint) still poisons 535,000 children in the United States from ages 1 to 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disproportionately affecting poor children, it robs them of mental abilities and is associated with disruptive behavior and crime in adulthood. If this were afflicting wealthy kids, there would be a national outcry.

I’m on the first leg of my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student on a global reporting trip; we will go this fall to India and Nepal. This year I’ve added an American swing to look at domestic challenges. So my student winner, Austin Meyer of Stanford University, and I have visited Baltimore to examine the challenges of the inner city.

Some 58 percent of whites said in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in late April that the riots in Baltimore were the result of “people seeking an excuse to engage in looting and violence.” Many middle-class and affluent Americans don’t fully appreciate, I think, the inequity and frustrations boiling in some communities across the United States.

Malachi exemplifies the challenges some kids face in places like this. Americans often say that poverty is about bad choices or personal irresponsibility, but Malachi himself hasn’t made any bad choices.

Sean Berry-Bey, who has known Malachi’s mother for years and for a time looked after other children of hers, firmly backs Williams’s account that the boy was neglected and mistreated.

When I reached the mother, she started to dispute all this and told me that Williams was just looking after Malachi for a few months. Then she declined to speak further.

I’m impressed by Williams’s commitment, and she’s getting no government assistance. Indeed, she recently lost her job as an armored truck driver — she says caring for Malachi interfered with her work — so there’s now greater financial pressures on the household.

It is easier, of course, to describe a problem than to prescribe a solution, and helping people is harder than it looks.

One valuable program is WIC, which provides nutritional support for women, infants and children. Yet because it gives free infant formula to low-income mothers, it unintentionally discourages breast-feeding.

“If I had to buy formula, with no WIC vouchers, I’d breast-feed,” Alia Brooks, a teenage single mom in Baltimore, told me.

In short, helping people is complicated. Yet we do have programs that help — not everyone, not all the time, but often. Indeed, WIC is among them.

We accompanied a health department lead abatement team that took lead readings in Malachi’s home and offered sage advice on how to get medical care and access to social services for the boy — and also provided steel wool to plug rat holes.

Lynnelle Boyd, a member of the team, also figured out that the family has an immediate problem: Williams may be paying rent to someone who doesn’t actually own the house. Boyd explained how to reduce the risk of eviction.

That’s the reason for our win-a-trip reporting journey in America, to underscore that global poverty and inequity exist not just in India or Nepal, but right here in the United States, still waiting to be addressed.

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