No More Rachel Dolezals

“If someone can identify as another gender, why can’t someone identify as another race?”

I want to make something clear from the outset: Engaging with this crafty bit of rhetoric at all is completely beneath me, and it’s beneath you too. This argument doesn’t deserve the time of day, let alone the detailed attention of a protracted dissection. But this is weaponized rhetoric, designed to be wielded deliberately against the lives of trans people. So I don’t really have a choice about engaging with it, do I? I resent that immensely.

This is undeniably a bad-faith argument. To any person who actually knows trans people, it’s obvious that this is absurd and hostile, even if they may not be certain of how exactly to explain that. Yet many people who don’t know a trans person at all have nevertheless felt that they are invited to partake in this argument, particularly following the emergence of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who has made an entire life out of openly pretending to be black.

Her noxious existence crystallized this long-running spurious hypothetical into reality. Her arrival in the public sphere immediately after Caitlyn Jenner came out in 2015 was the worst kind of distraction, causing untold damage to the public’s perception of us. And her continued presence in the media, as she milks her misdeeds and the outrage over them for as long as possible, will perpetually invoke the misleading and invalidating false intuition that to be transgender is as absurd as becoming a different race. If you support trans people, you cannot support this person.

When confronting the argument at hand, it’s important to remember that what looks like a question may not be a question at all. Phrasing a sentence such that you can place a question mark at the end of it does not reliably indicate that any actual curiosity is present. Instead, the phrasing of a question can be used to disguise any number of claims and assumptions that are being slipped in without first being justified.

First, its semantic content reduces to saying: “Gender and race are the same thing – now you prove that they’re not.” The individual “asking” the “question” notably fails to show why these concepts are directly comparable to begin with.

Second, the choice to engage individual trans people in this argument is itself a way of reaffirming its own unproven conclusion. The very act carries the assumption that someone’s life as a trans person is relevant to hypotheticals involving race or the offensive and self-absorbed stunts of Rachel Dolezal. This is not the case. The arguer could choose instead to ask an anthropologist or sociologist about topics of race and the construction of racial identity, but they conspicuously do not.

Third, this argument serves to produce confusion rather than clarity. It’s designed to shepherd people into the heights of nebulous abstractions, where their conflicting and typically vague understandings of these concepts will lead them to argue in circles uselessly. “What is race?” “What is gender?” The average person is just not equipped with a useful comprehension of very broad concepts that are still being clarified and studied in academic circles, and so they just talk past each other. Worst of all, the turn toward abstraction casts trans people’s lives as some mere idea to be idly debated by those with no stake in this. It distracts from the recognition of our real existence.

Instead, I’d like to ask some questions that will serve to bring these notions back to reality. Rather than getting lost in the clouds of abstraction, let’s explore some concrete examples in order to see how well some of these assumptions line up with the real world. For instance:

  • Are there 1.4 million people like Rachel Dolezal in the United States – 125,000 in Texas alone? That’s how many trans adults there are (Flores, Herman, Gates, & Brown, 2016).
  • Do 1 in 137 high school students identify as being like Rachel Dolezal? That’s how many teenage trans kids there are (Herman, Flores, Brown, Wilson, & Conron, 2017).
  • Do 30% of people personally know someone like Rachel Dolezal? That’s how many people know a trans person (Pew Research Center, 2016).
  • Have decades of scientific studies and clinical evidence shown that living like Rachel Dolezal is beneficial to one’s mental health, well-being, and overall functioning? Such evidence has shown that trans people benefit immensely from living as their gender and transitioning.

There’s another element of dissimilarity that’s especially striking to me. Trans people have reached what might be called a “critical mass” of awareness. Our visible presence has reached a point where emerging trans people have the means to recognize themselves in us, helping each of them to develop a better understanding of their gender and what’s best for them in their life. I’ve received hundreds of messages from viewers who’ve said that my work led them to realize that they’re trans, but this has been occurring for decades – after Christine Jorgensen publicly transitioned in 1952, hospitals received thousands of requests from trans people who also wanted to transition (Meyerowitz, 2002).

Yet in the wake of Rachel Dolezal’s real-life example, we see nothing of the sort. There aren’t thousands of people emerging to say that her life reflects their own experiences, or that they feel more affirmed in themselves now as a result of her visibility. She is not an instance of a latent yet widespread phenomenon that’s now rising to public awareness – she is one individual, with a particular set of personal issues, who has made a very unique series of poor choices in her life.

If someone can identify as another gender, why can’t someone identify as another race? Pay close attention to what “identifying as” looks like in each case respectively – the same word can be intentionally used in order to cloak a great deal of difference. For trans people, “identifying as” our gender – or as we call it, just having a gender – means going about our lives in relative peace and contentment having found deeply meaningful personal fulfillment, with scientifically measurable increases in our health and well-being.

For Rachel Dolezal, “identifying as” black means:

This is a person who tries to claim solidarity with black people, while her actions demonstrate anything but. She seemingly exhibits no awareness that the very people she claims to identify with do not have access to the preposterous choices she’s made – black men and boys who are killed by police are not afforded the option of “identifying” their way out of racist profiling and violence.

Instead, she shows an ongoing, almost pathological need to take the spotlight away from real issues and seize it for herself. If this person were truly dedicated to fighting for racial justice, she would realize that she’s nothing but a malignant distraction. Her presence has done nothing to advance conversations on race or identity; if anything, her race-faking act seems only to have muddled many white people’s understanding of racial issues.

She is a white person promoting misconceptions of race among white people – she is not acting in solidarity with anyone when they keep having to clean up after the discursive wreckage she leaves in her wake. And if you choose to compare trans people to this, knowing what this real example of “identifying as another race” actually looks like, you are simply choosing to insult us.


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References

  • Flores, A. R., Herman, J. L., Gates, G. J., & Brown, T. N. T. (2016). How many adults identify as transgender in the United States? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute, UCLA.
  • Herman, J. L., Flores, A. R., Brown, T. N. T., Wilson, B. D. M., & Conron, K. J. (2017). Age of individuals who identify as transgender in the United States. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute, UCLA.
  • Meyerowitz, J. J. (2002). How sex changed: A history of transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Pew Research Center (2016). Where the public stands on religious liberty vs. nondiscrimination. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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