Monthly Archives: June 2015

CAN A WHITE PERSON BE BLACK? ETHNIC IDENTITY IS A MATTER OF CHOICE, NOT NATURE

IMG_Rachel Dolezal

Q: Can a white person be black?

A: Yes. I know the case you have in mind: Rachel Dolezal (pictured above), who is a leader of the National Association of Colored People, and professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, has built a professional a career as a black women; but her parents last week stated that her ancestry was Czech, Swedish and German with a dash of Native American and, while she mixed with and African Americans as a young woman and married an African American, “She’s chosen to not just be herself but to represent herself as an African American woman or biracial person. And that’s simply not true.” That’s what her mother said.

Q: That’s the case I have in mind. She’s a fraud, right?

A: Not in the slightest. She’s chosen to adopt an identity as a black person. What’s wrong with that? Barack Obama describes himself as an African American, but he’s never called himself black. Tiger Woods avoids both African American and black and has invented his own identity as Cablinasian – meaning a hybrid of Caucasian, Black, American-Indian, and Asian. So I see us at a stage in history when we’re able to select whatever ethnic identities we choose, maybe several. But it’s a matter of choice.

Q: But surely some people are black and that’s a fact of nature?

A: There is nothing natural about being black or white. Whiteness has origins in the second half of the seventeenth century when English, Irish, Scottish and other European settlers in America began to see themselves not as individuals or members of national groups, but as parts of a race. Most occupied a status not greatly above that of black bondsmen, that is, slaves. The antislavery movement argued that slaves were sentient human beings and deserved appropriate treatment and this prompted slaveholders to defend themselves. Slaves were like livestock, the plantation owners argued, but without anticipating the force of the Quaker-led movement. The need for a sharper, clearly defined barrier of delineation became more pressing as antislavery campaigners grew in confidence. The title of Theodore Allen’s 1994 book The Invention of the White Race conveys the action that followed: whiteness was invented.

Q: So let me get this straight: slaveowners created whiteness to convince workers from Europe that they had a kind of unifying identity and should stick together and that the slaves, who were descended from Africans, were black.

A: Not quite: whites were persuaded they were part of the same group, but slaves were called a variety of terms, most of them suggesting a natural grouping. Blackness, at least in the sense we understand it today, is a creation of the 1960s, when radical African Americans started to use it.  For example, “Black is beautiful,” and “Black and proud of it.” There’s a tremendous James Brown track from 1968 called “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (check it out at the end of this blog).

Q: But the fact remains: people who identified as black were and still are African American. Dolezal isn’t. How can you argue against that?

A: In 2011, after splitting up with her partner, a white Canadian, Halle Berry (pictured below) pressed for custody of their daughter. The custody was contested and Berry based her claim on her daughter’s ethnicity: she was black, insisted Berry, drawing on what has become known as the “one drop rule.” This is an old idiomatic phrase that stipulates that anyone with any trace of sub-Saharan ancestry, however minute (“one drop”), can’t be considered white and, in the absence of an alternative lineage – for example, Native American, Asian, Arab, Australian aboriginal – they are considered black. The rule has no biological or genealogical foundation, though, in 1910, when Tennessee enshrined the rule in law, it was popularly regarded as having scientific status, however spurious. By 1925, almost every state in America had some form of one drop rule on the statute books. This was four decades before civil rights. Jim Crow segregation was in full force. Anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited unions of people considered to be of different racial types, remained until 1967, when the Supreme Court repealed them completely. By the time of Berry’s court case, it might reasonably have been assumed that the rule been exiled to America’s ignominious past. Berry herself has an African American father and a white mother, who is from Liverpool. Her parents divorced and she was brought up by her mother in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to the custody argument, she had declared she considered herself biracial, this referring to a child with a black parent and a white parent: “I do identify with my white heritage. I was raised by my white mother and every day of my life I have always been aware of the fact that I am bi-racial.”

Actress Halle Berry

Q: Berry is hardly a controversial figure, but I know she’s occasionally talked about the particular predicament of biracial people, but, at various points, she’s also used black, African American and woman of color to describe herself. She’s talked of how she never felt accepted as white, despite her white mother. Her appeal to the one drop rule seems a bit like a physicist trying to explain the movements of celestial bodies by citing astrology.

A: Actually, while it seemed irrational, Berry’s explanation of her actions was far-removed from any kind of faux biology or pseudoscience. “I’m black and I’m her [daughter’s] mother, and I believe in the one drop theory. I’m not going to put a label on it. I had to decide for myself and that’s what she’s going to have to decide – how she identifies herself in the world,” she was quoted by Chloe Tilley, of the BBC World Service. In resisting conventional census categories, or labels, such as biracial or multiracial, she was not returning to another label black, as if returning to a default setting. Black, in her argument, is no longer a label: it is a response to a label – a response, that is, to not being white. Blackness, on this account, doesn’t describe a color, a physical condition, a lifestyle, or even an ethnic status in the conventional sense: it is a reaction to being regarded as different or distinct.

Q: You’re saying black no longer describes a designated group of people, but the way in which those who have been identified as distinct from and opposite to whites have reacted; their answer.

A: That’s basically it, yes. When Berry allowed, “that’s what she’s going to have to decide,” she meant that her daughter has some measure of discretion in the way she responds. Blackness is now a flexible and negotiable action; not the fixed status it once was. More likely we’ll witness the kind of situation encouraged by Berry, in which ethnicity becomes a matter of choice, people electing their ethnic identities. Note the use of plural identities: Berry’s child may change hers as she grows, perhaps opting for several at one time, changing to suit different situations. It will be – probably already is – possible to have multiple ethnicities, all interchangeable and all utterly fluid. We live a “liquid life,” as Zygmunt Bauman calls it.

Q: For some, this lack of certainty must sound like a waking nightmare. Surely we can’t change identities and switch ethnicities as we change our appearance with cosmetic surgery, replace limbs with prosthetics or restore vital functions with organ transplants from human donors, can we?

A: That’s what is happening and, for this writer at least, it’s no bad thing: the death of blackness will bring with it the demise of whiteness and all the inequity, oppression, bigotry and manifold wrongdoing that whiteness has engendered. Oh, and excuse the plug, but, if you want to read the full version of this argument, it’s all in my book Beyond Black (that’s Halle Berry on the front cover, by the way).

NIKE: IN CRISIS, OR GETTING STRONGER? OR BOTH?

Justin Gatlin-Men's 100m Final-London 2012 Olympics

Q: Wearing any Nike clothes?

A: Eh? No, I don’t think so. Oh, wait a minute: I’ve got some Nike socks on – I’ve just been for a run. I imagine everybody reading this is either wearing something with the “Swoosh” logo on it, and, if they haven’t, they’re bound to own something from Nike. It’s one of the most ubiquitous and most profitable brands in the world. Forbes rated Nike’s brand value at an incredible $15.9 billion and, only last month, Nike reported $7.46 billion in revenue for the previous three months alone. Why do you ask?

Q: Because I notice Nike has been drawn into two scandals over the past week: Alberto Salazar was the subject of a BBC Panorama investigation into doping and his training base is at the Nike Oregon Project in the USA, where Mo Farah, among others, trains; and Nike has been implicated in the Fifa scandal – according to the American US Department of Justice’s indictment filed against 14 Fifa officials and marketing executives, in 1996, “Company A,” which is now widely accepted to be Nike, agreed to pay $40m in “marketing fees” to the Swiss bank account of an affiliate of Brazilian sports marketing firm Traffic “on top of the $160m it was obligated to pay”, apparently to secure the sponsorship of the Brazilian football team. Traffic billed the company for an additional $30m in fees between 1996 and 1999, according to the indictment.

A: I can’t think of another global brand that has courted controversy quite so often as Nike and yet still emerged, not just intact, but actually stronger. In marketing terms, the company is living testimony to Nietzsche’s dictum, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Just think about the previous scandals in which Nike has been involved courtesy of the athletes with whom it held contracts.

  • 1992: Eric Cantona was banned by England’s FA after his infamous kung-fu kick on a fan.
  • 1997: Mary Decker-Slaney was banned from competition after an irregular doping test result, which she explained as the result of her taking birth control pills.
  • 2003: The NBA star Kobe Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman, who eventually dropped her case.
  • 2006-2010: Sprinter Justin Gatlin (pictured above, right) served two suspensions for using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)
  • 2007: Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback was jailed after being involved in a dog-fighting ring.
  • 2009: Tiger Woods’ “transgression” led to several other companies dropping him. Nike’s ten-year contract with Woods is worth $124 million.
  • 2012: Lance Armstrong had been associated with Nike since 2006 and had insisted he hadn’t used PEDs.
  • 2014: Disabled runner Oscar Pistorius was convicted of shooting dead his girlfriend.

Nike stood by all but Armstrong and even then stated, “it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him.” His contract was valued at over $7 million per year. In the other cases, Nike has ridden out the storm and suffered no obvious collateral damage. So my guess is that it will distance itself from the Salazar case for the time being and, if the situation demands it, reiterate its stance on doping and remind everyone that its training facility in Oregon is not a panopticon i.e. a structure in which everyone can be observed at all time.

Q: But the Fifa scandal is a different matter, right?

A: Yes, I think so. But remember how Nike managed to navigate its way through the sweatshop controversy. “Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse.” Who said this? A protester at a G20 summit? Someone from the North Korea Confederation of Trade Unions? Unicef? Actually, it was Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. In 1998, faced with the uncomfortable reality that Nike, despite its position in the market and its reputation as a global brand, was being embarrassed by constant revelations about its treatment of workers across the world. Nike employed nearly 800,000 workers in 52 countries. Ninety-eight percent of its shoes were, at the time, produced in four countries: China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. For a long time Nike  it had to defend itself against criticism of its apparent exploitative workplace practices in the emerging world. Nike’s business model is based on outsourcing its manufacturing, and using the money it saves on aggressive marketing campaigns. Nike put its hands up: as Knight’s admission indicates, the corporation was prepared to concede that its early efforts of setting codes of conduct and monitoring compliance didn’t end the abuses across its factories that produced its goods. It needed more comprehensive action. Perhaps more importantly, people believed Knight when he said he was going to pursue this kind of action, augmenting efforts to improve labor conditions with environmental programs.  So it advertised that it was monitoring its outsourcing labour practices and rectifying them and, basically, advertised its way out of trouble. That’s what it does so brilliantly: advertise in a way that persuades consumers that, by buying Nike products, they are involving themselves with a brand that is basically … well, cool.

Q: All the same, the company is going to be hard-pressed to extricate itself from the Fifa scandal, isn’t it?

A: Hard-pressed, maybe. But it’s not beyond Nike to turn a negative into a positive. Think how all the previous scandals have involved or seemed to involve some kind of wrongdoing. Nike can appeal to what we might call unstated sensibilities. For example, people might publicly decry maverick figures, rebels or rule-breakers, but they might also secretly admire them for having the audacity to flout authority. So I think Nike’s cunning advertising creates a way in which consumers can identify with rule-breakers but without openly acknowledging it.

Q: And the Fifa case?

A: The corporation has claimed the overpayments were not bribes or kickbacks and pointed out that the indictment does “not allege that Nike engaged in criminal conduct” or that “any Nike employee was aware of or knowingly participated in any bribery or kickback scheme.” And I have no doubt it will maintain this throughout the coming weeks. As long it remains a peripheral presence in the scandal, it continues to thrive. Like all scandals, there are personal focuses, like Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and Chuck Blatter. While these are portrayed as pantomime villains, no one will think too much about the more abstract Nike brand. Compare this with another example of potential brand damage: Alton Towers is going to have to work hard to rehabilitate its brand after last week’s crash. Consumers will experience the impact of the event by imagining, “there but for the grace of god …” and this may affect the way they think and respond to the Alton Towers brand. But no one is going to think if they buy a new Nike top or a pair of trainers that they’re suddenly complicit in an attempt to undermine the integrity of a sport they like, or even love. The associations are not immediate. As I argued earlier, Nike’s ability to weather storms is based on its credibility and its preparedness to own up to its own sins and meet the challenge set by the consumer market. My guess is that Nike will emerge unscathed, its position as the world’s market leader in sportswear unchanged.