“Imitation of Life” is one of my favorite movies. I always put aside whatever else I’m doing when it comes on TCM, and settle in for what I know will be a monumental crying session during the last scene. It’s the one where a young black woman who’s been “passing” as white shows up at her mother’s funeral just as the hearse is pulling away from the church. She throws herself on the flower-covered casket and screams, “I’m so sorry, Mama!” Her wails are the sound that a wounded animal would make. It’s powerful.
When we used to think of “passing,” it was always in the sad tradition of black Americans who, blessed (or cursed) with lighter skin, were able to escape the bitter societal stigma of Jim Crow and lead plausible lives as white. In “Imitation of Life,” “passing” forces the young woman to abandon her mother so that people wouldn’t discover the “shameful” secret of her origins, and the saddest part about it is that the loving mother lets her child go. That’s how cruel the racial caste system was.
But that whole concept of “passing” was turned on its head this month with the discovery that a white woman from Spokane had presented herself as African-American, and had been so successful in this charade that she became the head of the local NAACP chapter as well as an instructor in the Africana Studies program at Eastern Washington University. Some people would actually take issue with my word “charade,” which is the exact point of this column.
It used to be that there were certain immutable and irrefutable truths about identity. Putting aside the issue of sexual orientation, which has very little to do with actual identity despite the political manipulation employed by special interest groups, there was very little wiggle room between male and female, white and black. People may have hidden their true selves by cross-dressing or “passing,” but no one actually came out and said “I feel like a woman, so I am one” or “My parents are black but my skin is white so I’m really a Caucasian.” There was no sense of private delusion, even while the person was engaged in public deception.
But that’s gone out of the window, and in a big way. In an almost too-perfect-to-believe gift to pop culture, Caitlyn Jenner shed the unwelcome skin of Bruce within weeks of Rachel Dolezal being outed as having appropriated the undeserved skin of a black woman. Unsurprisingly, Kim Kardashian’s ex-stepfather-now-ex-stepmother supports Dolezal.
The problem is that we are now seeing people living some macabre version of the old Army slogan, Be All You Can Be. It’s as if we are both the human clay and the artist, and can mold our mortal selves into something completely different and divorced from nature and biology. And because that biology is dominant and in most cases cannot be denied, the sociologists and psychologists are forced to underplay its importance by telling us that race is not necessarily based on science but is, rather, a mere social construct. To quote a recent op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Let’s be clear: there’s no science in race … (it’s) a concept invented to justify treating some people as things and others as owners of things.” I checked to see who wrote the column, and was surprised it wasn’t George Orwell.
Of course there’s science in race, even though the effects of racial classifications do implicate the laws and social mores. But to actually suggest that race and science are completely unrelated is so hilarious that I’m thinking the author has a bright future writing for MAD TV.
My mother’s family came from Naples, and — no disrespect to the itinerant Irish, French and Swedish particles in the other half of my DNA — I have always felt predominantly Italian. “Felt” is the operative word. I even admit trying to tan away my father’s freckles in an attempt to look more Sophia Loren and less Pippi Longstocking, but I have never denied or fabricated my true heritage.
Not Rachel Dolezal. She appropriated someone else’s back story and melanin, trying it on like a new dress off the rack at Nordstrom’s. Bruce Jenner did something similar when he returned his male identity for a refund and a white bustier, but since I’m not in the mood to battle the Trans Hysterian Gripeline for a third week in a row, I’ll focus on Rachel.
The idea that we can just force the world to take us on our own terms is a dangerous one. It is the full fruition of the “selfie” philosophy where everyone is three flattering poses away from “living their truth.”
Personally, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of pretending to be tolerant of liars, sick of oohing and ahhing at the “courage” of exhibitionists, sick of politically correct luddites who dismiss science when it advances their agendas.
“Passing” was a tragic solution to an unforgivable sin, but the people who did it had no doubts about their essential selves. Dolezal has fabricated an entirely new reality to fit her twisted little ego, and the people who support her are co-conspirators in that fraud.
Imitation of life, indeed.