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Rachel Dolezal: The Product of Progress, Social Constructs, and Gender Theory

Image by Ryan McGuire via Pixabay. Image by Ryan McGuire via Pixabay.

It was probably bound to happen. Men become women, gender becomes a liquid state, every part of who we are becomes reduced to social construct. So when a black woman turned out to be a white woman who thinks she’s a black woman, I’ll confess (in a darkly jaded kind of way that only whatever phase of post-modernity you call ‘today’ can produce) that, deep down, I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been. News is escapist fiction, now. I’ll look at Picasso and read Vonnegut if I want some reality.

What I find more unusual and gripping and ultimately tragic than the actual events of the much-dissected Dolezal debacle are the rhetorical backflips that most major media outlets are performing to distance themselves from the inevitable comparison between the roundly-condemned former NAACP leader and Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Of course, the comparison is an apt one. Dolezal has used the term ‘trans-racial’ and has insisted that race is, like gender, a social construct. Indeed, during an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, Dolezal (drawing again and again from the authority of “my truth”) claimed that she was inspired by Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, insisting further that Jenner’s story “resonated with some of [her] themes of isolation” even as writers from the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, The Week, Mic, Reason, and Salon sought to separate the two figures and their respective movements.

Take Zeba Blay’s recent comments in the Huffington Post:

Dolezal's delusion and commitment to living as a black woman is profound. And it's inherently wrong. The implications of a white woman, donning blackness and then using that blackness in order to navigate black spaces is offensive. Her passing flies in the face of the countless black women who have had to pass as white in the history of this country, not because of a preference for or fetishization of whiteness, but purely out of survival. And comparing her life to Caitlyn Jenner's is an insult to Jenner's personal struggle.

Never mind that in a world where reality is largely founded in social constructs we can somehow still label things “inherently wrong,” or that Blay can exalt Jenner’s “personal struggle” but can reduce Dolezal’s “truth” to a “fetishization.” What I want to focus on is the argument from injury: that is, Dolezal is wrong because she lied and hurt the black community. It’s the exact same issue raised by Guthrie when she asked if Dolezal wasn’t “using race to [her] benefit when it suits [her].”

Actually, it’s a point I’ll readily concede. Despite some of the strides Dolezal has made for the black community—and she has, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently noted, made impressive ground—her lying (and, yes, it probably is lying) does serve as a damaging setback for the black community. Further, Dolezal’s antics could very well be another example of perpetuated injustice: black people cannot, as many editorials have noted, elect to change their race when it suits them.

But, if we want to be consistent, neither can women change readily into men or vice versa. Jenner’s decision to become a woman hurts all of the women who fought hard for women’s rights. If you think this is a stretch, I’d encourage you to read some of the radical feminists who have been vocal against the trans-movement for this very reason. There’s even a term for it, TERF, or “Trans-Exclusive-Radical-Feminists.”

The TERFs, for their part, have taken no shortage of flak from the Trans-movement, which makes me wonder: What makes the anti-Dolezal crusade any different? Why is it acceptable to criticize “hate groups” like the TERFs but not the anti-trans-racialists? When we no longer believe it's imperative that one’s inner perception of self needs to match objective fact, Dolezal is as perfect a product as any of our supremely subjective society. Trying to maintain any fundamental difference between Dolezal and Jenner is trying too hard to have your progressive cake and eat it, too.

One more parting, partly-related, note: Yes, the ‘trans’ argument is caught in its own trap on a grand scale. But treating the story like conservative Christmas come early is not the response we need, either. Let’s remember that in both of these cases involve real, hurt people who need our compassion more than our criticism, who need medical attention more than media attention. Let’s use this as a chance to find common ground with those who feel uncomfortable with Dolezal’s actions, and let’s force some semantic precision, but let’s hold ourselves to an (objective) standard of charity in such discussions.

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