Bay Area: On Saturday, I’ll be talking about Asian Americans and race at City Church San Francisco. Would love to see you there! You can register for the event here.
Every now and then, when I’m on the phone with my mom, I’ll mention something that I’m not looking forward to doing. Going to the DMV, perhaps, or needing to initiate a conversation that has the potential to be unpleasant.
My mother will respond: “Well, you just have to do it.”
“MOM,” I’ll say, rolling my eyes heavenward, immediately reverting to the 16-year-old version of myself. Obviously I have every intention of finding a dentist, I’ll say in a huff; I’m simply commenting that I’m not looking forward to it. I do not need to be reminded or convinced that it needs to be done.
“Okay,” she’ll say, in a way that I can’t quite read. Has she heard me? Does she really think that I’m considering not taking my car to the dealership for a safety recall? I don’t want to tell her that a more helpful response would be “Oh, that stinks” or “I don’t like doing that either.” She’s my Asian mom, after all, and I’m not sure how she would receive that kind of direction from anyone, let alone her child.
In hindsight, I think I subconsciously expected these conversations to increase after I had a baby. The world of new parenthood, I was told, was full of doing things that are tedious and unpleasant but need to be done anyway. I imagined that when I talked with my mom, three time zones away, about how I was doing, I would be hearing a lot more “Well, you just have to do its” and doing a lot more eye-rolling.
That I have yet to hear this refrain once, nine months in, is testament to how much has changed between us.
Umpqua Community College.
WDBJ in Virginia.
And that’s just the last 3 months.
So for real now — can we talk about gun control?
Every time a mass shooting occurs, the same chain of events unfolds: One group of people brings up the need for gun control, citing the alarming (and increasing) frequency with which these events are taking place and the slew of data indicating that gun control is an effective way to reduce gun deaths. Gun rights advocates respond with their usual litany of reasons why gun control is futile or somehow un-American. No meaningful action is taken. And then another shooting happens, and the cycle begins again.
Two things about this pattern concern me: One, how desensitized it’s making us to mass shootings, and how much more devastating each one needs to be in order to even register on our radars; and two, how gun rights advocates are able to shut down conversation about gun control — and thus prevent any kind of change from happening — given that their arguments are full of questionable logic.
I’m not sure what I can do about the former. But regarding the latter, I’d like to take a moment to respond to the arguments I hear bandied about every time we see a tragedy like the one that happened last week:
I had a great time on the No, Totally! podcast talking with Shaun about being Asian American, the perils of the internet, and other mishmash. He’s a great interviewer, editor, and all-around human being.
I climb out of my Pontiac Bonneville and slam the door shut; my 16-year-old brother follows suit on the passenger side. We walk down the beige concrete path to the front entrance of the middle school near my parents’ house, which leads us into the gym. One wall is lined with a row of voting booths, each enshrouded in dirty grey fabric. My heart beats a little faster.
It is November 2004, and I am about to vote in my first national election. I had been 3 months shy of 18 at the time of the last one, when I watched my fellow college freshmen register to vote in dorm lobbies and on the quad, and when I would eventually hear more about hanging chads and the state of Florida than I ever cared to hear. Four years — a lifetime, really — have passed since then; instead of a wide-eyed, insecure freshman, I am now a newly minted college graduate, enlightened by years of studying and paper-writing and classroom debate. Or so I think, at least.
I step into a booth, my brother to my left (though he is too young to vote himself, he is an aspiring politico who lives for elections), and draw the curtain behind us. I make my largely uninformed choices for president, for congressional representative, for justice of the state supreme court. I quickly breeze through the ballot until we get to the last item, Proposal 04-2, an amendment to the state of Michigan’s constitution:
“To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”
In light of the recent revelations about Rachel Dolezal, the former president of a local NAACP chapter who was outed last week as white (the most riveting news story, in my book, since the Manti Te’o scandal of 2013), several people have asked me to help them articulate why her story is different from that of Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic decathlete who recently transitioned from male to female.
I’ve hesitated to do this for two reasons:
– Racial and gender identity are both incredibly complicated concepts, which can make them difficult to discuss individually, let alone to compare and contrast.
– I am a cisgender Asian American woman. I am not trans and I am not black, so I recognize that mine is not the voice that most needs to be heard regarding either of these cases.
But since people have asked, and since this difference is something I feel in my heart of hearts but have struggled to articulate, I thought I would give it a shot.
Let’s start with gender identity. According to GLAAD, the term “transgender” is used to describe a person whose gender identity – their “internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman” – differs from their assigned sex, which is determined by their physical anatomy at birth. (And some trans people identify not as men or women but as outside that gender binary. See? Gender identity is complicated.) For most people, sex and gender identity “match,” but for some they do not. So some people have male anatomy but identify as female and vice versa, and some identify as neither. How is this possible, you ask? Well, research shows us that our bodies and our brains are gendered in utero by completely separate processes. This idea is supported by mounting evidence that gender identity has a biological basis, which is how many trans people know, even from a very young age, that they’re boys in girls’ bodies or vice versa.
Many trans people deal with the dissonance between their gender identity and their assigned sex by transitioning their bodies, with or without surgery, to align with their gender identities. So Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to transition from male to female is a way of making her body reflect what her brain has always told her.
Race, on the other hand, is a completely social construct. It does not have a biological basis. Perhaps counterintuitively, this makes it harder for someone to claim a different race than for someone to claim a different gender.
Race is a concept created by people in power to determine who gets perks and who does not. There is no gene for whiteness or blackness or Latino-ness or Asian-ness. For proof, just look at how the boundaries of whiteness have changed over time: There was a time when Italians weren’t considered white. There was a time when Irish people weren’t considered white. Now, there’s debate over whether people of Middle Eastern descent count as white, and whether Latinos/as or Asian Americans will eventually be counted as such. Race isn’t written anywhere in our DNA; races are distinctions created and perpetuated by society to keep some people in and other people out. (It’s important to note, though, that even though race doesn’t have a biological basis, it has very palpable ramifications in people’s lives, as the headlines of the last year have illustrated.)
So what determines what race you are? There’s some level of personal choice – say, if your looks don’t place you neatly into one box, as is the case for many multiracial people. And you can check whatever box you want on the census without the Race Police coming to your house and arresting you. But for the most part, your race is determined by how society perceives and treats you. So, for example, I can’t legitimately claim to be white. Even though I have tons of white friends and grew up around mostly white people and am well-versed in white popular culture; even if I dyed my hair blond and popped in blue contacts and changed my name to Tipper or Candi. I could say all I want that I “feel” white on the inside, if that were the case, but society would remind me in a hundred different ways that I am not.
And when society deems you one race or another, you collect a set of experiences starting from an early age. For me, that meant people asking “Where are you from? No, really, where are you from?” It meant seeing how my parents were treated when they asked for assistance at stores. It meant having classmates pull their eyelids up at the corners in the cafeteria in elementary school, asking if I knew karate, asking if me and the other Asian girl in my class were sisters. It meant being perceived as smart and hardworking. It meant being invisible most of the time. Not everyone of the same race has the exact same experiences, but they tend to trend in certain directions, and these experiences are formative. And for people of color, many of them are negative, experiences of marginalization and oppression. And it can take a good amount of work to form a sense of positive self-identity about our races, both individually and communally.
Which is why I didn’t take kindly to a white person who came up to me and told me that she’s really Asian, because her parents, like, freaked out if she got anything less than an A. No, you are not Asian. This is not your story (and clearly you don’t really know the story, if you think that having parents with high expectations is the beginning and end to what it means to be Asian). This is not your experience.
Which is why I didn’t respond well to a white woman I worked with, who had a PhD in Chinese history, sidling up to me and taking potshots at Asian moms. Even though she’s clearly well-versed in one aspect of one Asian culture, that doesn’t give her insider status. She does not have the experience of walking around in an Asian body, being treated like an Asian person. So I do not take kindly to her decision to jump in and enjoy some of the benefits of being Asian (which, for her, seem to be making fun of parents like mine) whenever she feels like it. You earn those perks only if you have the whole experience, suffering included. If you haven’t had to suffer, those benefits aren’t yours to take.
Which is why Rachel Dolezal is not black, even if she “feels” black, even if she’s gone to great lengths in the last few years to look the part. This is not her story. These are not her experiences. She does not have the right to choose blackness because she wants to without also “paying her dues,” so to speak, in the form of marginalization and violence and oppression. And her decision to do so anyway feels like the epitome of cultural appropriation and the ultimate abuse of white privilege.
Dolezal’s deception is all the more egregious because she didn’t just claim to be black and become, say, an engineer or a nurse, as Mallory Ortberg observed. That would already be odd enough, a strange fetishization and appropriation of black culture (not unlike Xiahn, the white Brazilian who underwent a number of surgeries to look Asian, whom I’ve written about in the past). No, she didn’t just claim to be black; she also claimed to be an expert on blackness. She was a professor of Africana studies. She was the president of an NAACP chapter. These are both things she could have done as a white person – and what a powerful message of allyship that could’ve been – but instead, she pretended to be an expert on an experience that wasn’t hers. Knowing what we know now, her interviews about her experiences as a black woman, her tweet to her “BlackFam” to “Activate that Self-Determination,” and her denunciation of The Help as “a white woman [making] millions off of a black woman’s story” are cringe-inducing.
This story reminds me yet again of the parable that Nathan told to King David in the book of 2 Samuel, after David sleeps with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. Dolezal is the rich man with all of the sheep and cattle, a white person with all the privileges in the world, claiming that the poor man’s one little ewe is hers too. In the face of horrifying violence and oppression at the hands of white people, black people in America have had to fight to create their own communities and positive identities. That a white person would swoop in and claim that story as hers too – without having to endure any of the accompanying violence or oppression – feels like a violation.
So Rachel Dolezal is not Caitlyn Jenner. Caitlyn Jenner has known her whole life that she’s a woman because her brain has told her that she is, and she changed her life to reflect that. Rachel Dolezal, on the other hand, has always been white. She can’t co-opt someone else’s racial experience and claim that that it’s legitimate just because she feels like it. Instead of changing her life to become more authentically herself, she has masqueraded as someone she isn’t.
One thing these two women have in common, though: Their stories illustrate just how complicated race and gender really are. It’s hard to succinctly explain either one, let alone compare them to each other.
So that’s my attempt to articulate highly abstract sociological concepts that can be hard to understand unless you’ve experienced them yourself. For more, I direct you to the following pieces:
Transgender vs. Transracial: Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, by Rafi D’Angelo
Rachel Dolezal’s Historical Fraud, by Jonathan Blanks (“To adopt this identity under false pretenses is akin to faking a serious illness or childhood abuse to join a support group.”)
Black Like Who? Rachel Dolezal’s Harmful Masquerade, by Tamara Winfrey Harris (“I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.”)
Is Rachel Dolezal Black Just Because She Says She Is? by Jamelle Bouie
Rachel Dolezal Exposes Our Delusional Constructions and Perceptions of Race, by Steven W. Thrasher