• Christopher Tanner

In Defense of Rachel Dolezal

This is going to be very unpopular.

I expected conservatives and people further to the right of the political spectrum to demonize Rachel Dolezal, the self described transracial woman and erstwhile Spokane NAACP president; but the vitriol coming from the left and social liberals has taken me completely by surprise.


The uberliberal everyday feminism posted a video by a transgender African American woman transplaining why Rachel Dolezal isn’t allowed to transition from white to black.


Mic.com posted a collection of “amazing tweets” concerning her interview with Matt Lauer, which is really just a collection of half witted one liners like this Jem which sounds like something your bigot uncle might say at thanksgiving when your cousing comes out as transgender.


Here’s the rub. Just because Rachel Dolezal lied about her identity and background, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s lying about identifying as a black woman and as feeling a closeness to black culture. Just as someone who is transgender doesn’t feel at home in the social role that has been ascribed to them, Rachel and others like her don’t feel at home in the culture they’ve been ascribed.

And before we start, I should go ahead and say that criticsms of Rachel Dolezal are fair. She lied about her race, she lied about her history, she lied about her childhood, and I’m inclined to believe that she misrepresented her ancestry by putting a black man out as her father, but as an adoptee, I know that “father” and “dad” are two different things, so I’m reserving judgment on that point. I can see someone with the religious nutjob upbringing she had wanting to alienate herself from her biological father and find comfort in a more accepting father figure. But on the whole Rachel Dolezal lied, but that doesn’t invalidate people to identify as transracial.

The starting point of this explanation requires articulating the difference between gender and sex. One essential part of feminist philosophy and social theory is that gender and sex are two separate concepts. “Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.” To put it another way “’Woman’ is a creation of the masculine gaze. Before we can see how women thought of themselves and of their relations with men, we must find out how they were seen by men. The masculine conception of woman gave rise to idealizations and norms that strongly influenced the behavior of women, who lacked the power to challenge the male view of their sex”

So having a functioning penis and testicles or having a functioning uterus and ovaries are part of “sex” while cooking and staying home with the kids instead of working and watching football and drinking cheap domestic beer with your competitive lumberjacking team is part of “gender.” One of the goals of feminism was/is to smash to kinds of restrictive and rigid gender norms and counter biological determinism (the idea that sex and gender are the same thing and that female bodied people are supposed to perform certain social roles).

That seems like a pretty well understood concept. Women shouldn’t have to forego a career if they don’t want to and men should be able to stay at home with the kids if they want to. Men should be able to like Abba (which I personally do) and women are supposed to be able to like to mow the yard (which my wife does). You aren’t born with the compulsion to wear your hair a certain way or to wear a certain type of clothing or to wear or not wear make up. All of the non biological functions of the sex divide are social constructs.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig of the New York Times wrote a terrific piece about the social construction of race. “Race is not biological. It is a social construct. There is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites. Were race “real” in the genetic sense, racial classifications for individuals would remain constant across boundaries. Yet, a person who could be categorized as black in the United States might be considered white in Brazil or colored in South Africa.

Don’t just take mine and professor Onwuachi-Willig’s word for it. Watch this video in which Bill Nye very succinctly eviscerates the idea that race exists in any real or biological way.

There’s no race gene. “The concept of human races appears to be solidly grounded in present-day biology and our evolutionary history. But if you asked that conference of geneticists to give you a genetic definition of race, they wouldn’t be able to do it. Human races are not natural genetic groups; they are socially constructed categories.” There is only one race, the human race. There are no white people and black people, there are people with varying levels of brown/tan (except for albino people) and there are people with different physical attributes. The labels “black” and “white” are in themselves a false dichotomy, a fallacy of black or white. There’s more of a biological marker for gender than for race, since gender is based on the biological binary for sex (with the exception of intersex people who do not biologically fall into the sex binary). There’s “harder” evidence for the scientific manifestation of gender than for race, so why is it okay to change gender but not race?

If we accept that race is “real” we have all sorts of other questions we have to answer. Who gets to say they’re black and who gets to say they’re white? I there a required shade of brown? Do they have at least one parent who is 7 brown a scale of 1-10? Do people get to call themselves “black” if they have a “black” grandparent? Great Grandparent? After you start asking yourselves these questions you see how silly it is.

It’s sad, I would expect that transgender people would be the first to come to her defense having suffered through such grievous discrimination. Transgender people look in the mirror growing up and see the wrong body, the wrong body shape, the wrong reproductive organs, et cetera; and Rachel Dolezal looked in the mirror and saw the wrong skin color (in her interview with Matt Lauer she said she started drawing herself with a brown crayon when she was 5) and hair texture and she changed it, then went on to work toward improving the lives of black people…

It’s tragic ironic that the last few days have seen transgender people -who have spent their entire lives being told by their detractors that they can’t change who they are and who they were “born as”- are telling Rachel Dolezal that she can’t change who she is and who she was “born as.”

One thing the rapid acceptance of transgender people (and really all LGBTI people) has taught society is that we ought to respect and recognize people as they identify themselves. Lauer asked Dolezal why she told people she was black instead of saying “I identify as black” but do we put such restrictions on transgender people? Do we say they ought to tell us they’re really men but they “identify as women” or vice versa? No, because that’s horrible, and it stand in the way of people self actualizing, just like Leelah Alcorn’s despicable parents did, and it’s precisely what Rachel Dolezal’s abusive parents want us to do.

I for one celebrate that we live in an age of acceptance. I’m happy that people are starting to accept people for who they are: Gay, straight, asexual, atheist, transgender, genderqueer, brony, autistic, disabled. Everyone deserves to be loved for who they are, and more and more society has accepted that “who you are” is “who you say you are.” mutual respect for other people should be enough to know you ought to accept people for who they are. If you understand why being a tomboy isn’t enough for a trans-man then you understand why living as a white woman wasn’t enough for Rachel Dolezal.

If society accepts that one group of people feel like they were born in the wrong bodies and should be permitted to change their bodies and social identities to match what they feel they actually are(transgender people) then we should be able to accept that another group of people feel like they were born in the wrong bodies and should be permitted to change their bodies and social identities to match what they feel they actually are (transracial people).

#gender #RachelDolezal #transgender #transracial

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