No, #RachelDolezal can’t “be” black

Like, I’m sure, many others, I’ve been trying to articulate why precisely white woman Rachel Dolezal’s claim to black identity is so problematic, particularly in the context of many people’s ignorant comparison of the Rachel Dolezal story to that of Caitlyn Jenner’s. I’ve read many thought pieces and seen videos, and though each have enlightening points, none have really summed up succinctly for me why “trans-racial” (as it has been used in the Dolezal story) should not be a thing.

Many have correctly claimed that race and gender are both social constructs. If gender can be fluid, why can’t race? they ask. But while race and gender are both social constructs, they operate in very different ways.

Sex, like race, is a category based on physical markers that has been laden with social meaning. Sex solely relies on what genitalia a person is born with, while gender is fluid and psychological. From transsexual.org, “A transsexual is a person in which the sex-related structures of the brain that define gender identity are exactly opposite the physical sex organs of the body.  A transsexual person, born to all appearance within a given physical sex, is aware of being of a gender opposite to that physical sex. This conflict, between gender identity and physical sex, is almost always manifest from earliest awareness, and is the cause of enormous suffering. It is common for transsexuals to be aware of their condition at preschool ages.” 

Gender is not linked to ancestry and history. Your gender is not your family’s. It is yours. It is a means of personal identity and expression.

It’s the rigid binary linking of sex (the genitalia one is born with) to gender identity that is the social construction reified by men to oppress and distinguish women. Gender identity, as linked to sex (and that is the key here), is a social construct. 

A sense of “racial identity” only exists as a result of the shared, lived experience of being racialized in a racist society; this is because race is a category whites have systematically imposed on people of color for exclusionary and discriminatory purposes. It is not something that comes from within but from society.

Since skin color is inherited, one’s race, the category in which others place one based on perceived skin color, relates to one’s ancestry. In claiming that she is black, Rachel Dolezal is trying to change her ancestry. And you can’t do that. Her history and ancestry have provided her with a phenotype that society has imbued with hierarchical social meanings. Race may be a social construct in that it relies on completely arbitrary physical markers. But these “completely arbitrary” physical markers are passed down over one’s lineage.

Not the case with one’s gender or sex. Thus, while gender identity is fluid, malleable and psychological, race is not.

The racial category society places one in is immutable, but the boundaries of race (what has been considered “whiteness” and “non-whiteness”) have historically been incredibly fluid and shifting, revealing its arbitrariness as a concept and method of categorization. The attached social meanings to race, however, continue to be rigidly enforced. Rachel Dolezal did not reveal race’s arbitrariness but rather exploited it for her own benefit; she deliberately exploited rigidly defined stereotypical physical and cultural markers (such as hairstyle and African American Vernacular English) in order to be read as black.

“But isn’t race personal? Can’t someone identify with a different culture because of the way they were raised?” some ask. They are confusing “race” and “ethnicity.” Ethnicity is flexible, learned and changeable: “Ethnicity refers to shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set apart one group of people from another. That is, ethnicity is a shared cultural heritage. The most common characteristics distinguishing various ethnic groups are ancestry, a sense of history, language, religion, and forms of dress. Ethnic differences are not inherited; they are learned.” Your “race,” on the other hand, cannot be changed and is not learned. It is imposed on you. Your “race” is not yours. It is your biological family’s. And the social meanings attached to these inherited, racialized physical markers have been so enduring and damning that they determine one’s access to healthcare, education, neighborhood and residential property.

To eschew one’s race and take on another is not just to cast off the social meanings, privileges and disadvantages one’s ancestors have faced and one has inherited. It is also to assume the social meanings, privileges, and disadvantages of living as a person of the race one is taking on. And that is simply not possibleA bottle of self-tanner, perm, and accent will not change that because one will always have lacked the experience of being racialized in that particular way.

Rachel Dolezal claims that she identifies as black. What does it truly mean to “identify as black”? Since “black” is a racial (a.k.a. socially imposed) category, it means to understand and have lived, on an emotional — not merely cognitive — level, the experience of being racialized as black from birth in a white supremacist, anti-black society. To “identify as black” is not just to recognize, but to feel the dehumanization that accompanies being black in the U.S. — to internalize on the deepest levels that black is not beautiful, even inhuman, because that is what everyone is told by society from day one. The psychological toll of being racialized as black was illustrated in the infamous 1940s doll study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in which the Clarks presented black children with a black doll and a white doll. Overwhelmingly, black children chose the white doll, associating it with positive values (e.g. “good,” “nice”), while associating the black doll with negative values (e.g. “bad,” “ugly”). This 1940s experiment was replicated in 2004 by a high school age girl in a damning and illuminating video called “A Girl Like Me,” revealing the same results and demonstrating that nothing has changed over the 60+ years post-desegregation. To “identify as black” is to feel emotionally — not merely cognitively — connected to the long history and legacy of white subjugation of blackness in America, as well as the attendant cultural practices that arose as a result of such subjugation (e.g. slavery songs –> blues –> hip hop).

Alicia Walters, founder of Echoing Ida, rightly said in a CNN “interview” (if you can even call it that, as the anchor completely invalidates her point of view) that “Rachel Dolezal has no claim to the legacy of blackness. What she can say is that she appreciates black culture, that she feels an affinity for black culture. … Black culture comes from … a particular experience that must be acknowledged. In claiming [black] identity, she is rendering invisible” the actual black people she loves so much (CNN is a shoddy excuse for objective journalism, and “Dr. Wendy,” the white woman in this video, makes appallingly problematic statements, but props to Ms. Walters for deftly and masterfully keeping calm during this interview).

One could say the same about gender: how can a man transition into a woman if they have not had the lived experience of being gendered as female in a patriarchal society? Again, gender identity is not about how others perceive you, but rather how you identify yourself. The linking of sex and gender identity involves others’ perceptions (others read your body as linked to certain gendered attributes). Gender identity itself, however, does not rely on others’ perceptions of you, which is why transsexual people are usually aware at the earliest stages of being a different gender than the one they were assigned based on sex.

Thus, how could Rachel Dolezal say that she has “identified as black” since she was young, if she had never been racialized by others as black?

Caitlyn Jenner revealed her truest self when she came out. She stopped living a lie. In contrast, when Rachel Dolezal began to publicly masquerade as a black woman, Rachel started living a lie. In lying about the lie that is “race,” Rachel Dolezal utterly undermined the real and awful racialized experiences of actual people of color.

Caitlyn Jenner did not choose to be trans. Rachel Dolezal chose to become black. 

This capacity for choice stems from a place of incredible privilege.

Power dynamics are important in this case. Rachel is a white woman claiming that she became black. The phenomenon of “passing” as a race different than one’s own historically has been a means of survival, specifically for blacks who could “pass” as white. Blacks did this in the past, not out of a fetishization of whiteness, but to evade oppression and access privileges denied to them on the basis of skin color.  For blacks who “passed,” it was not a choice but a survival instinct.

To “reverse-pass” (not a thing), then, involves a level of fetishization and cultural appropriation because the person doing so has never truly had the experience of being racialized in that way. Thus, to “identify as black” without having been racialized as black from birth is to rely on culturally appropriative and fetishizing notions of blackness (the idea that the hairstyles, culture, history and “struggle” of blackness are so cool they must — and can — be adopted).

People of color, especially black people, do not have the luxury or privilege of “choosing” to be other races. 

Furthermore, in her act of deception and cultural appropriation, Rachel Dolezal profited. By marking herself as or passing herself off as “black” on applications for jobs and scholarships, Rachel knowingly exploited the ways in which white people have oppressed and marginalized blacks for centuries. She, a white woman, deliberately took advantage of privileges that black people have been given because of the absolutely messed-up things white people have done to them over hundreds of years.

Trans people do not profit from being trans. Laverne Cox says in an interview, “In the first eight weeks of 2015, seven trans women were murdered, and they were all trans women of colour.” To align Rachel Dolezal’s masquerade with trans identity is an insult to the struggles that trans people face and take on in actualizing their truest selves.

It’s tragic that this bizarre story of one deluded white woman has overtaken the attention of the media, public (including myself) and race scholars everywhere, but the story has sparked conversations and critical (one would hope) thought on the nuances of how race, gender identity and their intersection operate in society. Will the #RachelDolezal help us to understand the ways in which race works or further complicate things?

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