Saturday, June 13, 2015

What Can't Be Said About Dolezal

Yeah, It Was Kinda Like That . . . 
In case you missed it, a couple of days ago a woman named Rachel Dolezal was "outted" as white. She was the head of the Spokane Washington NAACP and was living life as a black woman. Her parents--in what may have been a spite-motivated reveal--told the press that she was raised as white (although she had adopted black brothers) and that her backstory--including who she identified as her parents--was completely fabricated.

This has produced (as the current political laws of physics dictate) a polarized reaction on the right and the left. Specifically:
This is, of course, a highly contentious moment. Jenner just did a cover of Vanity Fair and there has been talk of relaxing the military's restrictions on transgender persons serving. Several states have passed "bathroom laws" trying to dictate who can use what bathroom. These are only some of the politics involved in this blow-up.

Who Decides Who You Are?
The practical answer is: society. It was society in general that decided that Barack Obama was black--despite having a white mother (his comment that he's had trouble getting a cab in New York is telling). Today society is tilting swiftly towards acceptance of gender transition. This is in part because of a few high profile charismatic personalities, in part because the anti-bullying climate has given us a bright-line perception of who the bad-guys are (bullies), and in part because of the rapid cultural acceptance of gays.

Not only is 'T' in the GLBT spectrum--but being the "wrong gender" is seen as an innate condition by more and more people--the same way (and with the same results) that being gay is seen as innate. This shift in perceptions takes the GLBT-T out of a "lifestyle choice" and into a medical-style issue that should be acknowledged, respected, and, if the person in question wants, treated.

It's still society that decides, however, when talking about generalities and the real world.

The NAACP has issued a statement on Dolezal saying, effectively, "we don't care." Apparently she did good work for them. A lot of other people, however, do care:
So this isn’t about being an ally, or making the family of your choosing, or even how one feels on the inside. It’s about, apparently, flat out deception. It’s about how one person chose to obtain a college education and jobs and credibility in her community. It about allegedly pretending to speak from a racial experience you simply don’t have. You want to live your truth, that’s not how you go about it. And it’s an insult to anyone honestly trying to do just that to suggest anything otherwise, for even a moment.
A writer for the Washington Post gets it down to a finer point:
Dolezal’s brother Ezra was right when he told The Post, “Back in the early 1900s, what she did would be considered highly racist.” Blackface remains highly racist, no matter how down with the cause a white person is. But Dolezal’s mother nails it when she told the Spokesman-Review newspaper, “Her effectiveness in the causes of the African-American community would have been so much more viable, and she would have been more effective if she had just been honest with everybody.” 
Instead Dolezal is a laughingstock and has made a mockery of the work she said she cared about.
SlantPoint directs the conversation to the point that comparing Dolezal to Jenner is detrimental to both trans and racial progress:
What Dolezal did is culturally appropriative, and suggesting otherwise disrupts actual discussions about transgender identity and issues. (It’s also worth noting that a white woman’s decade-long deception has effectively hijacked the conversation about race, during a week where the nation was focusing on police brutality in McKinney, Texas.) 
As Darnell L. Moore of Mic eloquently put it, “In attempting to pass as black, Dolezal falsely represented her identity. Trans people don’t lie about their gender identities — they express their gender according to categories that reflect who they are.”
An internet poster (Rafi Dangelo, apparently) has a lengthy post on Transgender vs. Transracial (it is being recommended by some of the black people I follow on Twitter):
Like race, gender expression is highly variable. Society says Men Look/Behave This Way and Women Are The Opposite, though a lot of us blur those lines and perform gender in a way that fits us personally. The difference between perception of race and perception of gender is, Random White Man can perform his gender as 25% female and still identify as male. He cannot be 25% Black and still identify as white. (You can’t be 25% female, I’m just drawing a comparison.) For example, my physical self-expression naturally tends toward blurring gender lines. I have long hair and I’ll throw on a dress if the mood suits me. Those behaviors are typically associated with women, but I am still a man and I still perform my gender as a man because that is who I am inside and who I want to be perceived as by society.
Okay, that's a little random--but still--it ascribes to her a wish to no longer be shut up by persons of color in their spaces.

The Bullshit Factor
The Omnivore has a fine ear for bullshit--and the above quotes? Unfortunately they contain a good deal of bullshit. This is because there is something that they can't generally just come right out and say (although hey dance with it). Let's take a look at some specifics from the above articles first:
  1. She was not doing what is generally thought of as blackface. There does not seem to have been an element of performance to her work. She was not playing to an audience (save in the sense that we all are every day).
  2. She did not "culturally appropriate" black culture in the way that term is usually meant. Cultural appropriation usually applies to a person of a more dominant culture picking and choosing elements of a less dominant culture out of context (such as white women belly-dancing). There's no evidence she did that. She seems to have embraced the entire context--she would certainly have been a target for discrimination, for example, as she presented herself as black (although her specific complaints--they too may have been fabricated).
  3. She was not shifting in and out of black-culture. Yes, she could have stopped darkening her skin, straightened her hair, and so on--but to do so would have been potentially destructive to her life were she caught. There is zero indication that she ever dropped her identity. She did not, for example, whiten-out before going to shop at expensive stores (at least as far as we know). This appears to have been a full-commitment lifestyle change. She wasn't just blogging about being black or participating in Internet flame-wars under an assumed identity. This seems to be who she was.
  4. While we don't know what's going on with her in her head, there appears to be some element of mental abnormality and self-deception to this endeavor. If this is, indeed, the case--even if it does not rise to the level of a real serious delusion, is this not, in some way innate
  5. It certainly is possible for black people to pass as white. While some may have done it for survival it seems that some have done it to improve their station--while it's true that "white is the default" for our society, it is also true that "male" is the default for our culture in a similar if not identical fashion.
  6. It is described as a major difference between Dolezal and Jenner that Dolezal lied. She certainly did--and pretty seriously. What is less discussed is that given society and her circumstances, she had no alternative in terms of switching her racial identity. If she felt she had a legitimate claim to black culture (however false it may have been) she had no choice but to fabricate black biological origins.
The Truth: Why What Dolezal Did Is Bad For Racial And Transgender Progress
She Would Have Gotten Away With It Too, If Not For Those Meddling Kids!
What the authors go to great lengths not to say is that what Dolezal did is, in fact, operating on a lot of the same precepts as the transgender position. Yes, they are not identical--and yes, you can draw some very pointed distinctions--but at "10,000 feet"? It looks the same. At "5,000 feet" it still looks the same. A lot of the arguments against her being black have been used against male-to-female transitions. Here is a quote from the New York Times Op-Ed piece What Makes a Woman:

People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us. That’s something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman.

Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.
For me and many women, feminist and otherwise, one of the difficult parts of witnessing and wanting to rally behind the movement for transgender rights is the language that a growing number of trans individuals insist on, the notions of femininity that they’re articulating, and their disregard for the fact that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.
If this all feels very familiar--it's pretty much the argument that is being advanced in the anti-black pieces. She's not "biologically black" (the onset of periods). She hasn't "lived her whole life as black." She is forcing (in her case by deception) that society use certain terms--her preferred terms--with her against the grain of societal norms.

In the world of transgender arguments there are studies on brain chemistry and psychiatric outcomes and the like--but these points rest on the idea of transgender identities being recognized by the psychiatric community (which they thankfully are) vs. 'transracial' identities not being recognized by the psychiatric community (which they currently are not). If they were--in the future--for whatever reason--would these complaints dry up? If it could be shown that Dolezal really does have some kind of psychological sense of a black identity (which seems likely given her behavior and lifestyle) does that legitimize it?

If not, why exactly not?

There are few answers that we might have:
  1. Specific Brain Chemistry: Is there some specific and unambiguous element of transgender brain chemistry that is the bright-line demarcation point for legitimacy? If so, no one seems to be doing a very good job of making that point.
  2. Privilege Gradient: Is Dolezal's transition illegitimate because she is going from a more privileged position (white) to a less privileged one (black)? That is a general case in social justice dialog--but wouldn't that make transitioning from female to male less legitimate? The idea promoted above--that transition only really goes one way (white to black)--doesn't hold up to inspection. Firstly, it isn't clear that's a condition of legitimacy--and secondly, she did do it--and would have done it successfully if not turned in.
  3. The Lying: Everyone points to the lying--but there was a reason the term 'In the closet' was invented. There are a lot of people who find those who have switched gender to be "lying" just by leaving the house (that is one reason it is so dangerous to be a trans-gendered person). None of this seems to make the more accepted identities less legitimate--why hers?
No--the above arguments are telling for what they (almost) do not say. What the left-wing backlash is about here is touched on above--if very, very lightly: What Dolezal did was embarrassing. She is an embarrassment to the left.

Okay, Maybe Some Artificial Coloring . . .
The left is mad at Dolezal because she's making them look bad--and casting doubts on the legitimacy of transgender and racial politics by making a move that uses the same ideological mechanisms (passing, a significant life-style change, the adoption of social justice causes from the inside) in a way that society is not prepared to accept.

She did weaken the social justice fabric--but not because what she did is "just wrong." It's problematic because it's exactly the wrong kind of gray-zone for the times. That's what's not being said.


  1. I, too, smell bullshit in this backlash. Was there a corresponding level of outrage when John Howard Griffin published Black Like Me in 1961? If not - why not?

    Of course, one could argue that Griffin was a journalist performing a social experiment of sorts, and that what he learned had social and cultural value - but how important is that distinction from Ommie's hypothetical 10,000 feet? One thing's for sure: our psychologies appear to be set up to want to perceive certain human characteristics as immutable, and category-breakers can therefore cause a lot of discomfort and confusion. After all, gender and race - to name but two such categories - are both extremely important social/cultural signifiers affecting how we interact with others, and many people don't take kindly to learning that these things are more fluid than they are prepared to deal with (the story of Brandon Teena is an object lesson in how ugly this can get).

    -- Ω

    1. How many of the people talking about this were alive in 1961? That seems facile.

      -- veronica

  2. Put me in the "specific brain structure" camp, although I wonder why you call it "brain chemistry"? But indeed there are notable differences between brains on testosterone and brains on estrogen, and transgender people show significant improvements when they begin hormonal treatment, usually long before physical changes are evident. Likewise, cis people who change hormone levels, due to various causes, often report certain levels of distress. Thus gender dysphoria has an unmistakable medical component.

    There is other evidence, some of it quite odd actually. For example, you have evidence such as this:

    >>> How the brain constructs one's inner sense of gender iden-tity is poorly understood. On the other hand, the phenomenon of phantom sensations-- the feeling of still having a body-part after amputation--has been much studied. Around 60% of men experience a phantom penis post-penectomy. As transsexuals report a mismatch between their inner gender identity and that of their body, we won-dered what could be learnt from this regarding innate gender-specific body image. We surveyed male-to-female transsexuals regarding the incidence of phantoms post-gender reassignment surgery. Addition-ally, we asked female-to-male transsexuals if they had ever had the sensation of having a penis when there was not one physically there. In post-operative male-to-female transsexuals the incidence of phan-tom penises was significantly reduced at 30%. Remarkably, over 60% of female-to-male transsexuals also reported phantom penises. We explain the absence/presence of phantoms here by postulating a mis-match between the brain's hardwired gender-specific body image and the external somatic gender. Further studies along these lines may provide penetrating insights into the question of how nature and nur-ture interact to produce our brain-based body image.

    From here:

    We have no similar evidence for race.

    If race works precisely like gender, and if "racial dysphoria" is a real thing the way gender dysphoria is, then indeed we should support people such as Dolezal. But that does not seem to be the case.

    I wrote more on this here:

    -- veronica