Two Truths and a Lie
Unless you’ve been living under a rock—or maybe you’re just one of my French readers, in which case this story has been incredibly absent from the news—you have heard about Rachel Dolezal and how she presented herself as a black woman for 10 years and was recently outed by her parents as a white woman with no African-American ancestry whatsoever. This came only a few days after Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, graced the cover of Vanity Fair to share part of her gender transition with the general public. Of course, people were quick to make the comparison between the two women—and by “people” I mean mostly cis white men—and wondered: if Caitlyn Jenner was to be accepted and respected as a woman, why shouldn’t Rachel Dolezal be accepted and respected as black?
Now, I’m far from the only person trying to explain why the two issues are different, so I will redirect you towards three fantastic videos made by fantastic YouTubers: Franchesca Ramsey, Kevin Peterson and Kat Blaque (they’re all black and one of them is trans, just FYI). However, given that my studies were focused on the performance of gender and race and how the two correlate, I’ve received a few questions on how I felt about the whole issue and, as you know, your wish is my command.
As a cisgender white man myself, my point-of-view is definitely one that comes from a position of privilege and so it’s an issue that I’ve never felt particularly expert in, given that I have never experienced being trans or being a person of color. But that is exactly the core of the issue here. While I might one day realize that I’m transgender and decide to transition and live my life as a trans woman, I can never truly experience the life of a person of color. And here is why.
There is no doubt that the two are social constructs (see: videos above) but pretending that the two work in the same way is just reductive and biased. The fact that I identify as a man was not transmitted genetically to me through my parents, I just happen to be comfortable with the gender that I was assigned at birth by a doctor who looked at my genitalia and called it a day. But considering that my father has two children of each sex [Side note: I acknowledge that this is a binary paradigm, but for the sake of argument, let’s go with the most socially accepted definition of sex], I can assess to the variety and fluidity with which each of us identifies and performs his or her gender. My manhood is in no way one that I would consider “normal” insofar as I’m a pretty feminine person that was often—and still is—teased for it. Still, I have decided that my femininity is not conflicting with my identity as a man. Now, in the case of trans folks, there is a conflict between the gender that was assigned to them at birth and the way that they feel. For some, their body doesn’t allow them to perform gender in a way that they’re comfortable with, but that’s not necessarily the case for all trans people. What that means is that, as much as we like to focus on the physical transition of trans people, gender identity is really a matter of personal feeling and has little to do with our body. Of course, we often need visual cues to comprehend complex concepts and no one is to blame for being confused about a person’s gender expression when it’s non-conforming to what we each understand it to be. But ultimately, the oppression on transgender people comes from a very specific place of short-sightedness about gender identity and self-expression that simply doesn’t have an equivalent when it comes to race. [Side note: That multiracial people can be discriminated against for not conforming to our accepted view of race is a result of racism at large whereas transphobia is related to but is not the same thing as general sexism.]
Contrary to my sex, my skin color is something that I have in common with all my siblings because it was transmitted to us genetically by our parents. However, where gender and race do share some space is that my race is the social construct that encompasses the identity that comes with that physical trait of mine. But it works in much more complicated ways than gender. Ultimately, when gender is mostly a personal experience, race is mostly a collective one. Racial identity is built around cultural and historical legacies that gender simply doesn’t need. The definition of national identity constantly creates debates on race and vice versa, while there have never been, to my knowledge, national discussions on whether people who express their gender in a certain way should our shouldn’t see their citizenship revoked [Side note: to give you a very concrete example, something terrible is happening in the Dominican Republic]. That alone shows us we that, at the end of the day, we do not experience race and gender in the same way.
Even on a developmental level, children integrate the notion of gender much earlier than that of race. While gender is mostly understood by children in a self-directed way (“I am a boy”), race is generally addressed when it comes to others (“Why does this lady have dark skin?”) Also, they tend to formulate gender in terms of behavior, while they do race in terms of skin color. How many times have I heard my little sister say “This boy’s skin is brown, so why do you say he is black? And my skin is pink so why do you say I’m white?” Most of the comprehension of one’s race (as opposed to the color of their skin) ultimately comes from a sense of belonging to a group—and, in a lot of cases, of NOT belonging to a group.
Of course, the fact that women have suffered oppression has created a rich historical legacy of feminism, just as there is a queer culture that the LGBT community can access. But while women and queer people can be born to any type of family, there is a genealogical history of racism behind every person of color. To make a simplistic analogy, we experience gender in the same way as we experience our first name: it was given to us at birth and we make of that what we please. Similarly, we experience race in the way that we experience our last name: we share it with our family and it carries a history behind it. Changing your first name can change who you are, but you don’t stop carrying family baggage by just changing your last name.
So what does it mean about Rachel Dolezal? It means that there is no such thing as “transracial”, unless you were adopted as a child by parents of a different race from you. You can’t appropriate a history by putting on makeup and saying “I’m black” because—as American Indians have been saying for a while now—culture is not a costume.
Caitlyn Jenner was no less a woman when she was interviewed by Diane Sawyer and still referred to with he/him/his pronouns. She didn’t go out of her way to make people believe she had been the victim of a hate crime. She didn’t pretend she didn’t understand what gender was or that she knew what it felt like to be a cisgender woman to advance her career. The fact that she is making money out of her transition—which, again, she never pretended she wasn’t—isn’t thanks to her status as a trans woman. Being trans does not bring you any perks on a social, economical and/or political scale. Regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, the only benefit you gain from coming out as trans—and, for some, transitioning—is being at peace with and true to yourself. The only reason Caitlyn Jenner can make a buck with her transition is that she has the privilege of being rich, white and famous, so people care. But it doesn’t follow centuries of trans people cashing in on being transgender.
On the flipside, Rachel Dolezal benefitted greatly from living her life as a black woman. She managed to get to the head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, and even taught as an African American Studies professor. To be quite honest, that’s what truly rubbed me the wrong way. Dolezal knew about the historical and cultural implications of being black and she made a deliberate choice to reduce that experience to self-tanner and a wig. She accessed a position of power within the African American community that an actual black person didn’t get instead of her, fully aware that white people appropriating black culture has been particularly harmful to black populations for eons. She put people, and more specifically women, of color in a position where they looked up to her as a leader of their community, as someone who understood their struggle and that of their family. She went so far as to have an old black man pose as her father. Whether she did all of it in a Machiavellian way or because she is truly convinced that she is black doesn’t matter here, she had to invent a history for herself that transgender people simply do not. Even if and when transgender people are not openly trans, they can get away with lying about their body transition, but they don’t have to create an entire narrative about their cultural upbringing.
What’s interesting here is that Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are both women who made a conscious choice to go from a position of privilege to an oppressed group. TERFs (a fancy acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminists) often justify their rejection of trans women by saying that they have reaped the benefits of male privilege for years and do not share the experience of a lifetime of misogyny. Trans activists often retort that it’s neither here nor there since transmisogyny is very real and as soon as trans women are seen as women by the rest of society, they experience just as much—and really even more—prejudice as cisgender women. The very opposite happened with Rachel Dolezal. She benefited from white privilege for most of her life and retained enough of her Whiteness to look like the palatable version of what white supremacists would want black people to look like, and that meant light-skinned with blue eyes. Trans women have to relinquish any trace of masculinity if they want to be accepted by cis people. People of color have to act and look as white as possible to be accepted by white people. So really, saying that having to conform to unattainable standards of femininity and beauty for trans women to survive is the same as basically cosplaying Noémie Lenoir to teach a class is just insulting.
Because, at the end of the day, no one will convince me that comparing transgender women and Rachel Dolezal isn’t a blatant sign of transphobia, if not racism. Judging by the rhetoric used by her apologists, it seems to me that her story was more of an excuse to belittle trans people than a genuine way to embrace diversity.