Author Jess Row: There Are Others Like Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal. Photo: 247PAPS.TV/Corbis

The author Jess Row can’t help seeing uncanny parallels between his first novel and the unraveling-in-progress of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of Spokane’s NAACP chapter who spent some of her life passing for black. Row first heard of Dolezal last Thursday night after reading a tweet from Daily Show alum Wyatt Cenac: “The #RachelDolezal story feels like the prequel to the @rowjess book ‘Your Face in Mine,’” a concise but pensive satire in which a white man has furtive “racial reassignment surgery” before marketing it as a cure for “Racial Identity Dysphoria Syndrome.” (Cenac linked to last August’s review of said novel in the Sunday Times Book Review — paperback out later this summer.) If anyone has the right to a hot take on Dolezal’s “outing,” it’s Row. So we asked him for one yesterday.

Is your book getting any renewed interest in light of the controversy and the Cenac tweet?
I never check the ratings on my books on Amazon, but my wife looked at them over the weekend and said there had been no movement. 

“Reverse passing” narratives have been rare, in fiction and history. But since your book, there’s been one in Nell Zink’s recent novel, Mislaid, and now this. How odd does that seem to you?
I always assumed something like this would happen before my book was published. I wondered why there hadn’t been a movie or a novel or something that took on this idea of racial reassignment. When I was out on book tour, I felt like I was often closing out my Q&As by saying, “I think someone’s gonna come along and claim to be transracial.” So, to me, it’s actually surprising that something like this didn’t happen sooner. It could have happened [for Dolezal] two years ago, and I’m sure that there are other people like her.

 You thought it was just a matter of time? Why?
Her story is her own, but the basic points of reference — somebody feeling that their outside appearance doesn’t match their inner racial identity — I met lots of people like that on book tour who said, “We know people like that,” over even, “I have that experience.” I tend to think of racial reassignment on a continuum, where many people practice some kind of racial reassignment, and hers is the most extreme end of the spectrum.

Did you meet people who’ve been passing as black?
I’m not gonna name any names, but yes, especially people in interracial marriages. Someone I met relatively recently says he doesn’t think of himself as white, never thought of himself as white. He speaks in black vernacular English, he lives in a black neighborhood, is married to a black woman, and has black children. I wouldn’t describe them as passing, but I would describe them as having a cross-racial identification. It’ll be very interesting to see in the months and years that follow whether people emerge who want to identify as cross-racial or transracial. It’s also very important to acknowledge that transracial has a separate meaning, which is the adoption of children of color by white families. It has a long, established meaning in the adoption community, and that’s a separate story.

Although that was part of Dolezal’s family story. There’s so much that’s unusual, and still unexplained, about her. What do you make of the choices she’s made, and the way she’s explained them?
I don’t want to speculate about her motives because I just don’t know. I hear the words that she’s saying and the narrative that she’s constructing, but personally, I don’t yet have a feeling of contact with the lived reality behind it. I don’t have any real sense of the psychological picture. Is she doing this for some exploitative reason, or because she has some kind of personality disorder? I think it’s too early to say — if any of us will ever be able to say.

Martin Wilkinson, the white-to-black man in your book, is kind of a huckster. Neither he nor Dolezal are pure victims, for sure.
It’s difficult for me to imagine a circumstance in which you’re disguising your origins in which someone doesn’t get hurt. You can look at the example of Anatole Broyard, or James McBride’s book about his mother, The Color of Water. There’s always pain and suffering and confusion that results from that. I do feel a sense of sympathy, and I have grappled with this a little bit myself. But I agree with people who have said that the choice to remain a white person grappling with issues of racial justice and even being in a multiracial family is a more powerful and more ethical choice. Disguising your own origins is a deeply American impulse, but that doesn’t make it any less compromising. The way I live my life is to try to foreground the tensions and paradoxes of being a white person who’s interested in racial justice and reconciliation, rather than disguise or obliterate them.

Elsewhere you’ve spoken of growing up near Baltimore, where the novel is set, and identifying with some aspects of black culture — particularly music. You’ve lived in Asia and practice Buddhism. Have you ever felt the impulse to change your race?
I moved to Hong Kong after college, and I had this very intense sense of alienation as a white person. I was studying Chinese and doing a lot of Zen meditation. And there were times when I had a fanciful sense that I would put on a monk’s clothes and just fade into a Chinese world. This was obviously a fantasy, but I had a desire to dissolve into my environment. And that is a kind of expression of white privilege for all kinds of historically constructed reasons, and I recoiled from it, personally. I moved back to the States and instead assumed a very conventional white American liberal northeastern intellectual life.

 Your novel played cleverly with the language of gender reassignment. Conservative critics immediately drew parallels between Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner — questioning the right of either person to claim an identity she wasn’t born with. Was it odd to be on the side of those conservatives, in a way?
There are also critics on the left who believe that race is a smoke screen for class differences. I really hesitate to use Caitlyn Jenner as any kind of spokesperson, or a symbol of what being transgender is about. It’s a very complex issue, and I don’t feel like I’m the right person to comment on it. I think there are going to be people who will come out and say that they feel themselves to be essentially black — who will say that they are transracial in the same way that transgender people say they are transgender. And at that point, I have to step back as a critic and cultural commentator.

And as someone who is neither. But your book portrays racial reassignment as a sort of get-rich-quick scheme, so there’s a critique of the idea that you can just wipe the slate of your identity clean for the right price.
My greatest fear about a world in which racial reassignment surgery becomes common is that it then becomes an expression of all kinds of class privilege. You have a truly dystopian society divided between the people who can afford to be racially altered and perfected and the ones who can’t. In my novel, the champion of racial reassignment is someone who wants to turn blackness into a brand, to monetize it for his own gain. I don’t think that’s what Rachel Dolezal is doing in any sense, but I think it’s a very troubling possibility.

Baltimore was only one of the American cities that faced a much broader problem of racial inequality this year. Your book came out the same month Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. Do Dolezal’s story and your novel address those issues, or distract from them?
Her case erased the whole situation with the Dallas swimming pool off the front pages. One of my most profound experiences in taking this book out on the road this year, the year of police violence and racial violence, is realizing that conversations about individual identity and choice shouldn’t obscure the more important conversation about justice and structural racism, which is fundamentally not about individual choice. I wrote a novel that was trying to speak to a particular kind of individual truth because in some sense that’s what novels do best. I try to think of the social function of fiction as drawing the individual toward larger social and political questions. But I’m also very comfortable in saying that my novel — any novel — doesn’t matter as much as larger questions of how we can see justice done.

How would you have changed your novel if Dolezal had been “outed” as you were writing it?
I’m not sure that I could have even written it.