The strange saga of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP leader who was outed by her parents for pretending to be African American, is continuing with news that she has changed her identity –becoming Nkechi Amare Diallo– and has written a new memoir called In Full Color. In 2015 when Dolezal became a national talking point, when her utterly bizarre success at creating an identity as an ethnic woman of mixed race (both her parents are actually white) fighting the fight of a civil rights leader and champion of black progress was exposed, the popular verdict was that she was an imposter. Here was a white girl trying to be black. Darkening her skin, wearing her hair in dreads, and adopting language and clothing to intentionally identify herself with African American culture.
Amid the controversy Dolezal resigned as the leader of her local NAACP chapter, but not before defending herself and her position in the organization. She declared that despite her parentage and upbringing, she simply identifies deep down as African American, and always has. In the end it was probably more the lying about herself and her past that was the cause of her being asked to step down, but the marrow of the story was always the lesson that you don’t get to be black unless you’re black. That’s what Denene Millner writing for NPR this week asserts:
“And it is the ultimate in white privilege, really, for a white woman to see that diamond [of black identity], all shiny and hard and unbreakable, and pluck it for her own, like it’s a gift from Tiffany’s, with seemingly zero regard for the pressure, the heat, the pain it went through — that we went through — to earn that shine.”
Well. Who really knows how much regard Dolezal has for all the struggles the black community has gone through to achieve all that it has. It could be argued that she actually has had quite a bit of education in it –at least in an academic sense– given her position and experience in running an NAACP chapter. Like with most groups, the passionate outsider seeking full acceptance often acquires more education about the group than life long members tend to have. But maybe she didn’t. Maybe she really did only want to identify with her own romanticized version of “black” without owning through personal and family history the full reality of what it truly means to be black. Oh, and then there’s also the fact that she actually isn’t (genetically, biologically, pigmentationally) black, though Millner has surprisingly little to say about that.
What’s so utterly bizarre about this scenario is its striking resemblance, in terms of the logic of identity and biology and culture, to the transgender phenomenon. The central question –can someone legitimately be something other than what their biology dictates if they simply identify that way?– gets two separate answers in the two scenarios. If you’re a man but feel like you’re a woman, you’re a woman; if you’re white and feel like you’re black, you’re an imposter. The only different variable between them is biological race v.s. biological sex. And of the two, which do you really think is more essential to what we are as complex whole human beings?
In terms of biology, sex is definitely the more essential factor. Races change over time and over geography. They can mix, effortlessly. A man and a woman from two races separated by an entire globe could produce a child of beautifully blended genes. A man and a man, regardless of where on the planet they’re from, could never produce a child, as much as they may try. Over the aeons of human development, one thing has remained a constant: maleness and femaleness. Why then have the most educated, privileged, and powerful elements in our society decided that, of the two, sex is the more malleable and race the more fixed?
Ah, but gender is a spectrum, and the old binary is just a social construct, we’re told. Let’s say that’s true. Sex may be binary, but gender is a spectrum. Okay. Surely, then, racial culture is just a social construct, too, right? The music and food and language of black culture — how is all that not a construct that should be just as malleable, just as spectrum-like as gender? Yet that’s exactly what Denene Millner argues someone like Dolezal shouldn’t be able to claim. It’s not natural, not organic, not earned. I suspect a lot of people who smile approvingly at transgenderism feel the same way. But if Dolezal hasn’t earned blackness, how did Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner earn womanhood? Did he ever have to fight for equal pay? Pay more for health insurance? How could he identify with the suffragettes who fought to get the vote? Has he lived with periods and the accompanying hormones most of his life? In what sense can he identify with the various gains, liberations, shattered glass ceilings, and other victories that the collective of american women have achieved through the decades, not to mention the pains and sacrifices they endured along the way? All of this –the social reality that corresponds with the female sex– is, I suppose, somewhat of a social construct. But that doesn’t make it less real. Besides, Jenner’s intent wasn’t merely to identify as a woman, he wanted to become one.
Jenner has undergone “sex reassignment surgery”, so-called. This hasn’t altered his sex, though; it didn’t change his chromosomes or grow him a uterus. It has merely removed his genitalia. Just like Dolezal couldn’t do anything to change her genetic disposition to light skin pigmentation, Jenner couldn’t do anything to change his genetic election to maleness. Dolezal got as tan as she could and changed her hair style and clothing; Jenner castrated himself, takes hormones, and also changed his hair and clothing. Both have only altered artifices, externals, to reflect what they feel and desire. But they haven’t changed anything essential. Dolezal is still white, and Jenner is still male.
The principles of Progressivism have twisted themselves into a knot with these cases. The contradiction and confusion is palpable. Progressivism affirms feminism, but Caitlyn Jenner undermines feminine reality. Progressivism affirms “identity by feeling”, but doesn’t know how to handle Dolezal’s feelings. In both cases, Progressivism has pitted a real group and class (i.e. women and African Americans) against a contrived class (i.e. identity feelers). Nothing in principle separates the transgendered from the transracial; they’re both identity feelers. I think sloppy thinking, emotional commitment, and sheer inertia are responsible for Progressivism’s lumping together of transgender issues with its broader sexual liberation project, even though gender identity disorder (called gender dysphoria by the APA since 2012) is often more related to common psychological coping mechanisms or sometimes more serious body dysmorphia disorders. But the .009% of people with gender identity disorder are now forcibly riding the wave of success of the 2% of non-heterosexual identifying people who have been championed by Progressivism’s massive media tour de force over the last two decades. If the number of “transracial” people also grows to a whopping .009%, maybe Progressivism will have to finally start treating them equally and fairly, raising funds for all the legal fees Dolezal may need to sue for transracial discrimination.