Ever since the Rachel Dolezal story exploded onto the Internet, the Left and some on the libertarian Right have been intent on doing their condescending, conclusory, eye-rolling best to dismiss any notion that Dolezal’s story is in any way comparable to Bruce Jenner’s. “Caitlyn” is a woman, and Dolezal is a fraud, and that’s that. Or, as the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart put it — in much-quoted Twitterspeak: “FTLOG, Caitlyn Jenner is not “pretending” to be a woman. Move along . . . ”
FTLOG, Caitlyn Jenner is not "pretending" to be a woman. Move along… https://t.co/BbWGFCSFRL
— Jonathan Capehart (@CapehartJ) June 12, 2015
I’m going to agree with the Left, to a limited extent. No, Dolezal’s story isn’t comparable to Jenner’s. Dolezal’s is, in fact, more credible. Culturally and biologically, she’s blacker than Bruce Jenner is female.
Dolezal is, for now, doubling down on the identity she’s adopted for much of her life. She told television network KREM news: “I actually don’t like the term African-American. I prefer black, and I would say that if I was asked I would definitely say that yes I do consider myself to be black.” This statement is entirely consistent with long-held Leftist notions of race as entirely a social construct, a product of longstanding efforts to draw distinctions between fellow human beings. Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently stated the case in a May 2013 post on The Atlantic:
It is utterly impossible to look at the delineation of a “Southern race” and not see the Civil War, the creation of an “Irish race” and not think of Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing, the creation of a “Jewish race” and not see anti-Semitism. There is no fixed sense of “whiteness” or “blackness,” not even today. It is quite common for whites to point out that Barack Obama isn’t really “black” but “half-white.”
Andrew [Sullivan] writes that liberals should stop saying “truly stupid things like race has no biological element.” I agree. Race clearly has a biological element – because we have awarded it one. Race is no more dependent on skin color today than it was on “Frankishness” in Emerson’s day.
The logic of this argument helps drive the perception and proclamations that a person can have black skin without being truly “black.” In other words, if blackness (or whiteness or any other race) is more a matter of culture, shared experiences, and — above all — labeling, then it certainly stands to reason that those who reject the dominant black culture or who haven’t lived its experience don’t truly “belong.” But what of those who embrace the dominant culture and have so fully identified with it that they’ve shared its experience for more than a decade? Do they belong?
As for biology, who really knows Dolezal’s extended family tree? Given centuries of contact between continents, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s “purely” anything (whatever that means). We’re all different shades of common humanity — different in degree, not kind.
But what about Bruce Jenner? Biologically, the answer is easy. Even transgender activists would say that he was “assigned” a male sex at birth. He’s a man, and plastic surgery no more makes him a woman than amputating his feet and replacing them with webbed prosthetics would make him a duck. There is no chromosomal change here, just cosmetic alterations — alterations far less physically convincing than Dolezal’s dark tan and elaborate, “black” hairstyles.
The case, then, for transgender identity seems to rest on something that looks a lot like Dolezal’s argument for her own alleged blackness. It’s a matter of very deep feeling combined with clear cultural markers. Both Dolezal and Jenner mark themselves the way they want to be seen by embracing stereotypes. Ironically, however, Dolezal is the one who adopted the correct stereotypes — liberal, oppression-minded, and activist. She “passed” for a very long time. Jenner — and many other transgendered people — embrace a big-breasted, hyper-feminine model of living that often looks like a caricature of exactly the kind of women that feminists love to hate. Most transgendered people can’t “pass” for nine seconds. So why does the Left embrace the person who adopts the wrong stereotypes and reject their NAACP ally and longtime fellow-traveler?
#related#The difference here is ideology, specifically the ideological demands of the sexual revolution. So long as consenting adults are involved, the sexual revolutionary reasons backwards from transgressive sexual morality. The heart wants what it wants, and the rest is details (plus a healthy dose of angry activism directed at dissenters). The argument has long been that much human pain is the result of denying the heart its deepest desires, that the path of indulgence is the path of human flourishing. So if Bruce Jenner wants to be a woman, then he’s a woman.
The politics of race have evolved differently in the United States. For the Left, race is so much a matter of a precise, lived experience — combined with a specific cultural and ideological response — that there is no room for even the darkest-skinned of dissenters. Dolezal didn’t live the experience long enough, and she could drop her “blackness” anytime she wanted, so despite the apparent deep desires of her own heart, she’s not black. If you’re looking for logic in this distinction, you’ve come to the wrong movement. The categories are set — at least until the Left changes its mind.