No one should be shocked that Caitlyn Jenner got pulled into the race-bending controversy involving Rachel Dolezal. Jenner was born Bruce and now identifies as female and is living as a transgender woman. Dolezal was born white and now identifies as African American and living as a black woman. At the heart of both stories is identity and how each chooses to present themselves to society. But where they diverge greatly is on authenticity.
“[D]on’t understand the controversy, or the damage,” tweeted @RigatoniRed in response to my “chil’, please” post on the Dolezal controversy. “[W]hy shouldn’t she be able to identify however she wants, much like transgenders?” That’s not an unreasonable query — if you don’t know any of the facts of the Dolezal story. And I’ll come back to those facts in a moment. But let’s deal with the whole transgender-transracial conversation first.
Gender is an expression of an inner self’s need to perform, present, and be perceived as male or female.
Like race, gender expression is highly variable. Society says Men Look/Behave This Way and Women Are The Opposite, though a lot of us blur those lines and perform gender in a way that fits us personally. The difference between perception of race and perception of gender is, Random White Man can perform his gender as 25% female and still identify as male. He cannot be 25% Black and still identify as white. (You can’t be 25% female, I’m just drawing a comparison.)…
One last strike against anyone claiming to be transracial: It only works one way. Only white people can claim to be another race on the inside and then “perform” that race because race operates with white as the default. Racial classifications are based on deviations FROM whiteness.
As I wrote last week, there is nothing wrong white people identifying strongly with African Americans and African American culture. I personally know three such people who are so down with the cause that I often have to remind myself that they are not indeed a person of color. Their cultural fluency and commitment to understanding impresses us and makes them “one of us,” as we affectionately say. Not pretending to be African American or denying being white makes my friends powerful civil rights allies. They are authentically themselves.
“Caitlyn was pretending to be a man while participating in the Olympics,” @ThirdCoastPA tweeted to me Sunday afternoon. “She’s a liar just like [D]olezal.” Yep. True. So true even Jenner agrees. “Bruce always had to tell a lie. He was always living that lie. Every day, he always had a secret, from morning to night,” Caitlyn said in a video that Vanity Fair released to publicize Caitlyn’s debut earlier this month. “Caitlyn doesn’t have any secrets. Soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out, I’m free.”
That last line, the one about Caitlyn not having any secrets is what separates her from Dolezal. “People who are transgender do not lie about their gender identity. Instead they acknowledge that the gender prescribed to them at birth does not match how they feel,” writer and gay rights advocate Danielle Moodie-Mills told me via e-mail. “Rachel Dolezal on the other hand is a white woman who lied about being black in order to elevate her professional standing as an Africana professor and activist.”
Dolezal is a professor in the Africana Studies program at Eastern Washington University. Monday afternoon she resigned her post as the president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP. All was going well for Dolezal until a television reporter stumped her last week when he asked, “Are you African American?,” and her parents outed her as not being black after a call from an Idaho investigative reporter from the Coeur d’Alene Press.
Despite a picture on her Facebook page of her posing with a black man she said was her father, Dolezal is not African American. The one-drop rule does not apply. Her real parents are very much white. Lawrence Dolezal, Rachel’s father, told The Post last week, “We are definitely her birth parents. We are both of Caucasian and European descent — Czech, German and a few other things.”
As a child, Doležal and her family hunted their food with bows and arrows.
From Montana, she, her mother, stepfather and three siblings moved to Colorado in 1992 for two years. From there, her family moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where her stepfather accepted a religious job opportunity.
“It’s a painful thing to talk about my childhood,” she paused as she looked down into her hands. “I kind of don’t talk about it much.”
Doležal has no contact today with her mother or stepfather due to a series of events that still haunt her thoughts today.
Doležal and her siblings were physically abused by her mother and stepfather. “They would punish us by skin complexion,” she said.
According to Doležal, the object her mother and stepfather used to punish them was called a baboon whip, used to ward baboons away in South Africa. These whips would leave scars behind, “they were pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery.”
Given Dolezal’s appearance — “a caramel skin complexion” — and her many ethnic hairstyles, it was easy to believe her when she identified as white, African American, Native American and two or more races on an application to be appointed to the Spokane Office of Police Ombudsman Commission last year. But now we know the truth. Dolezal never had a stepfather. She never lived in South Africa. She never hunted for food. The son she claims is really her brother. And in an interview on the Today Show on Monday, her real parents denied the abuse allegations.
This gets to the heart of the rage against Dolezal. Had she simply identified as African American and not denied her white parents and lineage or fabricated her story to seem more authentically black, there would have been no controversy. Rather than be down with the cause as a white woman, she put on a bizarre minstrel show that raised her profile as she tried to help the black community. At least, I think she was actually trying to help.
“[Dolezal] didn’t say, ‘This is my style or the culture that I truly identify with,” Moodie-Mills said. “Instead, she exhibited the worst form of cultural appropriation by assuming all of the benefits of being black, i.e. chairing the [local] NAACP … — all while experiencing none of the oppression.” As for those who say that Dolezal is no better than Jenner, Moodie-Mills’ response was appropriately blunt.
“Transgender people seek to live in their truth and have that honored,” she said. “Dolezal is nothing but a cultural carpetbagger living a lie.”
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj