Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Equality as Normalcy: The Case of Leah Donnella

Next year, I have an article coming out in the Indiana Law Journal titled "Post-Racialism and the End of Strict Scrutiny." I won't go into the details of the article, but it does sketch out some of my thoughts on the end-goal of equality -- what one might term "equality as normalcy." We often think of the fight for equality as a fight for various heightened protections for marginalized outgroups -- things like anti-discrimination laws or affirmative action programs. But these are not the end-point of equality; they are palliatives we use to stanch the bleeding from persistent inequality. What marginalized group members want is to be able to practice the identities that matter to them without those identities being the sites of social conflict or threat -- in other words, for their identities to be normalized.

Under this view, we will have attained racial equality not when we've secured the highest possible barriers against racial discrimination, nor when people cease to think of race as a meaningful axis of social identification. Racial equality will occur when it becomes a "normal" identity, like being a Dodgers fan or a Methodist or a farmer -- something that matters to some people, and sometimes serves as a site of cultural or even political organization, but is not (under normal circumstances) taken to be something illicit or dangerous.

I was thinking about this while reading an interview with Leah Donnella, an NPR journalist and biracial Jew. Her comments on the difficulty of finding a synagogue that mirrors her youthful experience -- when she simply "was" Jewish and her Blackness didn't mark her off as exceptional -- struck me. Here are a few excerpts:
In terms of my day-to-day Jewish life, what I’d like is to go to a synagogue, walk in, and feel anonymous, not be noticed or given special attention. It’s tricky though. I get that folks sometimes walk up to people of color in an effort to make us feel included. But when it’s assumed that I need someone to explain the service to me, it reinforces my feeling of otherness. At the same time, I recognize that there’s a fine line between bringing someone in and making them feel welcome, and bringing them in and making them feel set apart and different....
All I want is to be able to go into a synagogue, sit down, and let a sense of quiet and calm wash over me so that I can pray in peace with other Jews. 
I think this explains her situation with charity and nuance  Donnella isn't a colorblindness advocate -- she writes on race for NPR. It is not (it seems to me) that Donnella wants people in her synagogue to "forget" she's Black, she wants her Blackness to not be thought of as strange or exceptional in the synagogue. It's a subtle distinction, but it matters.

Anyway, I found this interview to be quite thoughtful (though all too short). Well worth a read.

1 comment:

William Fedullo said...

It's interesting how white anti-racist measures can become very condescending and, well, kind of racist when taken too far. Drawing the line correctly seems to be a genuinely difficult task.