In all the talk over Rachel Dolezal, something important has been ignored. In case you haven’t heard, the president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP has allegedly been passing herself off as Black despite being white.
Everyone’s weighed in and one very worrying reaction that’s risen from both conservative and liberal quarters is the idea that someone can change their race the way Caitlyn Jenner changed her gender. The idea is termed “transracialism.” Many white writers and friends have surprised me by seriously posing the notion that “transracialism” is not only a thing that exists, but it is no different in its logic from transgender.
Some people want to act as if these things are purely logical: free from context, free from history, free from those little genocides we like to so often bypass in the history books. It’s just a brief logic puzzle, like algebra on a page. If A means B here, then A means B over there, right?
Yet racism and sexism are not free from context. It is the grossest hubris to play as if they are.
It pretends a millennia of completely different histories are immaterial to how these struggles have been separately shaped. It pretends as if the individual contexts that inform racism and sexism are exactly the same, and can be treated with the same logical response.
Yes, gender and race are both social constructs. I agree, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been constructed in the same way. What’s appropriate for one is not automatically appropriate for the other. Tearing down one in a particular way does not mean tearing down the other in the exact same way will work or have the same effect. They’ve been constructed differently across all of human history.
Saying they’re both social constructs and this makes them the same is like looking at a bridge and a skyscraper and saying they were both constructed. No kidding, but you’re not going to tip the Empire State Building across the Hudson and try to drive a car across it. What else makes them different?
The language of racism is one of cultural and religious theft, of appropriation of land, of resources, of continents, of people. It is the story not just of the death of those people, but of the death of gods, of knowledge, of eons of stories and lessons and songs. To keep an identity unique to your race is to stand up to those who are trying to end your identity.
The language of sexism is not based in those same appropriations. It is no less horrible a thing, but its history is different. It is the story of the refusal of aspects of identity. To buck expectations of gender is to stand up to those who are trying to end your identity.
One struggle fights the theft of identity, the other struggle fights the denial of identity. They have similar goals – survival of a way of life – but the contexts are opposite and their histories are tremendously different.
Dolezal spit in the face of dead gods, of dead people, of dead knowledge – from a culture that is the reason those things no longer exist.
Jenner spit in the face of the denial of identity, at a culture that tells her she is not allowed to exist.
Racism and sexism may occasionally yield similar effects: murder, rape, oppression. Yet to pretend as if both operate with the same simplified logic, to pretend as if they resemble each other exactly just because you noticed two news stories in two consecutive weeks, and you stripped each of context, and stripped each of the separate cultural grammars they have earned on their own…that is the height of privilege.
It simplifies the things beneath you. It conflates wholly different struggles into a single one that disarms the nuances each of those struggles has earned. It paints a broad brush over the details and context many would rather not learn and face.
There’s also the argument transgender is hereditary, just like race is, in which case the divide between Jenner and Dolezal becomes even wider.
Either way, these fights don’t speak the same language. They don’t speak the same words. They don’t have the same histories. Why would anyone pretend they do? Why conflate two struggles in a way that dismisses massive historical contexts just so Dolezal and Jenner can be compared side-to-side?
Privilege looks the same from the top. You experience the benefits of privilege no matter who it cost to get that benefit. Privilege has only one motive: to sustain itself. So the story of Mexicans, of Nigerians, of Chinese, of Lakota, of women, of transgender…they’re very much the same through that lens. They all add up to a single sum total. It’s easy math.
For the people on the other side of that privilege, the people for whom it costs something, there’s a different context if you’re Mexican than if you’re Nigerian than if you’re white transgender. Through that lens, each story and consequence is completely different. The math that got you there is its own unique story with its own unique considerations.
Privilege affords the lack of responsibility that allows it to conflate other people’s fights together into a single, easy description. Privilege doesn’t need to remember the details of each unique struggle because it hasn’t lost anything that would require remembrance.
Being underneath that privilege is very different because you’re the one who lost something, you’re the one whose responsibility it is to remember it, because what you forget dies and disappears forever and can never be reclaimed. Each fight carries with it a history of dead people and ideas and lost opportunities that create a unique burden and unique needs.
To conflate racism and sexism by saying “transracial” is the same as transgender makes the mistake of thinking that a single motive creates the same consequence in multiple victims. It says each of those victim’s ensuing struggles should then be told through the single lens of the victimizer, not through the individual stories of the victims themselves.
Conflating Dolezal and Jenner together is a symptom of this. Victims of racism and victims of sexism: from a position of privilege, it’s very easy to use the same language for both and act as if they arrive at this moment through the same context. They don’t.
If you’re wondering how it can seem such a simple comparison to you or people you know, yet upset the transgender and the Black communities so much, it’s because people are stripping historical contexts away and replacing them with a view constructed through the lens of privilege.
That privilege removes the stories of racism and sexism for which people have died, and replaces them with a new story developed in the last two weeks. That story belongs to neither the African-American nor the transgender community. That story belongs to the privilege that’s built itself on top of both.
Why do it? Why strip that context away and re-frame those struggles as generically as possible?
It’s a way of de-legitimizing the nuances and histories of each struggle. The easiest form of support – as Rachel Dolezal has shown us – is to take possession of a fight, to support from in front. It’s popular to support from in front. Who wants to be a follower? Just in last year’s Eric Garner protests, Black American’s became upset when white protesters assumed leadership roles that were never offered them and escalated otherwise peaceful protests into confrontations with police. When you feel injustice, you want to speak loudly, and it can be very difficult to be an ally or a supporter for someone else’s leadership instead of trying to be the loudest voice in the room.
That carries with it the temptation to take possession of every fight. Yet nobody is qualified to do that. You have to know the history of what you’re fighting for. You have to do the work to understand the nuance of every new battle. Being a leader in a social movement is hard work. Many voices are not qualified to speak about the Dolezal issue, yet they do so anyway, pushing to the side many voices who are.
This is exactly what Dolezal did. As the Boston Globe‘s Michael Jeffries wrote, “It is troubling that so many of us now know the name and story of Rachel Dolezal…rather than the names of countless black women who occupy the front lines in the war against racism.” He lists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who began the Black Lives Matter campaign. How many know their names compared to Dolezal’s?
So why conflate Dolezal with Jenner? On the conservative side, it de-legitimizes one or the other fight. You can have transgender and pretend racism doesn’t exist, or you can have racism and pretend transgender doesn’t exist. Pick your poison.
On the liberal side, if you strip all the context away, all the knowledge that informs the history of every fight, then you take away the prerequisite that asks you to know something about that fight in order to participate in it. Suddenly, you don’t have to know the history of a fight in order to lead it. If you re-frame it according to rules you just made up, you’re now the most qualified to lead. After all, they’re your rules.
This appropriates two separate struggles, strips them of the history and knowledge and nuance that make them unique, and repackages them for ease of access and simplicity.
These fights need allies, not leaders to redefine them. If you weren’t qualified two weeks ago to take the mantle of leadership and redefine histories of struggle, Rachel Dolezal did not suddenly make you qualified. Remember that if you’re going to make the “transracial” argument.
Dolezal and Jenner stand on two very different histories, two very different social constructs. To say they’re the same, to say you can switch race like gender – that pretends everything lost along the way in each fight doesn’t amount to more than two people you heard about in the news this month. Rachel Dolezal does not give you the right to strip away those unique histories of struggle any more than she gave herself the right to do so.
That is why you cannot conflate “transracial” and transgender. That is why they are not the same. If you claim they are, you ignore and destroy the unique history of each struggle just so you can make those struggles your own.
Do you think “transracialism” exists? Are Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner fighting the same fight, or two very different ones?