“It’s not a costume. I don’t know spiritually and metaphysically how this goes, but I do know that from my earliest memories I have awareness and connection with the black experience.” Rachel Dolezal – Vanity Fair, July 19th.
This past summer, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, was outed by her parents as having attempted to ‘pass’ as black. Modifications of her hair, skin appearance and speech pattern have all been mentioned. After the media storm, she lost her position and suffered much public humiliation. Born in 1977 in Montana, to a family whose heritage, Dolezal was shown, after genealogical testing, to have only have Czech, German, Swedish and Dutch ancestors in the last four centuries. Her parents adopted several black children who she was raised with as her siblings and she attended the HBCU Howard University. However, even one of her brothers has referred to what she did as ‘black-face’, and whilst at Howard University she sued the establishment for discrimination against her—as white. The predominant view in the media was that she had been deceitful and benefitted from co-opting a disenfranchised identity. As her Vanity Fair interviewer Allison Samuels put it quite potently, “this was a new type of white woman: bold and brazen enough to claim ownership over a painful and complicated history she wasn’t born into.”
Not long before, the transgender icon, Caitlyn Jenner, graced the cover of Vanity Fair in what was perceived to be a watershed moment in the mainstream acceptance of the trans narrative. Not too unsurprisingly, questions were raised over why one trans (gender) was deemed legitimate but the other trans (racial) was not. Rogers Brubaker’s paper, tries to elucidate the arguments that appeared on all sides of the question. His is a survey paper, explicitly written “as an intellectual opportunity rather than a political provocation.” (p.2)
He starts off by elaborating the contemporary context in which such a debate could arise, which he describes as being characterized by:
(1) A “massive destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks” (p. 2) linked in many ways to the theories of social construction which our seminar is built on. Such a destabilization leads to the overthrow of traditional binaries and the emergence of ’superdiversities’. However, “challenges to prevailing categorical frameworks have been less dramatic in the domain of race and ethnicity,” than in sex and gender.
(2) The enlargement of the space for choice. Individualism and choice is a central tenet of Western Modernity—especially in the struggle for many women’s rights. The vocabulary and logic of choice is becoming a part of our official and unofficial interactions with both gender and race (think job applications/yes means yes legislation/tinder/pgp’s, etc.).
(3) The increased policing of identity claims. With social categories destabilized, and the ideology of choice reinforced, there arise “concerns about unregulated, fraudulent, opportunistic, exploitative, unnatural, or otherwise illegitimate identity claims.” (p. 8) These include claims that transgender women are not really women since they do not “have the history of being born and located in this culture as a woman.” (Raymond 1979) Germaine Greer, an established feminist author has sparked controversy just this week by saying that she did not consider transwomen to be women. Applied to the idea of race, this policing has taken historical form through brutal policing of the boundaries of acceptable ‘whiteness’.
From this discussion emerge two contrasting visions of identity. One where there is a pre-existing essence that one obeys and adapts one’s body until the world responds to them as they see themselves. “This is notably the case for many transgender people. In this mode of trans discourse, one’s basic identity is not chosen, but given.” (p. 9) This somewhat essentialist definition is used both to ‘justify’ and ‘challenge’ such disruptions of social categories. A potential conundrum from this vision would be the thus ascribed ‘black’ individual who has ‘african ancestry’ but doesn’t know it. (p. 10) A second vision of identity would be closer tied to choice and involves having no set essence but rather is selected or created.
Into this context, where such themes were already hotly debated, came the case of Rachel Dolezal. Without taking an explicit position, Brubaker’s work is in drawing up clear analytical distinctions between the various stand-points that appeared in the aftermath of the scandal. Positions one and three assume a parallel between the categories of race and gender and thus apply a syllogism to judge the validity of both Jenner and Dolezal’s claims at once. Positions two and four assume a difference between the categories of race and gender.
Position one states that both race and gender are essentialist and therefore Jenner is not a woman and Dolezal is not black. By assuming that Dolezal’s being black was patently absurd, conservatives sought to prove that Jenner’s trans identity was similarly wrong. By refusing to be defined by “newcomers to the category” (p. 13) radical feminists like Burkett refuse to recognize transwomen as being women in the same sense. The comparison to race is thus made and the syllogism elaborated before it was even made flesh by Dolezal: The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people … is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.” (p. 13)
Position two states that race is essential but gender is voluntary, thus Jenner is a woman but Dolezal is not black. This was most popular in liberal circles and goes in two ways. “While gender voluntarist boundary work at the frontier between quadrants 1 and 2 (A) presumed the illegitimacy of Dolezal’s change of race, and sought to explain the legitimacy of Jenner or others changing their gender, racial essentialist boundary work at the frontier between quadrants 2 and 3 (B) presumed the legitimacy of changing one’s gender, and sought to explain the illegitimacy of Dolezal’s change of race.” An example of A would be Khadija White who states “To conflate trans folks with Dolezal gives credence to the deepest, most malicious lie there is about transgender identity and queer sexuality – that they are deceitful.” An example of B would be Jody Armour who states “Michael Brown couldn’t be transracial, when you walk into prisons and jail cells, you see cellblocks brimming with bodies that are conspicuously black. Those black bodies had no choice in how they were perceived.” In brief, Dolezal optionally wore ‘blackness’ whilst transwomen ‘are’ women. One was chosen and illegitimate, the other genuine.
Position three states that both identity segments are voluntary and therefore Jenner is a woman and Dolezal is black. UPenn Political Scientist Adolph Reed Jr suggests that we should consider the possibility of the trans-race category since the arguments against Dolezal refer to biology in a troubling way that echoes racial essentialism. Furthermore, we cannot “know that Dolezal may not sense that she is ‘really’ black in the same, involuntary way that many transgender people feel that they are ‘really’ transgender?” (p. 15)
Position four states the inverse of position two and thus Jenner is not a woman but Dolezal is black. Unlike position two, very few commentators occupied this space, despite the “widely shared sense that differences of sex and gender are deeper and more fundamental than those of race.” (p. 15)
The conclusion of Brubaker’s survey paper is that the Dolezal affair triggered “a large-scale exercise in vernacular comparative sociology” that was sadly “subordinated to efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal.” (p.21) But ultimately, the support for his second position suggests that though gender identity seems “more deeply bound up with…socially defined sex categories” than race is with what Haslanger would call ‘color’, “gender identity is at the same time more autonomous from the socially classified sexed body than racial identity is from the socially classified racial body”. (p.22) Popularly, at least, one can be trans-gendered but not trans-racial.