The recent outing of Shaun King, a prominent activist in the #BlackLivesMatter social movement that calls attention to police brutality against Black citizens, as a white man has led to some spirited defenses of King in the left-wing, liberal press. Vox insists that a ‘person’s race isn’t derived by biology; it is instead set by society and a person’s own identity’, suggesting that race is a costume that can be donned by individuals at will. What Vox appears to ignore is that it would be incredibly difficult for a biologically Black person to assume the identity of a Korean, or a Persian, or a white person. In essence, only white people can choose a race other than white, particularly the racial category of ‘Black’.
King follows hard on the heels of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who claimed a scholarship reserved for Black students (as did King), and ultimately took a leadership position in the NAACP, from which she was forced to resign, although there is no official requirement that officers serving in the NAACP are Black. Indeed, in a landmark case known collectively as the ‘Groveland Boys’, Thurgood Marshall and his team, including white lawyers, who were full-fledged members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, defended four Black men against a false charge of rape by a young white woman, an episode of American history Gilbert King detailed in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Devil in the Grove, now in development at Lionsgate for a feature length film set for 2015 release.
Both King and Dolezal took on the racial identify of Blackness in order to personally profit from the exercise. Both had college educations funded either fully or partially by their appropriation of another race, and both have gone on to careers that depend on their identity as Black. While both Dolezal and King undoubtedly care passionately about the issues to which they speak, the additional step of altering their physical appearances to reflect a non-biological racial identity directly impacted their ability to earn a living that would have been extremely unlikely had they retained the racial identity of their births. Both Dolezal and King were/are paid Black activists, one for the NAACP, and one for #BlackLivesMatter.
In October of 1961, another white man assumed the physical appearance of a Black person, but for a distinctly different reason than King or Dolezal. When John Howard Griffin published his seminal work Black Like Me, it was instantly hailed as a classic, sold ten million copies, and was translated into more than 14 languages. It remains on the syllabus of college and high school courses that address race relations in America to this day. During the Jim Crow days of the South, Black concerns were often dismissed as mere paranoia, and Griffin sought to challenge that. The same accusations are leveled at Black activists concerned with police brutality today, but there is a significant difference between Griffin and people like Dolezal and King: Griffin took enormous personal risks and endured hardships to ‘reveal that what they [Black people] were saying was true’, and not simply a matter of paranoia. Dolezal and King took scholarships and jobs from actual Black people.
Griffin was perfectly open about his ‘performance’ of race, and enacted it to advance the civil rights of Black citizens, whom he cared about deeply. King and Dolezal are not open about their performance of race, in effect declaring that race is an affectation with no real consequences for Black citizens. A social state of being that can be performed, then deceptively and dishonestly declared authentic, and deployed to personally benefit the actors is the opposite of social activism.
It is blackface. Poorly done.