Many in the mainstream took the bait, and the cases of Jenner and Dolezal were forever intertwined. In People, for example, a psychologist explained why “Rachel Dolezal’s Case Can’t be Compared to Caitlyn Jenner.”
“‘Most people who are transgender, [when they are] as early as 4 or 5, believe already that at some level that they are a child born with the wrong anatomy,'” Derald Wing Sue said. “I don’t see this” with Dolezal.
Jenner, should anyone need reminding, is the Olympian formerly known as Bruce Jenner, while Dolezal is the Spokane NAACP president who self-identifies as “black” facing claims from a white Montana couple that they are her parents. Dolezal’s story unfolded last week after she refused to answer a reporter’s question: “Are you an African American?”
It’s important to note that Jenner and Dolezal are indeed very different.
Dolezal, accused of misrepresenting important parts of her past, is under investigation by local authorities, and may have committed fraud; Jenner is not and did not. Jenner is transgender; though Dolezal may be “transracial,” this much less widely accepted term may have no meaning.
But these public figures — Jenner of the Wheaties cereal box, of course, vastly better known — were both revealed to be something very different than what we thought they were. And hours after the Dolezal story broke, many were using her and Jenner as cannon fodder in the culture wars.
“Just last week the President of the United States congratulated Bruce Jenner on his courageous decision to pretend to be a woman, and the entire left bursting into spasms of ecstasy over a collectively insane decision to ratify the notion that men can magically become women,” Ben Shapiro of Breitbart wrote in a post sarcastically titled “Everything you need to know about transracial hero Rachel Dolezal.” “Today, the entire left is struggling to explain how a white woman who identifies herself as black is not, in fact, black.”
Conservative radio host Wayne Dupree was more concise. “#RachelDolezal figured if Bruce Jenner could do it … what the hell,” he wrote.
The right’s argument about Dolezal answered a society that, more or less, had just welcomed Jenner’s transformation with a much-lauded Diane Sawyer interview and a Vanity Fair cover. There is an objective truth, the line goes. Jenner is a man; Dolezal is white. How can one be criticized while the other is praised?
“Try as I may, I can’t find any person of any notoriety defending Dolezal’s bravery or courage,” wrote Sean Davis at thefederalist.com. “Which of course brings us to Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. How, exactly is what Dolezal did any different than what Jenner is currently doing? Rachel Dolezal is not black, and Caitlyn Jenner is not a woman.”
He added: “And yet, the Left and the media would have us believe that Bruce Jenner can become a woman by … changing his name, his wardrobe, his makeup, and his hair. How can you logically square the belief that Jenner is a hero while Dolezal is a mental case? Well, you can’t.”
“Those who are sympathetic to Jenner will still have a practical problem if people do start claiming in earnest that they feel more comfortable pretending to be what they are not,” Charles C.W. Cooke wrote in the National Review, comparing Dolezal to Jenner. “Why? Well, because our present calls for acquiescence are not predicated principally on the integrity of objective truth but on the perceived need to propitiate the person who is making the claim. On the front line of these battles, science is frankly an afterthought.”
Adding worthy reporting to strong rhetoric, the National Review unearthed a little-discussed New York Times story from 2010 in which Dolezal told a reporter that the very Caucasian tea party movement made her nervous. The Times wrote:
Though raised in a conservative family, Ms. Dolezal, who is multiracial, said she could not imagine showing her face at a Tea Party event. To her, what stands out are the all-white crowds, the crude depictions of Mr. Obama as an African witch doctor and the signs labeling him a terrorist. “It would make me nervous to be there unless I went with a big group,” she said.
A con artist was donning the mantle of victimhood to criticize conservatives. The left, it seemed, had some explaining to do.
Many rose to the occasion.
“Her case suggests more than just a deep-seated problem, something more than just a highly narcissistic form of histrionic personal disorder, or an unhealthy need for obsession and approval,” Patrick Blanchfield, who describes himself as a student of psychoanalytic theory, wrote in the Daily Beast. He cited a February interview in which Dolezal alleged she was punished by her parents with a whip used to ward baboons away in South Africa — “pretty similar,” she told her interviewer, “to what was used as whips during slavery.”
Dolezal “gives us stories replete with images of grotesque violence: beatings and whippings,” Blanchfield wrote. “Like slavery. Like torture. These are highly choreographed, ritualized sadomasochistic scenes, and to psychotherapists, they’re nothing new.”
Then there was the point that faking race, as Dolezal may have done, is not the same as being transgender, as Jenner is. The weight of womanhood and the weight of dark skin are, after all, very different. Had Dolezal, Slate asked, “accepted the hardships of being black”?
“It feels like Dolezal is adopting the culture without carrying the burdens,” Jamelle Bouie wrote. “And with the fake father and the fake children, it seems like she’s deceiving people for the sake of an à la carte blackness, in which you take the best parts, and leave the pain aside.”
A writer in the Huffington Post agreed: Dolezal might not be enough of a victim, a piece headlined “Why Comparing Rachel Dozelal to Caitlyn Jenner is Detrimental to Both Trans and Racial Progress.”
“Transracial identity is a concept that allows white people to indulge in blackness as a commodity, without having to actually engage with every facet of what being black entails — discrimination, marginalization, oppression, and so on,” Zeba Blay wrote. “It plays into racial stereotypes, and perpetuates the false idea that it is possible to ‘feel’ a race” — as Jenner “felt” she was a woman.
“This isn’t about being an ally, or making the family of your choosing, or even how one feels on the inside,” Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote. “It’s about, apparently, flat out deception. … You want to live your truth, that’s not how you go about it. And it’s an insult to anyone honestly trying to do just that to suggest anything otherwise, for even a moment.”
“The issue here is honesty,” Wing Sue told People. “Deception is being used, and at some level she may believe some of the things she is saying but at another level I think she is very conscious of the statements and actions she is engaged in.”
This battle, of course, has no end in sight. But until that magical day when conservatives abandon hang-ups about fluid gender identities and liberals stop fretting about victimhood, parry will follow thrust in the culture wars.
Sarah Palin’s quip about Dolezal perhaps represented the quality of some of this discussion.
“I shouldn’t laugh … this hard,” the former Republican vice presidential candidate wrote.