What Makes Identity?

This post is going to serve, at least for now, for several of the Pride Month blogs. I have written, rewritten, unwritten, and rewritten this post over and over. I have been searching for the reason that this incredibly disturbing story crossed my desk, and I have been searching for the words to describe how I feel about it. I’ve been forced to simmer in my feelings of this, and it feels as if there are monumental updates every day. Here are my views on it as of now.

The internet and the collective consciousness of the United States has been in a tizzy all weekend thanks to the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Well, really, her parents. If you somehow read this blog but have no other interaction with the internet, this NAACP president is a woman by the name of Rachel Dolezal. Ms. Dolezal separated herself from her family and moved to Spokane almost a decade ago. When she got there, she decided to change her identity. She began identifying as a black woman: she darkened her skin, wore wigs, constructed an entirely different personal history for herself, and faked very public acts of racial discrimination.

Admittedly, the United States has a very complicated concept of and rhetoric surrounding race. Our history with race is long and extremely complicated, especially when looking in from the outside. We participated, like many of our European cousins, in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We were one of the last nations to outlaw such heinousness as slavery and the trafficking of humans. We did not simply outlaw it, though. We had to fight a war to end slavery. Millions of our own people killed each other for the “right” to own other humans to do the work they could have done themselves. Those African-Americans who did not flee north during Reconstruction faced discrimination and violence on a truly appalling scale. Lynchings, legal discrimination, unemployment, rapes, murders, police who would refuse to investigate crimes against the black community existed all over this country. While African Americans were technically given the right to vote in the 1870s, states and local voting precincts placed undue burdens on African-Americans with the express purpose of disenfranchising them.

Dolezal’s outing sent the internet into a tizzy. People were smearing her, defending her, and, most disturbingly, comparing her story of racial deception to the lived experiences of trans people. The hash tag #transracial was created in support of Ms. Dolezal’s alleged predicament.

Ms. Dolezal has recently resigned from her post as local NAACP president and done interviews with Matt Lauer and Melissa Harris-Perry on NBC and MSNBC, respectively. In these interviews, she has neglected to apologize for the controversy she has created, even to the well-respected and long-standing organization her behavior has now damaged. She has adopted the label of trans-racial for herself and asks that it be accepted as as equally valid as a transgender identity.

This thought creates a rabbit hole in discourse that, if left unchecked, could be irreparably damaging to both the transgender movement and the various black civil rights movements.

Yes, both race and gender are both socially constructed. In fact, there are more biological differences between members of different sexes than there are of different races. This is a strictly intellectual view of the social construct theory. It has no meaning in the debate over transracialism or transgenderism. We don’t live in a vacuum. Theory and practicality are two very different things. Theoretically, because gender is a social construct, trans people should be able to live as they want with no repercussions. A dark-skinned person should be afforded white privilege upon request. We all know nothing works that way.

It is not uncommon that a person has a particular attachment to a culture into which one was not born. It is not uncommon that a person feels disconnected from the people, culture, or role into which one was born. This probably happens every day. I myself have always felt disconnected from the family I was born into. This does not give one the right to choose on one’s own to change cultures or families. Gender is malleable. Roles, careers, relationships are malleable. Cultures and families are much, much less so.

Trans-racialism is not a thing. I, as a white human who often advocates for immigration reform, cannot decide tomorrow to wake up and declare to the world that I am Latino. Aside from the fact that I am unable to speak Spanish, there is nothing in my lineage to indicate that I am Latino. I have never been discriminated against on the basis of my skin color, language, or ethnic origin.

To make the comparison between trans-racialism and transgenderism is flawed on either a theoretical or practical front. From a theoretical perspective, concepts of race are extremely narrow and restricted to a specific culture. Since there is no biological basis of race other than skin pigmentation, each culture determines what this means for themselves. The American concept of race is steeped in a bloody, violent, disturbing history that is almost entirely exclusive to us. South Africans have their own violent history with race, but it is very different from our own.

Gender, on the other hand, is more or less the same. Many cultures seek to understand gender from a biological sex perspective. The roles of various genders differ, the methods of determining whether or a person belongs to a non-binary gender differs, but there are far more congruous aspects of gender to us as a species than there is race. It would be impossible to compare the way Americans understand the differences between “white” and “black” as it would to compare those same principles to those understandings in, say, India.

From a practical standpoint, the lived experiences of black and white bodies in the United States are very different, just as the lived experiences of trans- and cisgender people are different. Black bodies, like trans bodies, are subjected to heightened scrutiny, viewed as lesser beings than their white/cis counterparts, and subjected to violence that would be anathema to the dominant cultures. Neither black nor trans bodies have any say as to how they are. One cannot choose to be black any more than one can choose to be trans. They are experiences from which there is no escape or choice.

Race is a social construct, and that fact alone is what has everyone so confused regarding Rachel Dolezal. If it’s a social construct, why can’t someone be trans-racial? It’s not that kind of construct. Race is constructed insofar as our understanding about what our features or skin pigmentation mean. Our features and skin color are not constructed, they are there. They are unavoidable, in most cases. Ms. Dolezal has attempted to gain something by “identifying” as black. What it is, I’m not sure. I’m not sure anyone’s sure. She has made an ass out of herself. She has made a mockery of the black community and the trans community alike. “Transracial” and “transgender” are not synonyms. Let’s stop that kind of discourse right now.

I want to apologize again for my silence. I’m not even sure this post makes any sense. I wanted so badly to write something on this subject and hit roadblock after roadblock in my mind. Sorry. I’ll be back to normal tomorrow, I swear.

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3 thoughts on “What Makes Identity?

  1. Why do you feel that you need to apologize for your silence or the roadblocks you seemed to have encountered along the way? The greatest writers in the world have had “writer’s block” at one time or another. What makes the difference between a great writer and a mediocre one is the willingness to risk making an ass of themselves. Why not give yourself credit for pressing through the roadblocks and still keep on keeping on?

  2. Agreed, 100%. There are parallels between race and gender, culturally speaking, but just because transgender is a thing doesn’t mean that transracial is a thing. It is a word, but it means something else (i.e. adopting across racial lines). Her misuse of the word and misappropriating gender rhetoric makes me think she’s just being really dense.

  3. I appreciate this post and am still in that place of uncertainty

    You write: Race is a social construct, and that fact alone is what has everyone so confused regarding Rachel Dolezal. If it’s a social construct, why can’t someone be trans-racial? It’s not that kind of construct. Race is constructed insofar as our understanding about what our features or skin pigmentation mean. Our features and skin color are not constructed, they are there. They are unavoidable, in most cases.

    Is this not the same for “men” and “women”? Penis’ and vaginas being the features that are just there that socially determine gender, therefor giving meaning to sex as skin color gives meaning to race. If we trans folks can say I was born in the wrong body, why cant a white person say they were born in the wrong body? Trans women specifically are completely harassed by other cis-women for not being real women because they grew up with male privilege vs female oppression. How is this different? I am really wanting to understand.

    I don’t read the news much so have not followed this story, I am a detached observer of sorts trying to understand a complex issue of identity. I don’t know the upheaval this has created. I do have an African American coworker, who told me, prior to all of this, about an Italian friend who perceived himself as black. My coworker didn’t seem to have a problem with this.

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