*Note: Originally, I was planning on turning this topic into Monday’s Daily WTF, but I have spent about 20 hours thinking and arguing about it, so strap in, kids.
As of right now in history, racial divisions are a social construct but skin color and race are hereditary. People are not transgender because their parents were, but they almost always are black because their parents were (Obviously, as biracialism and multiracialism tend towards one race, there is greater maneuverability for children, but their race is still determined by their parents.). Race is also part of culture and ethnicity whereas gender is not. A child adopted from China by a white couple is still Chinese even if she was “raised white” or “identified white.” Perhaps in time that will change, but until we understand race as something that doesn’t hinge on heredity, race is hereditary.
A problem with conflating gender and race is that gender is an arbitrary set of characterizations that society forces onto people whereas race, as stated, is a hereditary state that retrospectively has stereotypes applied to it. As time passes, society understands gender in different forms so that in the 1940s a woman’s place was at work whereas in the 1950s, her place was at home. In the 2000s, both men and women can be stay-at-home parents without lessening their gender identification. However, the black race has no characteristics. Biologically, you can apply some features to the black race, but those features are based on heredity and are not universal (Example: people of Hausa descent have different features than Igbo than Yorubo than…) – just like European features aren’t universal. There is no one way to act or present as black – you can only be a black person, so when a white person tries to adopt the guise of a black person, they are not drawing from their personal experiences as a black person to be themselves but are simply donning stereotypes to seem black.
We also need to understand racial and cultural appropriation. Are we actively and intelligently engaging with another race and culture or are we taking stereotypes and using them to build our understanding? Rachel Dolezal chose to represent herself as black in stereotypical ways with the dark, kinky hair, darker skin tones, stereotypical hairstyles and dress, and, most mind-bogglingly and offensively of all, by appropriating people as her family and fabricating a history of abuse so she could seem more authentic. The fact of the matter is that black people have many different features and many different experiences. Not all of them have dark skin or kinky hair. Some have red hair and freckles, some have “European” features, some grew up in rich, privileged houses without any abuse at all, some became gang members, and some became inventors and statesmen. The African-American experience is also dramatically different from the African experience, which in turn has numerous subgroups based on nationality, ethnicity, tribe, and income level. Ultimately, there is no one way to be black, which Rachel should know given her education and environment (A great writer on this subject is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, especially her novel Americanah.).
Transgender people acknowledge that they are transgender and that their experiences are different than cisgender people’s. If they lie about their past, it’s usually as a survival mechanism meant to keep their jobs, prevent physical abuse, or prevent some other negative experience. Rachel is pretending to have always been a black woman. She is lying about her past to get people to trust her. If she truly believed what she was doing was right, sane, and necessary, why the extraneous lies? Why not lies of omission? Why appropriate human being as props to validate her narrative? How is that respectful?
We also need to understand that changing our race and ethnicity is part of white privilege and that it’s not a privilege we extend to non-whites. A white person like Elizabeth Warren or Taylor Lautner can claim to be 1/64 Native American and 1/32nd black and 1/8th Hispanic and be applauded for discovering their roots, but actual Native American and black kids are forbidden to wear Native American garb to their graduation or suspended from school for having natural hair. In the spring of 2014, the US Army tried to restrict natural black hair, forcing black soldiers to adopt expensive, painful, and time-consuming hair and calling their natural hair “matted” or “unkempt” (These restrictions were later reduced.). Michael Jackson spent much of his adult life changing his physical appearance, but he was always treated as a freak and a black man. He was not considered brave or admirable for his surgeries and for choosing to present himself in a different way. In fact, he was further shunned by the white community. Furthermore, interracial couples still face racism and numerous challenges today, which was demonstrated in 2013 when people reacted negatively to the Cheerios commercial with the interracial couple. White society is constantly telling blacks and other non-whites that they are not normal and cannot be in our spaces – but we are literally allowed to take their cultures, races, and ethnicities and wear them and be applauded for that?
Being white is still considered the norm, and we have created a worldwide culture of non-whites hating their natural features and needing to look white in order to be considered beautiful, be taken seriously, and be in positions of authority. We know that in some Asian cultures people get surgery to have European eyelids – but they are doing so because they have been taught that European features are more pleasing than Asiatic ones. They are doing so from an understanding that they are deficient in some way and must correct that – this is similar to black people wanting to/needing to bleach their skin or relax their hair in order to fit in, be taken seriously, and be given professional positions. Black female medical students are routinely told that they need to relax their hair if they’re going to get a job, and black people with natural hair or simple hairstyles are told that they are smelly and vagrant. We still think, “You talk white” is a compliment because we still see white as the norm and the ideal. This is a reality for non-whites.
Finally, while society focuses heavily on the physical transformation of transgender people, that is not what it means to be transgender. You do not have to look cisgender to be transgender, and many transgender people don’t want to get any surgeries or hormonal treatments at all (And indeed, can’t afford them even if they wanted to.). Some transgender people even find the word “transition” distasteful or inaccurate and are trying to shed this perception that the physical transformation is the symbol of their gender identity. It is undoubtedly a complicated subject and can seem strange to a cisgendered person, but being transgender really just means you were born a different sex/gender than you were assigned (Example: If I were a transgender woman, I would have been born a woman but because of my male genitalia I would have been assigned male.). So while both Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal may have changed their physical appearances, they did so for radically different reasons.
Ultimately, the consensus about whether or not Rachel Dolezal did something wrong rests with the black community. Her adopted brothers Ezra and Zach, who are African-American, have stated that her behavior is “a farce” and that “she’s basically creating more racism.” Goldie Taylor, an African-American writer from Blue Nation Review, has said, “I do not accept your ruse as a compliment. Centering yourself in the midst of someone else’s pain makes you not a comforter, but a co-conspiring perpetrator.” Elle Hearns, a black transwoman and coordinator of GetEQUAL, says that, “Equating my experience to someone such as Rachel who has only pretended to share my real-life experience is violent erasure.” However, the NAACP, of which Rachel Dolezal is president, has simply stated that “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership,” and the NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conferences “stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.” The NAACP Spokane web site still features a picture of Rachel on their homepage. The black community on Twitter seems divided with many condemning her behaviors and others either mocking it or accepting/agreeing with it.
So I will end with this: race is not the same as gender, being transgender is not about changing your physical body and perpetuating lies, and you do not have to be a member of a group to be an advocate and ally. If race can become a fluid and abstract concept that anyone can move through freely, fine, but we as white people and as a multiracial society need to understand the harmful outcomes of blackface and cultural appropriation and be more willing to listen to non-whites when they say whites are acting inappropriately or harmfully. We whites need to step back, stay in our lanes, and advocate and support non-white voices. So that’s my two cents, and now I’m going to step back and shut up and let people with a real stake in the matter talk. Thanks for reading.