|Dolezal as a white and black woman. Retrieved from CNN.|
What, then, is the issue? The issue is that Dolezal, despite being a white woman, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white woman at that, identifies and presented herself as a black woman. Dolezal's birth race did not jibe with the identity that she wished to portray, so she performed the identity of an African American. Many people believe that race, gender, and sexuality are social constructs - they are performed behaviors and identities that communicate to others who and what we are. Dolezal decided to perform and go through life (at least for those ten years) as an African American.
|Prince Koyangi's first Tumblr post with profile picture. Retrieved from this site.|
One thing that I initially noted was a similarity in language between how news sites and people on Facebook were responding to Dolezal's actions. For me, terms like "impostor," "deceived," "pretended," "misleading," "lied," and others echoed claims that transgender people are somehow lying or deceiving people with impure motivations. One need only recall the disgusting words of Mike Huckabee in response to Caitlyn Jenner's announcement: "Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE." These accusations assume that people are deceitful in their gender identity for the purpose of advantage in some way.
People began to talk about Dolezal in this same manner - that posing as black would somehow benefit her in her job prospects and appointment in the NAACP. A poignant note here is, as others have pointed out, that Dolezal potentially took that appointment away from a woman of color. There are other reports that Dolezal faked hate crimes against her to garner sympathy. Certainly, these are negative, consequential, and deceitful actions. But does that mean that transracial people do not exist?
A friend and colleague, Kari Storla, emailed me the above video by a black, trans*female vlogger, Kat Blaque. I appreciated the link and spent a lot of time thinking about Blaque's arguments. For me, I couldn't get past the apparent hypocrisy - Blaque was telling her truth, but was denying the possibility that Dolezal was telling hers. Isn't it really a matter of personal identity that is not something that any of us can determine? How is it Blaque's or any of our responsibilities to tell Dolezal that she is in fact lying and we are the ones with truth? When Dolezal says, that she "identifies" as a black woman, why do we not take her at her word? Many trans*people discover their identities later in life and some may never transition in an aesthetically explicit way for many reasons such as safety, finances, or personal choice. Dolezal certainly identified as white when she sued Howard for racial discrimination, but perhaps she discovered her identity later in life?
Any way I sliced it, I couldn't see a tangible difference between transgender and transracial individuals, despite a gut instinct that they were different. There are many times when my personal opinion towards something (that Dolezal is crazy and this can't possibly be a thing) is offset by my intellectual musings. There must be a reason to my nagging doubts, right? A small epiphany occurred during a conversation with my partner. We discussed the idea of privilege and how men transition into women and Dolezal transitioned into a black woman. We discussed ideas of passing and that some people can transition into the other gender more easily than others, can "pass" as something they are not. We discussed how I am a Caucasian woman and would never be mistaken for something else, despite having African ancestry. We discussed how people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and even Stuart Hall, will never be anything but black men.
|Cartoon explanation of white privilege. Retrieved from this site.|
This post certainly ignores other complicated aspects of this story such as historical racism, biological determinants of race, and blackface. Those are all important points as well that I do not mean to undermine. They did not, however, play a role in clarifying for me why the Dolezal story is so disturbing and yet simultaneously worthy of philosophical discussion. This story will probably engage more people as more facts are learned and I hope that it culminates in more important conversations about race and its tangible effects on life and society. It also brings attention to the unending struggle between the mind and body and the danger of not conforming with society's expectations.