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The kerfluffle surrounding Rachel Dolezal illuminates the fascinating intersection between race and culture. Just how much is black culture (which Dolezal was so desperate to be assimilated into since she was a teen, at least) dependent on black race (which Dolezal was faking since 2012 or so)?

The comments on World Star Hip Hop, for instance, are all over the place. Some black commentators feel that as long as she walks the walk, she is one of them. Others denounce her as a rank fraud, a cultural imperialist of the worst kind. Paul Mooney’s line was brought up: “Everybody wanna be a n***a, but nobody wanna be a n***a.” But Dolezal, at least, wanted to be fully “transracial” and black 100% of the time. How acceptable is this? And what does “black culture” mean, anyway?


The story brings to mind a piece by Slate LGBT columnist J. Bryan Lowder last month delving into what, exactly, “gay culture” means for him. He is not talking simply about men loving men. He is talking about that particular lifestyle so commonly honored and/or parodied on TV shows, from Kurt on Glee to Jack on Will & Grace to Stanford on Sex and the City to Johnny Weir on I Can’t Believe That Guy Isn’t a Fictional Character. You know what I’m talking about, so I’ll leave it at that. (There are also all kinds of fascinating intersections with black culture, as Andy and NeNe there could probably attest, but that’s a separate discussion.)

But as Lowder continues about his embrace of gay culture, he describes how it goes far beyond his biological reality of simply liking penises. After all, there are plenty of gay men who reject that lifestyle and its stereotypes and who are about as into Cher and Britney as I am. It was the conscious embracing of the lifestyle that made him who he is now, writes Lowder. Or to put it in another way, it gave him his cultural identity.

He goes on about the particulars about gay culture which can elude those who do not fully appreciate Judy Garland. But then I was thinking to myself, “Well, if he’s saying that ‘gay culture’ is actually not the same thing as ‘homosexuality,’ then what’s to stop me from embracing the culture and declaring myself gay? I mean, sure, I like vaginas and don’t like penises other than my own, but that’s just incidental, right?”

What if I Dolezaled gay culture?

What would happen in that hypothetical? Would gay men accept me as one of their own, or would they spurn me as a carpetbagging pretender? Their opinions, I suspect, would be as all over the place as opinions on Dolezal.

Because this is already an issue with the gay world, of course. Many straight women love the culture and want to fit in. There is a term for this sort of woman which I won’t repeat, except to note that it starts with “f” and ends with “aghag.” And I know for a fact that many gay men love inviting their “straight wives” to the gay nightclub just as much as many gay men can’t stand them invading their turf.

But for some cultures, your biology really is an important part of who you are. Someone like me or Dolezal could pretend to be black all day long, but let’s face it, neither of us will be terrified if pulled over by the cops. Neither of us will be followed around by convenience store staff, and neither of us will be discriminated against by racist landlords.

media circus

(Although one of us will get intimate experience with the term “media circus.” photo credit ny times)

Similarly, neither of us will be targeted by violent homophobes on the street, denied the right to marry, or be preached against by backwoods Christian ministers. All of these negatives are intertwined with immutable features and can’t be changed no matter how much we embrace, or reject, a given culture.

Jamelle Bouie talks more about that here. What if he were raised by adoptive white parents, went only to white schools and talked and acted whiter than Carlton from Fresh Prince? As always: some white people would accept him into their culture with open arms, while others would reject him out of hand. And he would still have a rough go of things whenever he encountered the police.

Although often racist, people can sometimes be forgiven for being defensive of their culture, whatever that culture may be. It may be one of the, if not THE, most important thing about themselves, after all. As Lowder wrote: “There is a very specific gay sense of history in which nothing really happens until such time as you identify yourself as a gay man.” And “gay man” there can be replaced with any other category of humanity you can think of and still be true.

Members of a given cultural identity each have a shared emotional space they can use to instantly relate to one another, even if they’ve never met. This means some combination of experiences, ways of thinking, belief systems, political leanings, music and movie tastes, and even which celebrities are important to them. It also helps guide their thinking, their tastes, their politics. Culture gives its members an answer even before they hear a question.

It is just as true with “gay” as it is with “evangelical,” a fact that must cause discomfort to both groups. How many evangelical Protestants have observed that their life didn’t really begin until they identified as evangelical? Isn’t that the whole point of the phrase “born again”?

Because evangelism is about more than just religion, just as gay culture is more than just homosexuality. For instance, Lowder states that you pretty much know the moment you walk into a gay man’s apartment, and the home is a pretty good example.

Let’s say you are a burglar who targets homes at random and only when the inhabitants are absent. Bust into the home of an adherent of “Dirty South” black culture, and you will know within five seconds even if you’ve never met the resident. Same as if you lockpick a hardcore Catholic — not just someone who warms a pew once a week, but one who has Catholicism define their lifestyle, their viewpoints, and (most importantly) their personal relationships. Or a country-club WASP. Or a certain type of Staten Island Italian-American. Or a Pakistani Muslim. Or a Kentucky redneck. Look around any of those homes, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what they’re up to on a Saturday night long before you hear the police sirens from the security system you failed to disarm.

Let your imagination run wild about each of the homes mentioned. The jokes write themselves.

We are born into cultures, and it is common for people to accept the culture of their parents… but this does not always happen. For instance, almost by definition, most members of Lowder’s culture were not born into it. Or, people can reject their culture. And then they adopt a new one… with varying results, as Dolezal can attest.

Even converting to a new religious culture can have unpredictable results. Mormons make a show of hard-core proselytizing, with their missionaries made famous by a certain Broadway musical… but within actual LDS circles, many give converts the old side-eye, and feel that only those who were born into the LDS world are truly “Mormon.”

I rejected my own culture, although not quite to the extent as fellow cracker Dolezal. But make no mistake… there is a definite white culture. I’m talking about what used to be called WASP society: the bourgeois, the Pottery Barn whites, the gentrifiers, the Lena Dunhams of the world. The people who either belong to an actual country club, or else who wish they did. The people from white Baltimore. And I have spent half my life running from that crap.

Especially that country club that my the rest of my family insisted on belonging to. Good God, that dining room was one of the lower Circles of Hell… the one reserved for people with no rhythm, or something. And people pay six figures to join?? Crap! Is there any more room in the Spokane NAACP for me?!?

But anyway. Your choice of a culture is probably one of the biggest choices of your life. Mexi-American. Hipster white. Fanatical Evangelist or fanatical Muslim. Redneck. Tech douchebro. Motorcycle outlaw. Atheist MRA Gamergater. Hardcore gay. Spokane-region African-American. Each of these has languages and associations that powerfully shape their individual members’ lives. And each of them have members that have a leery attitude towards new converts. So which do you choose? Or do you take the easy road and go with what you were born into?