My friends asked me for my thoughts on this article. So here goes.
My first critiques of this piece focus on the unsubstantiated factual claims:
“Jenner seems to have ushered in an era of greater tolerance about the constructed nature of identity.” This ignores the fact that over eight trans women of color have been murdered this year for being trans. It ignores the fact that there are laws pending to disallow trans people from using the restroom that aligns with their gender. So, to say that there is an acceptance of trans identity because a wealthy, white celebrity is on the cover of a magazine has very little factual support.
“Like it or not, we have entered into an era of elective race — a time when people expect that one has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice.” I assume she is referring to changes in how people identify on large-scaled surveys, like the Census. There is a lot of evidence that these changes are primarily due to changes in the Census itself, where more options allow for choosing more than one race, and Latinos being unsatisfied with the racial boxes they are asked to choose from. Race is in no way “elective,” and it’s a strange legal viewpoint given the political, social, cultural inheritance of race and the social conditions that produce race.
“The central issue that separates Jenner’s and Dolezal’s choices is deception.” I’m not sure what the factual support for this statement is. Jenner faced a large amount of backlash due to his deception, in that he knew for decades that he was trans and failed to inform his wives and his family. The central issue, cannot, therefore, be about deception.
And then my more substantive critiques:
“As much as critics try to characterize Dolezal’s behavior as a fraudulent choice, sociologists and psychologists know that decisions about racial and ethnic identity are typically not merely expressive, strategic, or apolitical, but are driven by social conditions.” I’m not sure why I, a sociologist, cannot believe that she is a fraud — she lied several times about her identity and her background, she asked family members not to “out” her, she sued an HBCU for discriminating against her because she was white, she dyed her skin and permed her hair to approximate a black woman — and also *know* that racial identity and designation are expressive, political and inherently social. I’m not sure why those are inconsistent beliefs.
“The decision to adopt a black female aesthetic for herself is a political act given that Americans in general assume black women are not aesthetically as desirable as white women. Yet, others reduce her aesthetic choices to mere cultural appropriation.” Hm. Iggy Azalea also appreciates a black aesthetic, as shown in her assumed vocal inflections in her music. Thus, it’s not clear what the author means by “mere” — is it that she concedes that RD’s choices are cultural appropriation but also more than that? Her cultural appropriation was also profitable for her, and she took it off when it did not suit her needs. I’m not sure what is political about that.
“Those quick to throw stones well know that there are costs to living life as a black person, and once Dolezal made the switch she seems never to have looked back.” Ah, but one also knows there is privilege to being able to go back and forth at one’s will. The fact that she never looked back does not mean that she *could not* look back…and what she could look back to was a privileged white ciswoman identity and social position. She did not live her entire life as a black woman, and thus she cannot even claim to know what it is like to live as a black woman because she only did it for a few years and never authentically.
“She forces us to consider whether our biology or our action is more important to identity, and should we act in ways that honor our chosen identity in meaningful ways.” When she says “biology,” it leads me to assume that the author is seeing race as skin color or hair texture, which are the two things RD changed to make herself “black.” But there is certainly an intellectual agreement that race is neither of those things. Thus, to reduce racial identity to “biology” is simply false. Now, it is possible that she means biology as a stand-in for “appearance,” but even that is a drastic reduction of race. Our identities, especially our racial identities, are social. What it means for race to be social is that it does not exist unless it is in relationship with other identities. Race can never mean biology because there is no biological basis for race. It only makes sense in its social meaning.
Likewise, race is also not (only) about actions. Race certainly has a performative aspect, but the author seems to be saying that one can base their racial identity on what they do for their “chosen” race. It assumes, really, that black people, to be black, must always be working for the betterment of black people. That is what I think she means by saying one can “honor” their chosen identity in “meaningful ways.” In other words, we can give RD as pass for her deceit because of “all she’s done for black people.”
But what really has she done for black people by being a privileged white woman putting on a black woman suit, vying for social positions that black women are shut out of, and even deigning to teach black people how to be black? What good has that done us for her to sue an HBCU as white when it suited her to do so?
Finally. “We should not have to be slaves to the biological definition of identity, and we should not use race or gender identities as weapons to punish one another.” This is the most puzzling part of this piece. I assume the author used “slave” as a rhetorical device, and then, again, posits that race is solely about biology. (See my thoughts about that above.) But to say we are using “race or gender identities as weapons”? How ironic she uses that term — weapon, indicative of violence — when black men and women are being killed as a result of their blackness, where trans folks are being killed because of their gender. The real violence is against people who have truly lived the “black experience” throughout their lives as racial meanings of inferiority and criminality have been ascribed into their beings for generations. To equate that violence with the critique of a white woman, donning blackface, and the fact that she may have had to resign her position as the next “great white hope” who is “admirably” pretending to be black? I don’t know what to say.