Late last Thursday night, filing out of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park after a performance of The Tempest, I glanced down at my phone and saw that a well-known comedian, a friend of a friend, had tweeted something about my novel. “This #RachelDolezal story feels like the prequel to the book Your Face in Mine,” he wrote.
A version of my novel was leaving the realm of the imaginary and becoming news.
Your Face in Mine, which came out last August, is a speculative fiction about a white man in his 30s who returns to his hometown, Baltimore, and discovers that one of his best friends from high school — whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years — is now black. His friend, Martin, has diagnosed himself with what he calls Racial Identity Dysphoria Syndrome, and claims that he has always been black — that he was born in the wrong body. Only as a black man, he says, is he truly, authentically himself. And, what’s more, the surgery he has undergone in Thailand — “racial reassignment surgery” — is available to anyone, for any possible transformation.
When I started working on the novel (this was in 2008 or 2009), I assumed the term “racial reassignment” already existed. It didn’t. When I Googled it, the only uses I found were a few derisive comments along the lines of Elinor Burkett’s recent attack on Caitlyn Jenner and transgender identity, where she treats “transracial” as an absurd hypothetical that proves her anti-trans point. Still, in all the time I was writing Your Face in Mine, and waiting for it to be published, I assumed I would be preempted by another novel, or a movie, or, of course, an actual “racially reassigned” person. (There was one such case: a report in the Daily Mail about a Brazilian teenager who had been an exchange student in South Korea, and had reportedly, according to some very convincing photographs, had surgery to appear Korean. But that story never made the jump to the mainstream American media, and I have no idea whether it’s true.)
I was sure I’d be preempted for the same reason I began writing this book in the first place: I’d known so many white people, and people in positions of privilege all around the world, who at one time or another had wanted to escape, deny, or modify their racial bodies. Rachel Dolezal and I are close in age; we grew up in a time when hip hop culture was flourishing and a new kind of black militancy was in the air. As I’ve written elsewhere, as an adolescent and young adult I struggled with my own identification with blackness, and in particular with what I experienced as a kind of moratorium on white people writing about blackness. It wasn’t until I read Adam Mansbach’s seminal 2005 novel Angry Black White Boy, and then George Schuyler’s Harlem Renaissance satire Black No More, that I felt emboldened to describe what seemed to be simultaneously a fantasy, a nightmare, and a logical extension of American racism: that our faith in technology and self-reinvention would make race into a commodity and a personal choice, available, of course, only to those who could afford it.
The world has changed — America has changed — even since Your Face in Mine was published ten months ago. This has been the year of Ferguson, of Black Lives Matter, of massive protests and die-ins, of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray. The story Rachel Dolezal displaced at the top of the headlines was the story of a white police officer caught on video slamming a black girl in a swimsuit, Dajerria Becton, to the ground during a disturbance begun by white patrons at a suburban swimming pool in Dallas. To many commentators, not wrongly, it felt outrageous that our national attention was supposed to turn from white violence against black children to a white woman who desired blackness so much she was driven to appropriate it for herself. More than a few people described her actions as “blackface” or as a racial masquerade. One retweet I saw, from Janine de Novais, said: “The sociopolitical, cultural, constructed identity ‘black’ is not some vacant lot for gentrification. People live there.”
Those critiques are vitally important. In Your Face in Mine, Martin, who has undergone white-to-black racial reassignment surgery, is a genuinely nefarious character, who wants to open centers for racial transformation in inner-city Baltimore, turning blackness into a global brand. My worst dystopian fear is a world in which racial reassignment is open to a global elite, who alter their bodies as casually as they change hairstyles, and the rest of us are marginalized as what one character calls “the unwashed undone.”
But there is another side of the story of racial reassignment, too, which speaks to the way the stories of Dajerria Becton and Rachel Dolezal are uncomfortably intertwined. There are some people born into positions of power and privilege who are driven to, for lack of a better word, vacate themselves. This can originate in a deep political commitment, in radical feelings of empathy, in the trauma of feeling complicit in acts of violence, in what the critic Anne Cheng calls “racial melancholia,” or even, perhaps, simply in a feeling that they were born in the wrong body. This impulse-to-vacate is problematic, to say the least, and dangerous at worst. But it exists. I’ve felt it myself. I believe it’s much more widespread than most of us imagine. To treat Rachel Dolezal as an isolated curiosity (as some have said, a person “crazy enough to want to be black”) is to miss an important chance to talk about the relationship between our intimate, affective lives — who we love, who we bond with, who we believe ourselves to be — and how we struggle against structures of racism and oppression.
Fiction allows us to live out imaginary lives, and I’ve had readers tell me that encountering the fictional version of a racially reassigned self in Your Face in Mine was exhilarating and disturbing. But fiction also, I hope, draws our attention to the fragility and tenuousness of the narratives we use to construct “a life.” Which is why, although I have some sympathy for Rachel Dolezal and people like her, I’m more interested in the inherent flaws in any project of self-erasure — like the idea that we can achieve racial reconciliation by altering our bodies.
When we disguise our origins, even ostensibly as an act of freeing ourselves, we extend the great lies of American history. It’s important for me to know, for my children to know, that one of my great-grandparents was a dark-skinned Portuguese immigrant from the Azores who powdered her skin to pass as white, and another of my great-grandparents made a fortune in real estate that rightfully belonged — and still belongs — to the Sioux. There’s a kind of freedom in accepting that our origins are actually not a matter of personal choice. We are not really self-made. Which is why we have to depend on one another.