As a white person, I sat back and waited for my friends in the black community to speak out on the situation with Rachel Dolezal. I believe that as an ally to the black community, it is my job to take their lead when addressing situations that affect their community. That was, of course, until my own community, the transgender community, was unwillingly pulled into the conversation.
I have heard my friends say over and over again that the issue with Ms. Dolezal is her deception, and throughout the media I see people trying to justify what she did. Before delving into the issues I have for my own community, I would like to say that what she did, by lying and deceiving people, was wrong. Why must we always try to find a reason to blame for why people do bad things, instead of blaming the person for their actions? The media is not holding Ms. Dolezal responsible for her actions. Instead, they are trying to provide a reason for why she did what she did, so the blame can be placed there.
No one or nothing is to blame for the deception except for Ms. Dolezal. She knowingly passed off another man as his father, knowing her birth father was not black. She knowingly passed off her sibling as her own child, knowing he was her brother. In her knowing the truth, there was a level of premeditation to what she did. She planned these things, which means, at some level she knew they were not right. Even today, when confronted with her lies, she continues to refuse to take personal responsibility for what she did.
DNA tests are irrelevant to this issue, because she could very well have some black ancestry in her. That being said, Ms. Dolezal was not raised with the same oppression that those who grew up being perceived as black face, simply by existing. As someone with a disability, I see the world differently, because my experiences as a minority shape how I view the world, shape how I’m treated by others, and shape how I see and interact with others. That cannot be replicated by someone who has not experienced disability themselves. I believe, based on what my friends have said, this is true for those who are racial minorities. By saying that “transracial” is a thing, we are implying that the only defining feature of being black or any other minority is actually the color of skin, which while the primary factor, ignores everything beyond that that makes a person a part of a racial minority community. There is so much more to being black, Asian, Native American, etc. It ignores the rich culture of these communities, and other aspects that go beyond physicality. It ignores the systemic racism inherent in all aspects of our society.
This is why we frown at blackface. You cannot just slap on some makeup and say you understand what it is like to be black or brown or any other color of the rainbow. Though we still see Hollywood whitewashing the existence of racial minorities, we know it’s wrong. So, why are so many people defending a woman who has spent her career in blackface?
Doctors and scientists are finding that being transgender has biological causes. Hormones play a role in shaping the brain, and gender identity is a social construct that may be determined based upon what kind of hormones are introduced into the body, primarily in utero. When someone identifies as transgender they are exploring very honest, internal feelings. These are persistent and consistent feelings of identity.
When the media states that Ms. Dolezal may be experiencing race the way someone transgender experiences gender identity they are implying that being transgender is about lying to others and being deceitful. For many of us, our transgender identity is about truth. We are being truthful about how we feel and who we are. It is not about deception, and by coming out we are telling the world, or at least those around us, who we are. This is the exact opposite of what Ms. Dolezal did.
This also implies that transgender people are pretending. I have heard it said over and over that Caitlyn Jenner is pretending to be a woman. I’ve been told that I’m pretending to be a man. There is no pretend involved. Transgender people feel how they feel. They see themselves as male, female, somewhere in between, or some mix of both genders. I have always been male. I’m not pretending. I am who I am. Ms. Dolezal’s own brother has said that what she has done is the equivalent of blackface. She pretended to be something she was not, which is vastly different than what transgender people do when they choose to live truthful to their gender identity.
Transgender people are not culturally appropriating from a minority community. This is exactly what Ms. Dolezal has done by pretending to be black. It also undermines any real discussions we need to be having about race or gender identity, and implies that there is a choice in choosing to be transgender, of a different race, or even disabled (the idea that people can be “trans-racial” is much more comparable to the idea that people can be “transabled” – but don’t even get me started on that). These are not things that anyone chooses.
While race is a social construct, and oppression is something that is experienced, our racial makeup is largely hereditary. It is based on our genes. For all we know, Ms. Dolezal could have some African lineage. However, for people who have been raised black, the difference is that they have to live with who they are. Ms. Dolezal had the opportunity to go back at any time and retain her white privilege. That is a privilege black people don’t have. That is the real problem.
Instead of trying to find a reason to blame for what Ms. Dolezal has done, we need to put the blame and responsibility squarely on her shoulders. She chose to take on an identity that was not her own, and in return, she has moved the conversation away from important issues of racial divide plaguing our country, and has put the focus squarely on herself. The travesty is that we have stopped talking about the way black people are discriminated against, and put the focus on a white woman who could’ve done much more good as an ally to a community she claims she loves.