Rachel Dolezal and the Identity Question

Image via telegraph.co.uk

One misleading takeaway from such a widely proclaimed principle, however, is that almost anyone can proclaim that his or her identity is in peril. There is a rising political movement claiming that white identity must be defended. As for a more extreme example, some people in online spaces assert that they must be recognized as werewolves or dragons.

It is not up to you to say that you are black if you are not, or for you to discard white identity just because you’d like to evade personal guilt over it.

There has been a lot of controversy and confusion in recent history about how transgender people should be regarded. Questions about the role of self-identification, as it applies to transgender or homosexual individuals, have been raised regarding Rachel Dolezal’s choice to self-identify as black, even though she is ethnically white.

Movements for marginalized groups to be recognized in society is nothing unprecedented. Lots of beliefs (including categories of biology) and ways of behaving that had been widely accepted surrounding black people were increasingly called abominable by a wider coalition of voices in the middle part of the 19th century and the work to change such beliefs and practices was emboldened. Such work still continues today and the debates about solutions, and just how widespread bigotry is and under what it lurks rage on.

The issue of who gets to determine answers to such complicated discussions is an issue of controversy itself. Advocates from the Left will tell you to listen to the voices of the marginalized because such frequently silenced voices can provide a better picture from first-hand experience.

One misleading takeaway from such a widely proclaimed principle, however, is that almost anyone can proclaim that his or her identity is in peril. There is a rising political movement claiming that white identity must be defended. As for a more extreme example, some people in online spaces assert that they must be recognized as werewolves or dragons. It is easy to say that no one thinks these two claims should be listened to seriously, but that does not stop people from raising the question of why some voices are accepted, while other voices are ignored and demeaned.

The answer to this question has to do with how we come to acknowledge problems as real. The prime model of this argument involves recognizing that attempts to “cure” homosexuality are misguided because, empirically, these attempts do not work. As much as one might wish to refrain or repress homosexual feelings, the person in question continues to suffer their unexpressed urges all the same, no matter how masked they are or how they are labeled by other members of their community. Gay is not straight, and this is a fact of these people’s existence.

One way of phrasing this claim about an undeniable objective fact is to speak in terms of the person’s biology: they can’t help being this way. Appealing to this sort of basis communicates the above points about having an undeniable and unchangeable disposition that a person will suffer from if not expressed and treated appropriately – and evidence can be marshaled to support such biological claims. Biological evidence is one way of coming to grips with acknowledging an identity as indisputable: it does not depend on the word of the person saying what they would prefer to be recognized as, because it is true no matter what they say or what others may claim.

Along the same lines, just as it would be inaccurate to call someone straight if they are not, and such a person might be dismayed that you refer to their identity incorrectly, the undeniability of a transgender person’s identity often takes the form of appealing to an objective and scientifically observed biological basis for their experience of dysphoria. Contrary to the claim that a transsexual woman is just a man who dresses up, some of these people tend to appeal to a unique brain chemistry or other underlying biological fact that demonstrates that they are not the gender they were assigned on a birth certificate.

It is in the unfamiliar waters of these identities (ones that challenge many commonplace conceptions about sex and gender) that detractors raise the specter of other imagined transgender identities. The most famous poster child for such skeptical detractors is Rachel Dolezal: the woman born to white parents in Montana who grew up to be a scandalous new story by claiming to be (and passing for several years, in a NAACP leadership role, as) black. What separates this widely unacceptable case of a purported “trans-racial” experience from the accepted real experience of transgender people?

According to the biological perspective, Rachel Dolezal is not black: it is not only clear by her appearance, but even more significantly, race cannot be a neurological category that someone can experience inherently, unlike gender. Therefore, Ms. Dolezal is making it up – she does not have a scientific case for the existence and identity she claims – unlike transgender identity. This argument puts a dead stop to the belief that transgender identity is constituted exclusively on the basis of reported self-identification. It is true that Ms. Dolezel self-identifies as black, but merely claiming something about yourself does not make it so, just as it is not the self-pronouncement of identity that makes someone transgender. Transgender identity is real, no less than homosexuality, and not based on what others claim they are. Carried out to its conclusion, it will someday be possible for a person to have their brain scanned and for a doctor to report that they are, in fact, not transgender even if they believed that they were, and vice versa.

Just as it is not up to you to say that you are black if you are not, or for you to discard white identity just because you’d like to evade personal guilt over it, this objective reductionist argument implies that no amount of self-identification can make someone transgender without an underlying  fact of the matter about it.

If this criterion for separating out real conditions that define people’s experience, from frivolous to unreal identities, seems to clash with what the gender and sexual liberation discourses are championing, worry not. What has been widely accepted as scientific truth, and what counts as an actual issue that society must acknowledge, have always been determined by the movements of mass politics. Identifying what suffering should be taken seriously and who must be acknowledged is the proper work of identity politics; it is a social experience of inter-communication that we all navigate and that we all, rightly or wrongly, participate in.

Cameron Peltz is a recent graduate of the University Chicago’s graduate program in public policy.

Leave a Reply