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.