Thursday, June 18, 2015

I'm Blacker than Rachel Dolezal: Race, Identity, and Transracial Bodies

I meant to publish this post on Sunday, but I couldn't even remotely wrap my head around the twists and turns in the Rachel Dolezal story to make a coherent blog post. With the extra time to think, this may come closer. As a white, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual woman - I know that I fall victim to the same privileges of Dolezal and many people commenting on this story. I hope that my voice comes across as an ally and curious academic instead of offensive.

Dolezal as a white and black woman. Retrieved from CNN.
Let's start with the facts (or as close as we can get). Dolezal's parents are Caucasian and her heritage is made up of German, Swedish, and Czech ancestry. She went to Howard University and then got a job in Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University and became a chapter leader in the NAACP in Spokane, Washington. This is a relatively uninteresting history, even for a white person. There are no rules about who is allowed to teach what type of courses and many white people have been prominent actors in the NAACP. White women have taught courses about black women and men have taught feminist theory classes. Academic knowledge about these subjects is not exclusive. Of course, there are benefits to having professors who can address these perspectives from a particular standpoint, but having allies address these topics is also beneficial.

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.
For those who were as confused as I was by this discovery of a potentially "transracial" person, I am going to walk through my thought process on the matter. I am aware this term traditionally refers to transracial adoption, where birth parents are of a different race than their children. The term was first brought to my attention, however, through the excellent work of friend and colleague, Alex Sastre. She discussed the transracial/transethnic Tumblr case of Prince Koyangi. For me, this term linguistically matches a similar, but different phenomenon in transgender people. I do not wish to make this comparison, at least in a fully equal sense, but I do want to explain the difficulties for people, and perhaps especially cisgender white people, to unpack the trans* identity.

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.
That's when it clicked - transgender people reflect a spectrum of identities. Trans*people identity as male-to-female, female-to-male, gender fluid, agender, and many other evolving labels. But, the idea of transracial-ness is distinctively a privilege of whites. Whites can "put on" and appropriate the culture of other races, and have for centuries. They are able to do this, as Richard Dyer notes, because they are the center, the normal, the non-race. If a black woman adopts a white hairstyle and bleaches her skin, she will never be anything but a black woman. But, if a white woman adopts a black hairstyle and a tan, she can be (and was) perceived as black. This lack of equality, of cross-racial mobility, solidified my opinion. Dolezal is not transracial, she is not a black woman, but a white woman who has appropriated black culture for personal reasons. There is no trans*ness about being transracial, because the privilege is reserved for those able to adopt the races of others - whites. I am still musing about this topic, but thinking through Dolezal's story has enlightened me about the different ways that white privilege functions in today's society.

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.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Graduate School and Mental Health

I am one day late posting my blog this week, and for good reason. I spent most of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday engaged in family activities (and traveling back home). There has been increased talk at USC about the state of graduate school life and mental health and how current students can improve their quality of life while undergoing an incredibly stressful program of work. During my years on the Graduate Student Government, I worked for 15+ hours as Community Service Director, took three courses which was 9+ hours of in-class time plus reading and homework, worked as a Teaching and Research Assistant for faculty for 20+ hours a week, all while expecting to be doing personal projects, attending conferences, and publishing papers. Now that classes are over, I've passed my qualifying exam, and I am no longer a member of GSG, my time is mostly dominated by working on the dissertation. This is a no less stressful but more flexible academic assignment. I list these responsibilities not to brag about my own accomplishments. Instead, it helps me to reflect on the immense pressure I experience, when I am a graduate student who is not also supporting a family on $30,000 a year, dealing with health issues, or serving as a member of a prolific research team.

Retrieved from this site.
No matter our responsibilities, there is a great amount of pressure of students to succeed in public and suffer in private. It is very uncommon for people to discuss their workloads and admit failure or shortcomings. Instead, they turn into perverse competitions where we compare our workloads to others (I'm guilty of participating in this). When all we are told is "publish or perish," it is difficult to not have some sadness behind congratulatory statements or to take rejections from conferences lightly. To admit failure is to lose the game of PhD life and to express that openly is frowned upon. Research indicates that 60% of graduate students feel hopeless and depressed nearly all the time and 1 in 10 have contemplated suicide. But, there are few, well known resources for these feelings.

Retrieved from this site.
I took up this blog post in response to amazing statements made by my colleagues, Ritesh Mehta and Cynthia Wang, who reflected upon their time at USC. Ritesh made a profound and poignant statement at his dissertation defense about how students should not have to suffer in silence and be afraid to reach out to one another. Although the program is 100+ students in size, it can be quite lonely work staring at a computer screen all day. Cynthia posted similar sentiments on Facebook about sharing failures and talked about being rejected from a journal. I am proud of both of their statements and wanted to make one myself: I recently was rejected from a journal. Although the comments were quite positive, there was a sinking feeling that there was something else back on my plate that was simply unbearable. There was no room to fit it back into the growing list of tasks, assignments, and responsibilities.

Retrieved from PhDComics
I don't think that any of our problems are the result of USC. I would encourage any potential graduate students to consider this amazing and supportive program. I think the problems are deeper, within the PhD experience, and the academic community at large that engages in competitive mentalities and focuses on output instead of the process. Similar to ongoing debates about the requirements placed on medical residents, I think more conversation should begin about the mental well-being of graduate students. Reducing the stigma of sharing is something that I hope will get better as more students create a culture of support rather than judgment. This is something that will ebb and flow with time and does nothing to address institutional expectations. Indeed, when we think about the contributions that we will have as graduate students, it pales in comparison to what we will do as faculty members. Perhaps we need to treat graduate school more as training for academia than a full blown toss into the deep end of academic publishing and stress. This article provides some other potential solutions including increased acknowledgement, specialized training, and more resources.

Retrieved from PhDComics
I took this weekend off, postponed my blog post, and had a friend cover the class that I'm teaching over the summer. I felt guilty for a while for this decision I made, but I think that more of us should be okay with taking more breaks, more mental days off, and enjoying ourselves with family and friends. The computer (and that R&R) will still be there tomorrow.