Rachel Dolezal is back in the news. You may remember her as the woman of Czech, Swedish, German, and Native American heritage who told everyone she was African-American. She was so successful with this that she ended becoming a leader of the Seattle, Washington chapter of the NAACP. She lost that position when her parents started pointing out that she was in fact, white. Ms. Dolezal recently gave an interview to Vanity Fair magazine that says in essence, damn the facts, I’m black. (I think Seth Meyers had the best response: “[T]he whitest thing you can do is give an interview to Vanity Fair.”). This interview, coming on the heels (no pun intended) of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY award has reignited a small skirmish in the ongoing Culture Wars. Truth be told, I’m not really sure why.
There was the old joke about Michael Jackson: Only in America could black boy grow up to be a white woman. But in a way, it is not really a joke, but proof of American exceptionalism. Jenner and Dolezal are living proof of that. WIth Dolezal, we have a white girl who grew up to a black woman. When her story first appeared, conservatives seemed more amused than anything else. The idea was batty: Deciding you’re another race? That’s crazy talk. Apparently, it’s not. Sometime ago, Jim Gergahty of National Review had a note in The Morning Jolt that between 2000 and 2010, 12 million people switched from classifying themselves as ‘Latino’ to ‘White’. Now granted, that type of switch isn’t as noticeable as switching from white to black or vice versa (or as dangerous as it once was. See Matt Johnson’s brilliant Graphic Novel Ingognegro that discusses African-Americans passing as White to expose discrimination), but it does suggest a certain fluidity in racial identity. After all, race is pretty much a social construct with no real biological basis. Indeed, for most of history it was simply a function of defining some group of people as “the other”. The term Barbarian was developed by Hellenistic society to identify as those who were not Greek. Race, as Americans understand it, is more a by-product of the form of slavery that took hold in the Americas in general and the British North American colonies in particular, than anything else. And in many ways, the United States is still stuck in a mindset designed to determine who was and was not subject to involuntary servitude.
But for some reasons, while conservatives were initially bemused by Dolezal and the discomfort she was causing her fellow travellers on the left, there has been a recent shift towards anger. I don’t really understand why so many seem upset. In fact, conservative should be cheering on Dolezal. They should be praising her decision to identify as black. Conservatives have long railed against government policies that pit one race against another. Isn’t Dolezal proof that we have truly entered a post-racial world? Isn’t that something to rejoice?
The Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner story gives us the white boy who grew up to be a white woman. Granted, going from male to female (or vice versa) is not the same as changing race. There are issues of biology involved. There are also issues of gender involved. And yes, they are two different things. Biology is sex and reproductive organs. Gender is grammatical choices. In Spanish, the sun is masculine (el sol) while the moon is feminine (la luna). In reality, both the sun and the moon are objects no means to reproduce biologically. The Genders assigned are merely means of describing them. Humans have both sex and gender.
Jenner has the biology of a male human. But Jenner is also an adult who wants to be called Caitlyn. Fine. Is this can be somewhat disorienting for other people? Sure. One issue is the aforementioned gender question: should Jenner be referred to as he or she? Jenner has indicated no problem with people still referring to him in the masculine, even though Siri insists we all use the feminine. (Between this and kittens on the internet, I’m thinking Skynet is going to be too distracted to wipe out the human race.)
Is it odd? I honestly don’t know. For example, a college friend of mine has come out and said he is a woman. I admit it is slightly jarring when I see pictures of him/her because while my friend is identifying as feminine, my brain still sees the masculine. Other then through social media, we haven’t had any contact for a long time. I suspect any meeting or conversation would be somewhat awkward as my mind would be trying to reconcile what my memory tells me and what my eyes are seeing. But that is my problem, not hers. If he wants to be a she, that is her choice.
That Bruce Jenner wants to be Caitlyn Jenner does not affect me anymore than Rachel Dolezal wanting to be black. If that is how they choose to project themselves in the world, I have no problem. Unless they try to use that projection to obtain benefits not otherwise available.
And this is really where conservatives are missing the point and an opportunity. Since this country allows people to be who they want to be, how can government justify programs designed to help one group over another if the policies are based on constructs of race and/or gender? If you were born a man, but believe you are woman, should you be entitled to government programs and set-aside for a woman run business? If you were born to a family of Czech, Swedish, German, and Native American heritage but believe you are black, should you be entitled to participate in Affirmative Action programs created to help African-Americans? What about the great dream of the far, far left? Slavery Reparations. Will the Rachel Dolezals be eligible to receive reparations? If not, why not? She says she is black. Who are you to judge her “blackness”? If yes, why wouldn’t everyone identify as black to get a piece of the action?
Some progressives seems to intuitively understand that the Dolezals and Jenners of the world constitute a serious challenge to their liberal policy view. In a world where anyone can be what they want, basing policies on race or gender must fail because they lack any real meaning. For liberals, it is even more disconcerting because to justify racial programs, they are forced to rely on the Slave Code definitions of what race is. A single drop of “black” blood and you are African American.
Conservatives should be joining with libertarians in welcoming this new era where everyone can be what they want to be and all the government programs designed to pit one group against another, a lá Hunger Games, are dismantled.
One of the great things about America is the ability to re-invent yourself. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a country where we were judged on our character, not skin pigmentation. Others have dreamed of a nation where gender is not a factor in success. Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are showing us the way forward to that world.