A few days ago, I did the pencil test, just because I didn’t have anything else to do. And ok, I was a little curious to know what the result would be.
In case you don’t know what the pencil test is, it’s a method used in apartheid South Africa to determine your race and in turn, where you would live, who you would marry etc. The pencil test wrongfully divided families and saw them living in different parts of town.
The pencil test is easy. You just stick a pencil into your hair. If it stays there, you’re supposedly either black or coloured/mixed race. If the pencil drops, then lucky you. You get clean water, a good education and streetlights at night. I think. I don’t know exactly how it was in south Africa back then.
So here’s a question. I have fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes. However, the pencil stayed in my hair.
Where does that leave me on the race scale? And what is race? Is it biological? Or is it a social construct?
I realize I am posing enough questions here to write a fat academic book that not many would be likely to read. And I also realize that the nature of these questions are extremely tense for some.
But what inspired me to write this blog post, was the Rachel Dolazel scandal back in June. If you need a little reminder of the scandal read
I was embarrassed more than anything when the story came out and I read facebook statuses, instagram posts, blog posts, tweets and articles written by indignant black people who claimed that what Rachel did was racist.
And although I don’t condone what she did,
this interview with MSNBC
Where she speaks out for the first time, telling her own side of the story made me see the whole thing a little differently. Though I still think what she did was wrong.
Hearing Rachel speak, I realized that we have one thing in common. We both feel a little culturally misplaced. She talks about always being fascinated with black culture and feeling more at home among black people. And I feel the same way. I prefer the music, my hair care regime is closer to that of black girls and, perhaps from being a minority in a society though I’m blind and not black, I understand and have experienced discrimination first hand.
However, there is a crucial point where we are different. Whereas she wants to blend in and tries to play the part of someone she isn’t, I try to fit in by being who I am.
And this is what I find so sad about Rachel Dolezal. There’s nothing wrong in wearing your hair in braids and twists, be all engaged with equal rights for black and white people and in Rachel’s case even teach African American studies, although she may have taken it slightly to far with a couple of her lectures. Or in my case, be a singer in Africa.
But it is still possible to do these things and be white. In fact, not denying who we are and still living for the things we care about is going to earn us far more respect than pretending to be someone else. As many of the comments and posts regarding Rachel Dolazel stated, the celebration of the culture is very welcome. But it is passing off as a good example of someone you’re not and being glorified as someone you’re not that is so wrong.
Had a leader of the local blind organization for instance turned out no more visually impaired than needing reading glasses, yet received degrees, doctorates etc and then hailed as extraordinary among blind people, I would be pretty mad. So I get all the people who didn’t take well to what Rachel did.
I get it anyway without the blind comparison. And that, along with the fact that I don’t need to be ashamed of who I am, is the reason why I’d never do a dolezal.
So what is race exactly? Most people would define race as a biological thing based purely on yur physical looks. I tend to agree with that. Look at dogs for example. Even if a Labrador behaves like a Spaniel, it doesn’t make it a Spaniel. And just as a Labrador and a Spaniel are equal despite differences in appearance, so are humans.
It can be both easy and tempting for some to see race as a social construct. And it is to a certain degree. For example, oppression of other races by, mainly the white race, have caused different living standards and opportunities in some cases which have determined people’s lives. But that social construct is both forced and negative and something we all need to work towards getting rid of.
Things like food, music and other everyday culture are things that have flourished within certain communities and therefore indirectly within certain races is an argument for race as a social construct. But indi rock doesn’t belong to white people, reggae to black people and the Japanese don’t have monopoly on enjoying manga.
And in our global age where everybody moves around, we’re ultimately going to addopt practices from cultures that may be far away from the one we’re born into if we like them, or feel more comfortable with them. And isn’t that just a good thing?
Therefore, I think it’s sad to uphold something as being “a white thing” while something else is “a black thing” though we can always appreciate the origin of where things come from. Because the truth is, that in our society today, we’re going to do a little bit of everything.
Finally, let’s return to the pencil test and the question where on the whole race thing am I?
If we look at race as a social construct, I am mixed race. I can feel at ease in both the typical black and typical white setting, whatever clichés they’re based on. Though perhaps, I’m a little more on the black side. (I can’t name a single Indi rock band and I love rice and beans for Sunday dinner.) Yes, I am over simplifying a lot here. But I was just trying to avoid writing that book. So please forgive me.
If we treat race as a biological thing which the majority does, I’m a white girl with a pencil stuck in my hair. And that’s cool. In the end, I’m just me.