Gender Isn’t Race, Either (Dolezal Pt. 2)

An old and dear friend wrote to me about the Rachel Dolezal issue; she was the partner of a trans person at one point, is allied to the trans community, and is also one of the most awesome feminists I know. The way she broke down the arguments for why Dolezal can’t be black go like this:

(1) she didn’t forge her identity through being raised in a minority group,

(2) she can switch back to the privileged group whenever she likes, and

(3) Finally, she is relying on stereotypes when appropriating “blackness”

Her question to me was: how is this not what some trans women do? And in some ways, my answer is to focus on the “some”. Because if something is going to be true for transness, then it should hold up – even, in this case, for all trans women (who are going from a high status identity to a lower status identity, such as someone would be doing in going from white to black).

(1) Trans women aren’t raised and socialized girls and women EXCEPT that plenty are. There are lots of trans girls who come out young enough that plenty are, AND once trans women live as women they are re-socialized as women, AND, as I’ve often argued, trans women may live in the world as people identified as men by others, but they’re not really men, either. They sometimes manage good lives as men, even, but it doesn’t mean they are. What do I mean by that? It means that I don’t know cis men who struggle every day whose genders feel horribly wrong to them and who crave femininity sometimes precisely because they’ve had to repress any expression of it and who have to work out their own complicated love of women. That is, a trans woman is still a woman even if she hasn’t transitioned; she’s just living in the world as a man and there is often a world of suffering tied up in that.

(2) Well, not really. Some trans women can; some do; some detransition for various reasons. But the whole point of things like the Standards of Care were to keep people from transitioning who shouldn’t, and some people realize that in fact transition isn’t the answer to their issue at all, that there is some other issue that gender has gotten mixed up in. Of course, too, many trans women can’t just become men again; too many years on hormones, surgical choices, etc., would cause them to have to transition again, not back, really. It’s not like trans women take off a pair of earrings and become men again. Transitioning is a complicated process and isn’t easily undone; most people who I’ve known have detransitioned do so because they needed to – out of financial need, needs of dependents, unemployability, to keep a marriage together.

(3) Lots of cis women rely on stereotypes to be women (cough Kardashians cough). So if stereotypes of femininity are acceptable for cis women, why aren’t they okay for trans women? One of the reasons feminists keep trying to push the images of women to include more and more types is so that there is no wrong way to be a woman. There isn’t. It doesn’t mean that some of the types degrade and stereotype and pigeonhole women; Disney can stuff it with their damn princesses already. But I don’t get to judge how any woman “does” womanness and I don’t want other women judging the way I do mine.

So that’s, in a sense, Part 2 of my other answer: these are all specific issues and doing a comparison based on general ideas/theories of identity just don’t hold up. There are too many exceptions. In saying any of this, I’m not insisting on any basic truth of transness, or any basic truth of race; I think these are lovely and complicated ideas that can’t easily be “boiled down” to any easy equations. That’s what I love most about what I do: sometimes there is no right answer, and you have to hold, and let be, contradictory conclusions. That’s okay. I think we all often have a tendency to want to nail down the correct, succinct answer, but for anyone who is interested in race and gender and class what is eternally fascinating is how exactly complex and mysterious these interactions between facets of our identities can be.

One thing that has become clear with the news that Dolezal once sued Howard University for discriminating against her as a white person: Dolezal is unlikely to be a good bet as a standard bearer for anyone wanting to win an argument about much of anything; as more of her story comes out, the more apparent it is that there are some seriously dysfunctional family dynamics going on, too. Personally, I’m most upset at the way she trampled all over what is an allies’ first and best rule: you use your privilege to figure out a way to help end oppression, and you don’t do so by ‘becoming’ the oppressed but by recognizing and checking your privilege. I don’t know what Dolezal’s intentions are, but that’s not really a difficult rule to understand.

Otherwise, here’s a good article on Slate as to why it isn’t crazy to compare the two but that breaks down why it doesn’t work, and another that covers a lot of good stuff on identity, belonging, “passing”, and binaries, amongst other things, by the awesome Kai Green.

Complicate that conversation. Think past binaries. Trouble categories. Hold contradiction. People who know what to think all the time are often the dumbest among us.

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