Sunday, 21 June 2015
It’s a Privilege to be Rachel Dolezal
The recent firestorm over Rachel Dolezal’s identification as black has been a hot topic for one reason only; when you wade through it all, the discussion ultimately serves racism, homophobia, sexism and transphobia.
Witness Margaret Wente’s recent carefully worded column in The Globe and Mail. When she weighs in on Rachel Dolezal it takes Wente awhile to get to her honest and quite vicious opinion: “Not everything is socially constructed, and feelings are sometimes different from reality, and we shouldn’t be afraid of being labelled bigots if we say so.”
In case you didn’t get that (because Margaret isn’t sure she wants you to) this is what Wente is saying: “Come on guys — cut the bullshit. What is all this crap about the ‘social construction’ of race and gender? Caitlin Jenner is a guy, and he always will be a guy because of his chromosome count and the fact that he was born with a penis — and no amount of friggin’ plastic surgery is going to change that. Rachel Dolezal is white because her skin is white. I’m not dumb. I can see it with my own eyes! And don’t call me racist, or transphobic for saying that. You’re just a left wing intellectual nerd and you are full of crap.”
This point of view is incredibly persuasive and unfortunately carries much weight with stupid people everywhere.
Trans theory has embraced the concept of ‘self-identification’ and this is precisely what Margaret Wente and other right wing commentators are so gleefully making fun of. On the contrary, I believe in self-identification. I believe that race, gender, and sexuality sometimes work culturally in different ways, but they all — like every other category which we use to define ourselves — are social constructs. (There is no biological justification for classification by race except for skin colour; and the fact is that that you can have white skin and black parents — and visa versa.) Gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity are all fictions that have everything to do with what we earnestly believe about ourselves, what we deeply feel, and how we are treated by others. This is all the more reason to encourage everyone to take special care to think about ‘who they are’ and ‘who they wish to be’ and to respect those choices, even if we don’t understand them or even agree with them.
But if you believe that race, gender and sexuality are social constructs, then you must simultaneously, and with the same vociferous voice, speak of the notion of privilege.
Though Caitlyn Jenner identifies as a woman and Rachel Dolezal identifies as black, each of them has enormous privilege. I don’t know many trans people who have the money and power that Caitlin Jenner has, and I don’t know many black women who have the choices Rachel Dolezal does.
Similarly, President Barack Obama is somewhat of an Oreo cookie. Yes, he is black, because that is how he identifies himself. But he also has a certain amount of privilege, being raised by his middle-class parents, one of whom was white, and both of whom were university graduates (his father was a Harvard graduate). And, similarly, trans people who are able to pass and get married — and who look like every other straight couple — have enormous privilege. They have every right to identify whatever gender they want, but they also have to recognize that with that right, for some, comes enormous privilege.
The conclusion is — quite disrespectfully — screw you Margaret Wente! And screw you all the bigots who don’t want to be called on their bigotry! Trying to figure out who is ‘really’ trans, ‘really’ black, or ‘really’ male or female, really ‘gay’ or ‘really’ straight is the way of the haters. It is racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic to challenge anyone’s right to self-identify. However, supporting people who self-identify will only work as long as we don’t forget about privilege.
I appreciate that you identify as black, Rachel Dolezal. But you cannot compare yourself with an ordinary black woman because of the overwhelming privilege you accrue from being brought up by middle-class white parents.
Is that really too terribly complicated to understand?