By: Georgia Bennett
When this story initially broke I expected the general consensus to be a dismissal of Ms. Dolezals actions, instead what has happened in the wake of this story is the large scale questioning of the validity of self-identification.
I am going to explain why gender and race are not terms than can be seen interchangeably and furthermore why Rachel Dolezal identifying herself as black is not a valid assertion.
When people are born, in the majority of cases they are classed within the binary of either being male or female- dependent on their genitals. This is their sex. Sex is something that is seen throughout nature within the vertebrate kingdom most species can be split into simply male and female, whilst there are cases within the invertebrate kingdom where organisms can be asexual, hermaphrodite and thus reproduce without the need for another partner.
Humans identified that there was a difference in roles between male and females very early on in our evolution. Generally speaking, the males were the stronger of the two sexes, without humans yet being aware of why, testosterone levels in the males caused them to act differently to women, being more physical, more aggressive thus better suited to hunting and protecting their families. This behaviour gave way to over time to what became gender roles- the expectation that a man, a male, or a person with male genitalia would be the more dominant of the sexes, displaying more aggressive, physical, providing traits. Similarly, women across species being responsible for bearing offspring and typically being the weaker of the two sexes displayed more caring natures, were perhaps less aggressive than their male counterparts and less able to participate in physical combats. From this came the expectation that women would be more mildly natured than men, and would have a more docile disposition simply due to the nature of couplings- needing both dominant and dominated counterparts. It was from these observations that we created the idea of gender. The problem with this is that we have created a social construct whereby ones sex indefinitely defines their gender, which is simply not true. Though on a wide scale, the majority of people will display genders that match their sex, there is still a large population of people whose genders fall on a spectrum that cannot as easily be matched with their sex. Ones gender is hormonal and for the most part inherent.
Gender is independent of environment. For instance, a male can be born and raised into a family or community that is largely made up of other men, and can still display more feminine gender attributes. Similarly a woman can be raised in an environment with majority men, and still display feminine qualities. Across the world many people can all experience the disparity between the sex they were assigned by birth and the gender assigned by society. Therefore transgender people can exist, because gender is a made up concept, dependent on social norms, it is subjective and not something that can be seen, gender is behavioural and tied to internal feelings and dispositions that cannot be simplified into a binary. Obviously these are discoveries that we have only been able to make with the development of science and the studies of humans, but the gender roles that are still in place within society now, are archaic and outdated frameworks. It is not to say that the majority of people do not fit within the stereotypes, but we must remember that these stereotypes trivialise gender, and in doing so they disregard the feelings and identities of many people who do not fit these labels.
Similarly to how we have sex and gender, we also have race(ethnicity) and culture. To simplify things, we can look at race and culture in a similar way to sex and gender in that when people are of a certain race, we expect them to display or to identify with a particular culture. However unlike gender which is independent of environment, culture is dependent on environment. You cannot identify with a certain culture without having experienced it, whether that is having directly grown up in that culture, or somehow having to live that culture indirectly due to how you are treated. A white person who has never experienced black culture, never been around black people could not say that they feel black, because to be black is purely a physical trait, culture is internalised but only dependent on exposure.
When a person is born their race is totally dependent on the race of their parents, regardless of skin conditions such as albinism, if a person has two black parents, they are black, and that is their ethnicity. Now if this said person were to grow up around many white people, they may adapt to and become more comfortable with white-culture- but that will not change the fact that they are black. You cannot identify with a race you are not, because being a race is purely s physical thing determined at birth. The gender you identify with is due to nature, whereas the culture you identify with is due to nurture.
I think it is fair, for a person to feel more comfortable with a culture they have grown up in, but that doesn’t mean that they can identify as the race that gave birth to that culture.
Now this is me speaking in general terms, if I were to actually discuss the case of Rachel Dolezal I would be taking a completely different tone.
Rachel Dolezal, was not born into a black family, albeit having adopted back siblings she was 13 years old when they were adopted and she had the privilege of living out her childhood as a white female. I therefore don’t feel that it is valid for her to try and claim blackness as if it was something she has always been a part of, because the fact of the matter is, that up until the early 2000’s Dolezal lived as a white woman and benefitted from the privileges of that, so for her to now try and claim blackness for doing a short stint as the spokesperson of the NAACP is preposterous. I can understand, that perhaps gaining new adopted siblings in your early teens is a life changing experience, our teenage years are those that are perhaps our most uncertain times, that strange transition between child and adult, 13 up till 20 are trying times for the majority of people, and it is the period in our life when we perhaps make the most defining assertions of our identities. But similarly to what I mentioned before the changes we make to our identity are environmental things, therefore you can’t identify with them as if they are inherent because you are making a choice- the same is not said for gender which is intrinsic.
If I am being completely honest, I think Dolezal has a problem, I think she has shown that she is pathological liar, her dates don’t add up and her stories are as she herself states are “creative fiction”. I think it’s highly likely that Rachel had trouble relating to her parents when she was younger, and the adoption of other siblings gave her a new outlet to show compassion that she perhaps didn’t have before. From the testimonies of her siblings it is clear that she is genuinely very close to them and probably took a large interest in black culture in order to fit in with them and to create an environment in which they were comfortable. This is something I think is admirable, because I often worry that when P.O.C are adopted by white people their culture can often be smudged or diluted. I think Rachel’s love and fondness of her new black siblings resulted in what appears to be a fascination and deep interest in black culture and black history- which is wonderful, but one cannot simply claim they are black because they studied African studies, any more than they can claim to be black because they were once married to a black man. Any more than I a black woman could claim to be European because I studied Slavonic Studies.
The issue I take with this situation, and the fact that people are trying to legitimise this almost fanaticism turned slight obsession is that it nullifies our racial experiences. A person of colour is not 5 times as likely to be the victim of police brutality or institutional racism because of their culture- its because of their race, that purely physical visual attribute and the stereotypes that come with it. She doesn’t look like she is black any more than I would look white if I doused my face in talcum powder; therefore I can guarantee that her supposed “black experience” has been a very PG-13 version of the reality that many black people experience.
Something I think I have realised over the past few years is that white people don’t revere culture quite in the same way as ethnic minorities, though some may argue that’s because white people are uncultured, I would say that it’s possibly due to the fact that their culture is part of everyday culture, celebrated and embraced globally- white history is simply history whereas Black or Asian history has to be sub-categorised. Either way, I find it very worrying, that people seem to be so eager to give this buzzword-transracial such legitimacy by trying to compare it to transgender. In doing so not only are people nullifying the experience of p.o.c -who for the most part are already socially subjugated, and unable to embrace their own cultures without being ridiculed and isolated for doing so- but also almost completely derailing the very important and overdue dialogues being had about transgender issues. It is typical scaremongering behaviour, trying to invalidate the struggles of transgender people by saying “If you can identify as a woman when you are a man, then you should be able to identify as black if you are white”, such that people have to choose to either accept or dismiss both experiences- even though the two are incomparable.
As ever identity is a very important issue for all people, but I think we as a society need to be very careful about the difference between our identity and our socially influenced preferences. Rachel Dolezal I am sure, will soon just be an old hashtag, as more of her lies and “creative fiction” surface but I think we as a people need to take heed of just how quickly this situation escalated. Do not be fooled, the same people really pushing this “transracial and transgender are the same thing” don’t really care for either marginalized groups because they refuse to accept the very significant differences between the two.
Stay woke .