Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and the Strange Dilemma. . .

Like Dr. Dawg, I am troubled by the entire incident of Rachel Dolezal. Obviously, something about the whole thing rubs us all the wrong way. But it is difficult to articulate exactly why. Dawg referred to it as "the most profound expression of white privilege" he has ever seen. That strikes me as a significant over statement, but I understand the reaction. There is something troubling about it for sure.

The comparison between Dolezal and Burce Jenner only took a day to emerge. The roots of the comparison is obvious. In both cases a person of relative privilege is identifying themselves with a group that is in a position of relative non-privilege. One would think that, given the nature of power relations, this is something that people would only do as, if you will pardon the expression, a last resort. It seems to be something people are driven to do because of some inherent necessity or need.

As Dawg points out, both race and gender are, in important ways, social constructs. This seems clear to me. However, if both of them are social constructs, why are we upset by Dolezal's actions but not by Jenner's? I think it is an important question, but by no means an obvious one.

At first, we might think that it is the deception aspect of Dolezal's act that troubles us. After all, Dolezal hid the fact that she was born a 'white' person, while Jenner obviously did not hide the fact that he was a man. But this really does nothing for us to distinguish the two acts conceptually. There are plenty of reasons why, for example a man might hide his gender while transitioning into a woman. Fear, shame, ostracism etc. By and large we would sympathize with a person in this position. So why don't we sympathize with Dolezal? Its easy to see how this kind of deception itself elicits sympathy, one assumes that the person in that position is hiding something for a reason other than personal gain.

Another issue that seems troubling is the idea of colonization. Somehow it is easier to see Dolezal's act as a kind of colonization of black culture by whites, particularly because she was working for a huge NGO whose primary focus is to work for the rights and 'African Americans.' However, if Bruce Jenner began to lobby for the National Organization of Women, it may raise some eyebrows but people on the left would probably have little problem with it. As a high-profile person with unique experience he may have something important to contribute to such an organization. Let me go as far as saying that if a man had hidden the fact that he was born as a man and worked for N.O.W., we would probably sympathize with him a great deal. It is, therefore, difficult (conceptually speaking) to articulate why a person identifying as black can't work for a black rights organization while a man identifying as a woman could work for a woman's rights group.

Is the physical issue the one that really troubles us? After all, some might say, a person of one gender can de facto transition to the other gender. But, obviously given Dolezal's acceptance into the black community, the same is true of race.

Someone might claim that Dolezal did, in fact, personally benefit from identifying as black and becoming active in the community. After all, she gained a position of respect and obviously enjoyed a status and social acceptance. But I don't see why that is particularly a problem in itself. A man who felt he was always a woman might never be able to 'get on' in the male community, but might get along well as a woman.

Dr. Dawg makes a lot of hay out of the fact that Dolezal once sued Howard University for discriminating against her as a white person. This, according to Dawg, 'tips her hand.' I am not sure I can follow Dawg on this. If a man, as a man, sued a woman's university for discrimination, most of on the left would be bothered by that, suspecting it was another act of a whining male in a position of privilege undermining the feminist cause. But if a transgender person did the same thing we would probably have degree of sympathy.

We have to face a very basic conceptual problem - if Jenner's act is not an act of misogyny, then exactly why is Dolezal's act an act of 'white privilege?' I am not saying that what Dolezal has done is not an act of white privilege. However, I still have not heard an articulation of exactly why Dolezal's act is different from Jenner's. People have said all sorts of things, said that Dolezal is acting from privilege and is guilty of colonizing. But have still not read or heard a solid, rational argument in this regard.

I obviously don't know Rachel Dolezal. She may have all sorts of motives for what she has done, from deep-seated insecurity and fear to an active political program or a huge social commentary. One the one hand I was automatically troubled by what she did. But attempting to look past my knee-jerk reaction, I began to wonder why I wasn't sympathetic to her the way I would be to someone identifying with a different gender. And here's the thing, I still feel uncomfortable with Dolezal's actions, but I am unable, even in my own mind, to articulate the problem besides a vague sense that it sounds like a kind of colonization. Dr. Dawg is correct when he says that it "further muddies the already turbulent waters of social relations." But that isn't an argument. I am not sure those waters don't need to be muddied.

When faced with such issues, I often go over them in my mind looking for a clear argument that will affirm or contradict my feelings. I am yet to find clarity here.

14 comments:

the salamander said...

.. You may be overthinking ..
Was it Mark Twain who once said, there's no accountin for some peoples behavior.. or words to that effect
My bottom line, is my trust in natural consequence, when I don't understand a person's behavior or actions.
Maybe she just felt like doing what she did, with very little thought or concern
Maybe Bruce went through agonies, deep soul searching.. or maybe he just needs more attention
Who knows? And does it really matter? Both seem to polarize opinion or outrage people
I recall wondering about Dr Renee Richards, way way back.. competing as a woman in sports.. unfair?
Personally & currently I find myself extremely curious about the Canadian phenomena of Paul Calandra
I wonder why people elected him, why he does what he does.. and wonder about the thinking process if any
of the PM who appointed him as his Parliamentary Secretary..
If ever there was a bumbling psychopath, Calandra is he.. but what kind of person advances such a loser?
Ah.. and why do I wonder or care? Because Paul Calandra affects me by channeling & enabling Stephen Harper
Ms Jenner and woman confused about her race are both famous around the world
meanwhile we have psychopaths, distorted ignorant evangels and dirtbag partisan political animals
absolutely thriving in our current government and its related political party.

If I could choose to completely understand one .. it would be Calandra

Scotian said...

I know what you mean, I am far from comfortable with forming any opinion on this yet, and this link only makes it that much more so. It appears there are some very serious family issues going on here which may well have shaped her and also gives much thought on why the parents did what they did too. This is getting uglier and uglier.

Here's the link, got it from DD's thread, it went up in the last hour or so from Polyorchnid Octopunch,

http://www.buzzfeed.com/davidmack/dolezal-alleged-abuse-scandal#.npJ9J18Mr

I'd be interested if tyhe contents of this impacts your views on this.

Marie Snyder said...

I think the difference between a transexual and what some are deeming "transracial" is that transexuals of either sex can alter their appearance to be more in line with their internal reality. But with race, a white person like Dolezal can alter her appearance, claim African heritage, and benefit from it, but a non-white person can't start insisting s/he's while and get the same sort of privileges. It's not close to an even playing field, so, for that reason, Dolezal is, in my eyes, taking advantage of her situation.

And in this instance of it, with Dolezal specifically, it just feels like she's been trying to escape who she is. It's not empirically verifiable, but that's the first sense I got from her. I can't back it up, but I wasn't at all surprised to hear about sexual abuse allegations coming out against her brother. To me, from the brief clips I've seen, she seems like a woman in hiding, a woman who wants to erase a big part of her life, rather than someone embracing her reality. It's just a gut reaction, but it adds to it, I believe. We get a feeling from people when they're for real or when there's something off about them. Jenner came out as a woman with honesty and integrity. Dolezal is squirrelling around trying to suggest we can't be sure of who her parents are without DNA testing.

And, bottom line, Dolezal gained from her actions in a way that took something from the very people she claims to be supporting.

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks for the comment Marie. I sympathize completely with your feeling that there is something not quite right here. But I still don't think you have really put your finger on it from a completely rational point of view. For one thing, I am not clear that she really benefited much from her move except in a purely social sense and, as I said in the post, that could be seen as a simple side-effect of what she did rather than an intentional effort pre se.

I also think you are probably right about the 'personal' issues that may have resulted in her move. However, I am extremely uncomfortable with making that an issue in the argument for the same reason that I would be uncomfortable using such an argument to 'explain' why someone is transgender. If someone publicly said that Bruce Jenner is transgendered because he was sexually abused, we would probably find it offensive.

I think it is a big issue that she is, as you say, squirrelling around, concerning her parents and her DNA etc.. But then are we uncomfortable with it only because she is an outlier? After all, if she is right and we are wrong and we try to take a long view (in other words try to look at the arguments as though we are 20 or 30 years in the future when, perhaps, people accept the idea of "identifying" as a race - it could happen and I am just theorizing what that could look like), then her 'squirrelling around' as you call it, could be seen as the difficult social process of a woman dealing with a socially 'unacceptable' process. That what scares me in a way - I am concerned that our reactions look suspiciously like, for example, anti-transgender arguments looked 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe not, but, as I said, I still haven't found clarity on this matter.

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks Salamander - very good points. I certainly could be overthinking.

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks Scotian - Good to hear from you. Yes, I really do feel uncomfortable with the whole thing and don't feel good about any snap judgement concerning this. I also, for the reason cited in my response to Marie, don't feel right making her personal tragedies part of the issue. Thanks for the link.

Val said...

I think part of the confusion lies in the fact that not all discrimination is the same.
The basic question at hand I think it's that if Bruce becoming Caitlyn Jenner isn't an act of misogyny, then why is Rachel Dolezal becoming black racist?
As a black woman, I can tell you there are marked differences between misogyny and racism, so what I'm offended by as a woman is going to be different than what I'm offended by as a black person
The physical appearance of women is not the crux of sexism. Sexist men have no problem with how women look. They are in fact quite happy with it. The oppression of sexism lies in the fact that men have false ideas that women exist as objects for their every whim and have no right to autonomy over their own lives. A man choosing to look like a woman trips none of the wires that trigger what it feels like in situations where women are treated badly by a male dominated society.
Racism however has a integral connection to appearance. The physical attributes of black people are the very root of racist society's hatred. There is a deep painful history of whites gathering together and using blackface to deride and dehumanize black people. There is also a history of white people appropriating black culture when there is something in it they find exciting or amusing, morphing it through their lens and profiting from it while black people remain in the shadows. So a white woman deciding she wants to make herself look black and take a prominent role in shaping the narrative of black lives is going to upset me as a black person.

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks for you thoughts Val.

In the end I have come to the conclusion that the real problem is Dolezal's involvement in the NAACP because that is when she began, as you say to "take a prominent role in shaping the narrative of black lives." If I think about it abstractly, if Dolezal had simply "identified" as black and then gone about her regular business, even if she made an effort to have a lot of black friends and do things that she perceived were part of what she thought was African American culture, then no one really would have taken any notice. Obviously she wouldn't have made headlines and even if she hid the fact that she is white from her friends, most people would just think she was odd and a little troubled. When I think about that it makes realize that the real problem arises from her taking a active role in shaping a black identity for others. And there is probably no equivalent in relation to the feminist question, though this continues to be the ambiguous part in my mind. If a transgender man identified as a woman and took an active part in a woman's organization, most people clearly wouldn't feel the same way and I am not exactly crystal clear on why. (And, let me make it clear I am not saying we should feel he same way) I think it has something to do with a perceived vulnerability of a man in that position who is transitioning into a female. I know you talked about the 'triggers' that it does or doesn't set off, but I guess what I am getting at is the details of that triggering process.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment.

Val said...

"And there is probably no equivalent in relation to the feminist question, though this continues to be the ambiguous part in my mind."
The fact that there is no equivalent I feel is exactly the point. Women don't have to feel suspicious of transgender women. Men's Rights Activist and other sexist agendas are not energized by Bruce becoming Caitlyn. They are not rubbing their sexist palms together when they see Laverne Cox and saying now we've got another way to keep those bitches down. Men do not oppress us by appropiating us. They have not in the past and are not doing so now.
But black people always have to be suspicious that white people are trying to infiltrate their community to either ridicule them, take something from them or both. It is a way that whites have used in the past to marginalize and silence us and they continue to do so now. Read some of the comments by racists who could not be more thrilled by this turn off events. They can't wait to dress like Dolezal for Halloween or gleefully take advantage of benefits put aside to level the playing field for people of color under the guise of being transracial.
I don't mean to harp on about this, but as you can imagine I am very sick of people using this false equivalency to justify bigotry. It reminds me of the argument people used to lob about homosexuality where they posited that if we accept that, what's to stop a person from saying they love a goat or a zebra? That's not a valid argument and you know it.
Thanks for giving a thoughtful response to my comments. It is very nice to have a conversation with someone who is at least willing to listen.

Kirby Evans said...

I am more "willing to listen" Val. I agree with you in substance, I am just trying to find the articulation of what is a political instinct. For me it is important to find a way of working through the ambiguities even if only for myself. I certainly had no desire, as you seem to suggest, to justify bigotry with a false equivalency. I thought I was fairly clear about that and if you have read my blog in the past you know my politics.

It seems that there is a tacit assumption that a man transitioning to a woman has a priori, or is the process of abandoning much of the sexist baggage (at least to the degree that one can in or era and with our upbringings) and is therefore not treated with "suspicion" to use your word. In other words, such a person is not posing a threat of appropriation or cannot be used to pose some kind of false argument about some claim to so-called "reverse sexism." Understandably, given the history, no such assumption can be made about Dolezal.

I remember many years ago when I was a student and the Take Back the Night marches were beginning to spread. There was one where I was going to college and I totally agreed that such events should take place exclusive of men. I understood by instinct why that should be, but as a young student I found it quite difficult to articulate it to other men my age who didn't share that instinct. Obviously even when you articulate such things well you won't change everyone's mind. But I find as I get older, the more effective one is in presenting a discursively coherent position, the more difficult it is for one's opposition to disregard you out of hand. I have, in so much of my life, opposed the vast majority of commonly held political and social positions but the more articulately one can make an argument about why one might oppose organized sports or religion or competition or capitalism, the more it creates at least that little seed of doubt in people's minds and the less able they are to write you off as just crazy. All that to say, this is why I was pursuing the question the way I was.

doconnor said...

"Men do not oppress us by appropiating us. They have not in the past and are not doing so now."

This may be because it is virtually impossible to pull off without major surgery and hormone replacement, then a lack of desire to do it. With race the lines between them are often blurry and easier to cross.

"But black people always have to be suspicious that white people are trying to infiltrate their community"

Being suspicious doesn't mean they are guilty.

"I don't mean to harp on about this, but as you can imagine I am very sick of people using this false equivalency to justify bigotry."

Just because some people can use something to falsely justify bigotry, doesn't make it wrong.

"It reminds me of the argument people used to lob about homosexuality where they posited that if we accept that, what's to stop a person from saying they love a goat or a zebra?"

They also said it would lead to acceptance of polygamy. I think polygamy should be accepted, as well. If it is truly consensual, then it should be allowed.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Kirby. I have been thinking about that same question. What is the substantive difference between "race" and "gender identity" that makes Dolezal's claims seemingly ludicrous, while Jenner's are acceptable.

I don't have the answer, but if you'll indulge me in thinking out loud...

Let's separate out the perfidious elements in Dolezal's action, those are reproachable regardless.

The answer then seems to be that "race" and "gender" are different things. The question is: in what ways?

Is it possible that sex, sexual orientation, and gender are much more fundamentally biological imperatives, than race is?

Certainly gender is socially constructed and bounded. But it seems that a human is compelled (biologically) to be a certain gender (regardless of the particularities of its social construct).

Race on the other hand - while certainly having some superficial biological aspects - is much more socially constructed. One is not driven by hormones or other biological purpose to *be* a race.

Gender, sex, sexual orientation have much more profound evolutionary/biological function than "race".

Here I think about the (narrow) perspective of a cisgender person who claims that it is impossible to have a different gender than sex. This I think speaks less to the power of social constructions than to the power of biology. So deeply is one's own gender felt that it seems impossible (for the cisgendered) to imagine a different state.

I don't think people 'feel' the same way about their 'race.' Race seems like less of a self-expression. It seems like something you 'receive' from others.

And so, you can't really be "transracial" in the Dolezalian sense of expressing an innate desire. You have to be granted race by the community(ies) around you.

(posting quickly without much editing...sorry)

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks Anonymous for the interesting comments. I think there is a lot in what you said and things I hadn't really thought about (at least not in that way). Yes, at the root of the issue is the difference between race and gender. Your last point rings true because while "identifying" as transracial," as you called it, seems absurd, there are many cases in which, particularly with indigenous cultures, people have been 'granted' a kind of racial status based upon what they have done. It is a concept that Hollywood has romanticized but it has a basis in real experience.

Marie Snyder said...

Just to further my point, the sense I was getting from her was from her all the deception. This video speaks to what I'm trying to say.