Most people know what transgender means: identifying as a gender that is not the same as the sex you were born into. Being transracial is not the same. Transracial does not refer to people who identify as a race different to their own. It refers to adopted children who are a different race than their adoptive parents. Caitlyn Jenner is transgender. Rachel Dolezal is not transracial. She’s just misguided and ridiculous.
The media furore around former National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) chapter president Dolezal’s racial identity is still building and the ethics debate has never been so hotly contested. Dolezal is reported as having said, “I identify as black,” and has pretended to be black for the last eight years, now coming under fire for misleading her coworkers and employers, which she denies. On 17 June, Dolezal said that she strongly identified with Caitlyn Jenner’s story and some commentators on social media have supported this position, suggesting that the outcry against Dolezal’s actions are hypocritical given the warm of Jenner’s reception when she came out on the cover of Vanity Fair. And this is where it gets messy. It is damaging to the understanding of transgender people held by the largely Western patriarchal society in which these two stories emerged. To have transgender people’s experience made to seem similar to Dolezal’s undermines the work done by countless activists to educate society about the innate quality of gender.
Racial identity is not constructed like gender identity is, nor is it fluid in the same way that gender identity is. This is not to say that racial identity is fixed or can be clearly demarcated, that is obviously not the case, but as transgender black artist and activist Kat Blaque explains, it does not seem to work in the same way that gender identity does. Jenner and Dolezal’s stories are different, but also similar. They are both stories about identity, and self-conception and transformation. Dolezal has been vilified on social media and labelled a con-artist and a racist for using what some are calling blackface to gain political power. Others say that she has been an effective leader in the NAACP and that if she identifies as black then she should be allowed to be black (the misconception of what transracial means comes into play here).
Consider this narrative: A black woman who was actually a white woman all along but claims to identify as black and who used that identity to lead an African-American civil rights organisation. If you apply that same narrative structure to Caitlyn Jenner’s story, the outcome is distinctly transphobic. If we understand Dolezal as being deceitful about her racial identity, under the same narrative structure we would understand Caitlyn Jenner as being deceitful, which we are able to immediately logically conclude is not the case.
This is problematic given the position of white privilege inherent in growing up white in Montana as Dolezal did. She would have benefitted from the privileges that come with that racial identity. Similarly, Caitlyn Jenner would have benefitted from the privileges of growing up and living a large part of her life as a man. But, she would have suffered the mental anguish of identifying as a woman without being able to freely physically perform as her gender and this is where Dolezal’s story and position falls flat. Dolezal cannot claim to identify with Jenner when the experience of gender transformation is so clearly one of necessity and mental health for an individual. Performing a racial identity that is not your own is just cultural appropriation. To say that her experience is similar to Jenner’s, or any other transgender person’s is reductive and harmful to society’s conception of transgender people.
By Chelsea Haith
Chelsea Haith is a student journalist at Rhodes University and a member of Gender Action Project society.