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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10 Responses to No More Rachel Dolezals

  1. Sarah says:

    Wow! Well written. Thanks for giving me insight into something that I had a gut feeling about, but no words for.

  2. Natalie_S says:

    There is also a well known long history of transgender people in other cultures. The Hijras of India, the Kathoey of Thailand and so on. Meaning that being trans is a common human condition worldwide but “transracialism” is not.

    • AM says:

      Actually transracial is a thing. It’s a term that has been stolen from the adoptee community and signifies the adoption of children of one race by people of another (99.9% children of colour adopted by white people). It doesn’t mean, and never has, identifying with another race.

      “But it’s not suprising more and more ppl are fooled, given the rising trend of clueless bio spawn making a self-aggrandizing show with onanist, identical posts of ‘TRANSRACIAL DOESN’T EXIST!!!’, completely discounting the existence of adoptees & foster kids of color, thus actually supporting the racist shitheads who’ve erased us in the first place.”

      http://bastardplanet.tumblr.com/post/85554844754/hey-speaking-of-the-whole-transracial-thing-is

  3. Cara Walsh says:

    This is a subject that i talk about a lot with my friends, actually. I don’t really agree with the concepts of this article with regard to limiting this theoretical discussion on the plausibility of racial fluidity. And while I agree, it shouldn’t ever take precedence over the discussion of transgender issues, I don’t think you have the right to say that we (outside the trans community) should not be allowed/be discouraged to participate in discussion over this matter, because it’s an interesting thought experiment that actually deserves merit.

    Here’s my counter argument to disproving the validity of racial fluidity. Assumption: we as a society (at least the left leaning side) accept gender fluidity, as gender is a social construct that does not pertain to any specific biology (i.e. penis vagina tits)
    Assuming that we accept this, there should be NO reason that we deny the plausibility of racial fluidity. I would not classify the Rachel case as racial fluidity, as she was no more Black than Amanda Bynes was a man in “She’s the man”.

    However, for a second consider mixed race people. Maybe someone who is Half white and Half black, but looks black and was raised culturally black, identifies as just Black. Is that so crazy? I have a friend who is Malaysian, but looks black, and was raised among a black community. Would it be out of line for him to identify as black? What about an Asian girl who was raised by a white family? Would it be crazy for her to identify as white?

    I believe, no. And while people don’t “come out” as identifying with different races, that’s not something that our
    society requires of us to do. Eminem does not need to announce that he identifies with the black community to go about with his life. Racial fluidity is actually an important concept I believe especially in America where the proportion of children who are mixed race is on the rise.

    Again, wanting to make it clear that I do not support the silencing of trans issues, that’s not what this comment is about. Everyone deserves a platform to speak their truths and gain acceptance. However, this rejection of racial fluidity by this article I find to be hypocritical and also, without logic, and I (or whoever wants to participate in this conversation) should be able to make this criticism without being accused of silencing trans issues. From community outreach and social
    education experience between people of different backgrounds, I can say without a doubt that the best way for people to learn is in open discussion where everyone feels safe to speak their truths, but also feels safe to disagree.

    I would love to hear your thoughts to this if you find the time to reply. This piece was well written and had good references which I appreciate.

    With the greatest respect,

    Cara

    • Jane says:

      One’s cultural identity and one’s racial identity are not necessarily the same thing. A Chinese person born and raised in Pismo Beach isn’t white by dint of them being born in Pismo, even if they’ve assimilated in to the culture there. Eminem isn’t transracial because he appreciates black culture, he’s a white man who like rap music. I don’t know why the ides of that is so strange to people.

  4. Tori Tsukino says:

    The Aboriginal people of Australia accept all people who live with them as authentic Aboriginal persons. This is cultural identity.
    I am a transgender person with a Bachelor of Science degree in genetics and biochemistry. I must add to this conversation that the concept of race is nonsense. The concept of race was invented aeons ago to justify slavery. Genetics shows that there is no such thing. There is only genetic variation between and within population groups.
    A person’s cultural identity is dependant on their social setting and their acceptance in that setting.
    The question the needs to be asked is “how can Americans let go of the concept of race and expand their cultural awareness?”.
    I do not defend the actions of Rachel Dolezal. It does seem this person exploited people and opportunities for personal gain and ought to be held accountable for sure.
    I shall conclude:
    Cultural identity is not dependant upon your physical traits as Gender identity is not dependant upon your physical traits. We are who we are, we love who we love, and we express ourselves within the social construct of our culture.

  5. There is currently an ad on TV — genetic analysis. “I used to think I
    was Hispanic. Now I find I am 26% Native American, and a lot of other
    stuff. When the form asks for “race” I mark “other.”

    Just because I don’t identify as cis-M, doesn’t mean I identify as
    “female” — whatever that means.

    Of late I identify as “trans-whatever” . . . Not cis-M, although I do
    stand to pee. Never felt like standing to pee was qualification for
    anything in particular.

    There are a lot of us who fall between the polarities. Racially I am triple-
    hyphenated French-Canadian-American, with a fair gene pool sample from
    the Lakota tribe, Scandinavian . . .

    We used to fill in the blanks as “white male” — Not any more.

    Not going to “weaponize” the rhetorical game, but it’s a game — Any
    serious anthropological inquiry into “race” will disclose that it is as
    socially constructed as “gender.” And we can double-speak that
    rhetorical gambit until Hell issues ice skates.

    Allison

  6. elayne says:

    Commenting so I can keep up with this.

    I hate that I’m going to do a #NotAll___ thing here, but may I suggest that not everyone who asks the question has malicious or disparaging intent? I am 100% behind trans* people, and about 98% against what I consider to be Dolezal’s shenanigans, but I cannot articulate to my own satisfaction why being trans* seems like a reasonable thing that some people experience because gender isn’t binary, but the concept of being “transracial” is so offensive and problematic (even though race isn’t binary or clear-cut either).

    In Dolezal’s case, I’m pretty sure the trouble (for me) lies in the fact that, as you said, she’s co-opted resources and respect, and has actively heightened racial tensions, etc. But, I ask myself, what if she hadn’t? What if she had just been some average chick who worked in a bank & didn’t file lawsuits and fake hate crimes? Would I be like, “Oh, okay, sure, you can be black if you want” in that case? And inevitably the answer is “um, no.” And I don’t understand why.

    I don’t think the numbers thing is entirely valid, either. If you’d taken a sampling in, say, 1870 or 1920, you’d have been asking “Are there thousands/millions of other people who have external A genitalia but feel that they are actually B sex/gender? No? Then this person here has no basis to claim that this is the case for him/her.” And that’s not true – it just took us (society) a long time to catch up and create a world where trans* people felt ABLE to be open about it. Even if that’s not the case, I instinctively rebel against invalidating something just because it’s not a popular point of view. That’s too close, from my perspective, to saying “Well if being ‘trans’ was a REAL thing there’d be a lot more people experiencing it. Since only a small number of people are trans, it’s obviously made up and invalid.”

    I still think Dolezal’s probably full of shit and I think her *behavior* (taking leadership roles, the hate crime thing OMFG, the switching back to white when it suits her) is utterly abhorrent. But I still don’t understand why I feel that way.

    Actually, a thought on the “behavior” thing.
    A friend of mine (cis female) met a trans woman, who had been living as a woman for about a decade but had not had gender reassignment surgery. They fell in love. The state in which they lived did not, at that time, recognize same sex marriages. It also did not, at that time, allow people to change the sex indicated on their birth certificates (or maybe they had to have bottom surgery first, I don’t remember). So my friend’s birth certificate said “female,” but her girlfriend’s birth certificate still said “male” although she was, in all respects except paperwork and penis, female. They got married – both wearing wedding dresses – and I was delighted that they’d used their state’s backwards & biased laws in one area (can’t change sex on birth certificate) to get around the backwards & biased laws in another (can’t marry someone of the same sex).

    Now, their situation was different in that their marriage harmed no one and caused no financial burden to anyone, but from a certain way of looking at it, my friend’s wife also “switched back and forth to get what she wanted.” And I don’t think what SHE did was wrong. But I DO think what Dolezal did (continues to do) was (is) wrong.

    I want to understand that. Asking the question doesn’t inherently make me hostile or crafty or someone who’s trying to insult others or undermine trans* people. Undoubtedly many do. But the awesome part about having an actual ANSWER, instead of saying “you can’t ask that you’re being rude and hateful” is that you can use it to pull the rug out from under the feet of the people who ARE trying to be offensive and rude and hateful.

  7. Jem says:

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

    Does anyone actually make this argument or is it just hypothetical? I’ve never heard it made in all seriousness and know of nobody who agrees or supports Dolezal’s identification as ‘trans racial’ though I’m prepared to stand corrected if there is evidence to the contrary.

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