What a week for the study of race. Rather than she whose name has already had too much airtime, I start with the violence the Dominican Republic is enacting on some of its own citizens. I’ll connect to what’s her name and why neither the confusion and cacophony that’s transpired in her wake nor the DR’s more brazen racial violence that has slipped by surreptitiously can be upended through the concept of racial justice but let’s, please please, start in a different place.
Starting June 17th, hundreds of thousands of people in the Westernized hemisphere will become both stateless and immediately closer to suffering and possibly premature death. Having declared its intentions over a year ago, this week the Dominican Republic will actively round up and deport residents who cannot provide government-issued proof of their Dominican nationality. The DR government has put in place a number of registration centers that are woefully understaffed and underqualified; a gestural bone to claim that the edict is anything but conscripted ethnic cleansing. One can imagine a newcomer to this news being a bit perplexed:
Good question. Those of Haitian descent.
But how would one know who is of Haitian descent?
Another good question. Those with Haitian features.
What are Haitian features?
A lesser asked, and vexing question, but ok: Features that are blacker. There, happy?
No, not so much.
The DR’s edicts are flimsy and offensive in a number of ways. They are depressingly familiar with even a fleeting grasp of the violence that is part and parcel of the creation, protection, and assertion of borders. They are ridiculous by the obvious yet almost equally denied fact that there are, in fact, thousands of Dominicans with Haitian ancestry and vice versa; that the inhabitants of the island are more connected than asunder through shared histories of coloniality, slavery, and the diaspora. Superseding and spanning the contradictions and ahistoricity is the edict’s logic of a racialized fantasy of nationhood, birthed and disciplined through metrics of antiblackness. The core of the policy, as was the fundamental malicious assertion of Trujillo’s multi-pronged strategy to racially whiten his half of the island, is that blackness itself is a category lesser, unto itself and therefore to be purged.
Race is used in the DR’s thinly veiled anti-black edicts in order to promulgate the associated constructs of borders, nationhood, and statelessness. This human rights violation is not restricted to migrants but has been seeded to particularly target Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, a target that crystallizes, arguably more than any other border enforcement policy of late, the fallacy and flimsiness of state-conferred legality. Race is invoked to backwards map and justify the preservation of statehood for some and statelessness for others.
Race is a figuration, a fake, made-up thing with material, crushingly real consequences. As Chinua Achebe taught, everything is a fiction. The question is if it is a beneficent or malignant fiction. Race is a malignant fiction, constructed and policed to stratify the human from the nonhuman. The challenge after thousands upon thousands of words have been said and written about Rachel Dolezal, and so few have been written about the DR’s racialized proclamations of statehood is if we are collectively closer to understanding race as a malignant fiction with a vice grip. More interesting than anything Rachel Dolezal or her parents have said this week is the frenetic energy around them, mostly fueled by a woeful lack of understanding of race as a construct as well as its material purpose and effect. That these fifteen minutes have lasted so painfully long is testimony to how strong of a hold racial categories have on us, and that is in no way restricted to the United States.
Additionally, the reach of these fifteen minutes and the concurrent cursory attention to the much more widely impactful edicts of the DR is testament to the pervasive dominance of whiteness. The construct of race works to preserve whiteness as human while making others, with anti-blackness as the fulcrum, questionable, co-optable, deportable. Rachel Dolezal’s activities and words have garnered so much more attention precisely because she is recognized in media coverage as white. Her humanness was already always present. The proximity to suffering and death known by hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent is the flip side of that racial coin; always already ineligible, as Lisa Marie Cacho terms it.
And yet, much as it would seem somewhat logical to seek redress of racialized violence and dehumanization through racial justice, that is exactly the kind of wrong-headed remedy born of a society that is overly constricted by both race as a construct and loose ideas of justice.
At the moment, justice is often proffered in a sort of vagueness that is unlikely to be able to be of much good in dismantling the shapeshifting hydra that white supremacy is. We live in a time when it is said, with straight faces, that corporations can act consciously, and that racism can be addressed in the barter space of making, delivering and charging marked up prices for coffee and sugar, two of the core staples of transnational slavery and colonialism. This kind of foolishness is offered up without irony under the mantle of justice. Justice has become a brand and is therefore if not evacuated of promise, at least sputtering a bit. This is not to say that justice should be embargoed as an inherently corrupt concept but rather that time and energy cannot be wasted in leveraging a concept uttered, in the moment, so ubiquitously as to be meaningless. Or worse, used as a brand with ease. But the project of dismantling or eradicating must be made more specific, and that can only be done through understanding the specificity and origins of injustice.
Racial injustice is not solely that one transgressed a category, even for one’s benefit. The category itself is a fiction so to say the sin is solely in the transgression is to obfuscate the material analysis of what the category serves and disserves. The injustice is that one leveraged the fiction for one’s benefit and therefore furthered the structured fiction in all of its malignancy. This is what the DR is doing, having learned well from the imperial and protectionist policies of many nation/states, including the United States, and this is what Dolezal has done. But as with the DR’s logic that connects its contradictions, the attention given to Dolezal’s trials and tribulations houses the more insidious logic of whiteness as human. This focus speaks volumes of who is afforded nuance, detail, and core humanness. Rachel Dolezal’s story of deception is, in large part, allowed to be fascinating because as a white woman, she enters with full eligibility for humanness. The questions of what she did, what she didn’t do, and why conjure sometimes sociological and historical but persistently psychological and philosophical questions, questions about humanity. Her humanness matters because her humanness is above reproach, even while her racial identity is debated. Are we to believe that racial justice is countering, disallowing or disavowing Dolezal’s practices or perhaps revising the DR’s documentation policies for kinder, gentler terms of racialized statehood?
How can a fiction birthed to enact, meter out, and discipline human from inhuman be the source of humanity? I do not believe that the resolution of a malignant fiction lies in anything but destroying the fiction. And that means writing and rewriting other histories and possibilities into existence. That means crowding out and choking the malignant fiction through narratives that are truer, harder, and therefore strategically eluded. I fear that the ubiquity and vagueness of justice, at the moment, will serve, regardless of intention, to strategically muffle material moves to dismantle and upend white supremacy.
So rather than pursue racial justice, we’d do better to decenter whiteness as the default for humanity. I wish our attention spans weren’t so generous and focused for a single white woman’s tabloid-like escapades. Instead, we should find and maintain focus on the humanity, the history, the psychology, the undeniable vibrancy, the embodied beingness of black and brown peoples. Particularly when under such sustained, full frontal assaults. How dare we divert our attention from attacks on humanness to dally and attempt to make just what was created expressly to deliver injustice.