A week that started with the nation talking about the police abuse of a young black girl ended with all our eyes on another self-proclaimed black woman: Rachel Dolezal. It was a story of a bizarre fraud—a woman apparently born to a white couple and raised in Idaho who later assumed a key leadership role in her Washington state NAACP branch as a woman of color.
A mix of shock, surprise, humor, and outrage swept through social media in response. There were memes connecting her humorously to pop culture images, thinkpieces on her cultural appropriation, and even a Twitter hashtag #AskRachel that asked pop quiz questions based on black pop culture, practices, and generalizations.
But, scraping the bottom of the barrel was the rising use of the terms “transracial” and “transethnic” to describe a woman with a handy use of bronzer and good wigs. If we could widely celebrate Bruce Jenner’s transition to “Caitlyn”, some people asked, why couldn’t Rachel transition to black?
This sounds like a reasonable question. Scholars who study race and gender typically argue that both are social constructions—fluid identities that don’t rely on specific physical characteristics. Put simply, the idea of social construction tells us that being born with a vagina doesn’t mean you like to bake and having light skin doesn’t mean you’re white.
Through our language and practices, we take physical characteristics and give them meanings that we perform and enforce in society.
Transgender identity is not about lying or deceiving people. Social construction is the reason we think leg hair is sexy or unsexy depending on whether you’re a man or a woman (or why we insist that GI Joe action figure is absolutely, positively not a doll). But when it comes to race, social construction can also be a useful concept, because it reminds us that race is largely defined in terms of power.
For as long as the United States has existed, a person’s perceived racial identity has shaped his or her employment, education, housing, health, and economic opportunities and outcomes.
Through the 19th century, enslaved people of African descent who appeared white (often due to the generational rape of enslaved women by white men) were still deemed black and treated as property under American law. Into the 20th century, eugenicists tried to use science to prove the biological inferiority of black people and superiority of whites. In truth, there was never any such thing as a “black gene” or “black blood”, no specific melanin levels, eye colors, brain size, or height that could pinpoint what we mean by “black”. But the idea that blacks were biologically and pathologically flawed continued undeterred.
To overcome discrimination in a society that used race to determined whether one could vote, buy a home, or be killed or raped with impunity, some black people attempted to pass for white. But this was a risky and tragic enterprise, a life of fear in being found out (possibly through the birth of a child that was a little “too” dark) and lifelong estrangement from friends, family, and home. Most of these folks claimed whiteness because of the power and privilege it offered, not because they believed themselves to be essentially white.
Rachel Dolezal’s seeming attempt at “reverse passing” comes with none of this historical baggage, duress, or danger. To put it simply, Rachel Dolezal was a con artist. She was raised with the advantages of being born white in America and can, at any time, return to that identity and privilege. Her lies about her heritage, history, family, and her reports of racial harassment aimed to intentionally and willfully deceive the people around her. In some photos, Dolezal appears to have even darkened her skin and donned wigs to mask her natural hair texture and color. This performance emphasizes hair and skin as definitive racial charateristics (which Dolezal, a woman who teaches black studies and freely quotes WEB DuBois, knows to be false).
Race is largely defined in terms of power. Dolezal occupied and dominated spaces ostensibly reserved for people who had life-long experiences of racial marginalization and disenfranchisement. And she needlessly fooled people who would have embraced her activism regardless of her racial identity (as numerous folks have pointed out, some of the NAACP’s founding members were white). Unlike those blacks who have attempted to “pass” in order to access the advantages of full citizenship in the United States, in this charade, Dolezal risked her reputation, not her life.
In some ways, it’s understandable that Dolezal might have wanted to distance herself from white identity. Whiteness in American society usurps and eroded ethnic, national, and cultural difference. In America, Irish, Jewish and Italian people became white over time, a process that subordinated their prior identities, loyalties, and cultural traditions. More than that, whiteness survived through brutal and bloody regulation and enforcement. And no doubt being born to parents who spent three years living in a teepee helped make cultural appropriation seem to Rachel a viable lifestyle choice.
But that doesn’t make her black. The term “transracial” comes from a larger context of transracial adoption, of people caring for children of different racial identities than their own. Inherent to the idea of transracial adoption is the question of how to build families across difference, not how to circumvent, ignore, or misrepresent it.
And transgender identity, too, is not about lying or deceiving people. Being a transgender person exposes the mutability of gender, it doesn’t exploit it. Being a transgender person is largely about escaping the social, physiological, and mental torture that comes with pretending to be the gender that society deems appropriate. Transgender identity is not about evading either subordination or privilege—as Janet Mock puts it, transitioning to a different gender helped her match her body to “the vision I had of myself”.
To conflate trans folks with Dolezal gives credence to the deepest, most malicious lie there is about transgender identity and queer sexuality—that they are deceitful. Being a transgender person is not about misleading the world about your past, in terms of your lineage, upbringing, history, and experiences. It is not about denying who you once were and any advantages you may have had, personally and filtered down through generations. Increasingly, it seems this is exactly what Rachel Dolezal has done through untruths about her life and her experience.