Race is Not Gender: About Rachel Dolezal

As much as I joked yesterday that America just found out, via Spokane, that race is a social construction, I meant it to be only that: a joke. It has lead to a lot of people actually talking about what race IS and specifically what blackness is, and to me, that’s a long overdue conversation where maybe some white people will learn a little more about paper bag tests and colorism, “passing” as a means to survival, marrying up to have lighter children than their parents, etc. There are amazing histories and books full of information and deep knowledge about what it means to be black.

But that this whole idea that she is “transracial” is just upsetting to me. First, I always discourage comparisons between race and gender because they never, ever hold up. Gender is constructed by very different discourses of being, through different bodies and histories. Race – especially race in america – is constructed through specific historical contexts (slavery, for starters). Even the movements toward liberation are different. Look at how differently the term “passing” is used, for instance — which is one of the main reasons I hate using the term when it comes to gender.

Here are a few reasons this bothers me: (1) we’re having a conversation about race, finally, at long last. It seems at best disrespectful to make it about anything else when we are so, so overdue in talking about race in the US.

(2) It’s pretty clear that Dolezal doesn’t identify as black.

Ezra believes the only reason his sister would change her identity was due to the racism she claimed to have encountered at Howard University, where she graduated with her master’s degree in fine art in 2002.

Rachel, he added, would often complain that she was treated poorly as one of only a few white students on a mostly black campus.

“She used to tell us that teachers treated her differently than other people and a lot of them acted like they didn’t want her there,” Ezra said. “Because of her work in African-American art, they thought she was a black student during her application, but they ended up with a white person.”

(3) Why are white people so quick to defend what she’s done when they don’t know her? White privilege, again. When those in your own gang are behaving badly, it shouldn’t take someone from some other group to point that out. When I work with men on issues of violence against women, my most frequent refrain is that the good guys have GOT to stop defending the bad guy in their midst. Their best work is to call out the bad guys, to use their own male privilege to confront the people whose actions are oppressing others. White people have to call this woman out for exploiting and mocking the experiences and identities of black people.

(4) All of what she did and has interest in could have been done while white. So you suffer a little from not being taken as seriously as a result and – wait, what? Right. Deal with it, white people. I’m a non trans trans ally. I’ve had people ask me why I don’t identify as trans despite my own gender fluidity, and my answer is always: because I’m not. I can’t pin down what makes me not trans and what makes others trans except that I know a lot of trans people and there is some essential, maybe ineffable difference between how they experience gender and how I do.

Ultimately, that is the thing: Dolezal knows she’s not black, which is what makes her decision to pass herself off as black a problem. Propping herself up by having an adopted kid brother pose as her son, using a photo of a man who isn’t her father as if he is… all of it indicates she knows full well she’s not black.

I don’t know what happened to her. I can understand having a deep affinity for a culture or a cause that is not your own. I can understand wanting more “credibility” within a social justice movement by being “one of” instead of “allied to”. But that’s not yours to take; that’s for others to give. That I am taken seriously as a trans advocate by awesome trans activists is a compliment but not my right. That’s the whole goddamn point of being an ally – of using your privilege (white, cis, hetero, male) to get more people to pay attention to how fucked up certain kinds of oppression are. You don’t do that by pretending to be ‘one of’ and taking the reins.

White women, honestly. You make me ashamed to be one of y’all.

3 Replies to “Race is Not Gender: About Rachel Dolezal”

  1. I do not find it impossible to believe that people can be Transracial. In fact, the dialogue of the Trans Community regarding cis and Trans can be utilized with that idea in mind.
    Take the new head of the NAACP who is historically a cis white woman and during interviews concerning her history being relative to her position, she has stated that, in fact, she has always been black in her head.
    What a concept.
    The continuous blending of the races is something that I feel is a natural occurrence as boundaries to travel and communication have been overcome and I think if people can be cis or Trans, they can also be cis (name your specific race) and Transracial as well. In fact it appears that a lot of things are heading in that direction and in some ways it is the awareness of people being Transgender that is helping other people to think and expand in that direction.
    People will always hang on to our differences and use them to alienate and categorize others. But the ability to be Trans in many things only leads to the one point of believing that those differences are superficial and that we are all one large community called Humanity and all people should be respected because of that connection we have.

  2. I dunno. It’s entirely conceivable she was stung by a bee, or perhaps that she spontaneously turned black…

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