True Self . False Self by Patricia Januszkiewicz (Credit)
This is where things get really complex.
I was super pumped when Caitlyn Jenner came out. It meant a lot for such a famous person to identify themselves as trans, and to me it was an encouraging sign of the times when one of the biggest reactions on Twitter the day she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair was “why did she spell her name with a C and not a K?” That was just wonderful and priceless and inspiring.
The positive feedback and support she received was reassuring. I had really resented the way Diane Sawyer questioned Bruce before the big reveal, overtly contrasting his former athletic prowess with his new found femininity. She even threw in the phrase “raw masculine power” to describe the Olympic decathlon. As if being a star athlete and being a woman were opposites. Really??
At 3:04 watch Diane Sawyer almost give herself an aneurysm trying to comprehend that an American athletic hero could possibly also be a woman.
So just when we thought most of society had started to get really cool and comfortable with complex ideas about identity, the Rachel Dolezal scandal comes along.
I completely understand why a white woman pretending to be black is wrong. I get that a white person appropriating a culture that they don’t belong to is very problematic, and that using this identity to leverage positions of power and authority, denying access to ACTUAL women of colour, is so SO wrong. Dolezal’s sense of entitlement is colossal. She has a lot to answer for.
On the other hand, on a gut level I feel a bit disappointed. We were making such good progress on getting around rigid ideas about gender. Why can’t we also start questioning rigid constraints around the idea of race, which is itself another social construct used to put people in boxes?
The reality is, we’re not there yet. And even if we were, Dolezal wouldn’t exactly be celebrated as a pioneer in this area.
Kat Blaque’s video below is great and discusses all the reasons why it’s not right to dismiss Dolezal as “transracial” and compare changing your racial identity to changing your gender identity.
I respect her viewpoint as a black trans woman speaking from experience, and I acknowledge that her words should carry a lot more weight than my cis-white ones on this topic.
Having said that, I can’t let go of this strong hunch that we are on the verge of a dramatic shift in the way we form and express identity. I’ve written about the fluidity of identity before, and I still think that thanks to online communications and the advent of social media, this kind of identity-morphing is only going to become more common.
Whether it’s politically comfortable or not, Dolezal did something we all do now – she edited her identity to better reflect her opinion about herself. She just took it to its extreme and manipulated it to her advantage. When it comes down to it, who you are in the in the internet age is up to you – identity is mostly a matter of opinion.
Kat argues in her video that an African American can’t change her race the way Dolezal did, but it’s no secret that some Indian women are bleaching their skin and some Asian women are having surgery on their eyelids to appear more caucasian. Anyone can purchase colour contact lenses that hide your real eye colour.
Let me be really clear – I’m not trying to equate a person who gets plastic surgery to look more white because they’ve been shamed into hating their features due to racist, manufactured ideas about beauty, with a person who undergoes sex reassignment because they feel that they are innately a different gender. I agree with Kat that this is not an accurate comparison. But both situations rely on the same basic principle that people have the choice to change their bodies to suit their own ideas about their identity, rather than relying on genetics to dictate it.
As multi-ethnic, blended and non-traditional family models become more prevalent, I predict that people are going to get less and less hung up on what race your parents happen to be.
Did your parents adopt you from another country? Did they go to the sperm bank? Did they get a friend to surrogate? Is your race totally ambiguous? That’s nice. Why did they decide to spell your name with a C instead of a K?
Maybe that would be a nicer question to ask than constantly demanding, “Where are you really from?”
So you see I can’t be totally 100% mad at Rachel Dolezal, because despite the fact that her choices were in extremely bad taste and judgement, harmful, deceitful and self-serving, and I don’t condone her behaviour, she also just successfully demonstrated the extreme plasticity of identity. For ten years.
In a weird way, it’s kind of exciting to think that these race boxes we’re stuffed in maybe aren’t as sturdy as we think. Our identities, like our physical selves, are becoming more changeable – for better or for worse.