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