The Implications of Comparing Rachel Dolezal to being Transgender

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.

rachel dolezal Child Adult Comparison

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.

3 responses to “The Implications of Comparing Rachel Dolezal to being Transgender”

  1. Hi Dominick

    I realize this is an old topic but I only just stumbled on this article and this is an issue that I find somewhat troubling. I’ve read this article (and others like it) and I still have a hard time seeing a major difference in the principles behind transgender and “transracial”. Both are identifying a disconnect between a person’s perceived sense of self and the reality imposed by nature. Sure, this woman was deceitful, and that’s an easy thing to criticize, but let’s be honest here–the real criticism is that people find her behavior ridiculous and absurd. Nobody is buying that she really sees herself as an African American woman and assume that she is simply trying to capitalize on the situation. Because, you know, posing as an oppressed minority is a great way to get ahead in America, right? I completely agree with you that there is a lot more to being black in this country than skin color or even genetics might dictate. Similarly, I think it takes more to being a woman that what your outward body parts and attire might indicate. Does Caitlynn Jenner really have a right to claim womanhood when she has never faced sexual harassment, endured a period, felt ill at ease walking past a construction site, had a passing concern about being raped on a first date? Doesn’t a wealthy, white, male (the poster child of privilege) suddenly claiming to be a woman, undermine the suffering that naturally born women have faced for centuries? Or do we, as a society, simply appreciate her personal struggle, accept her at her word and move on? Why doesn’t Rachel Dolezal deserve the same courtesy on the matter of her racial identity? Yes she was deceitful. But are you saying that if someone grows up transgender, has a sex change at an early age, and lives convincingly in their new gender–they are obligated to divulge their original sex to all they meet? Doesn’t that undermine their ability to live as the gender they feel most comfortable? Why should they be forced to present society with an opportunity to ostracize them? Why should Rachel Dolezal? If people accepted her as black (including a lot of actual black people) then what difference does it make? Who was she hurting? By most accounts, it seems she was actually doing a lot of good for the black community. What is Caitlynn Jenner doing for women’s rights other than looking fabulous on the cover of Vanity Fair? Ultimately I would hope, that as someone who has no doubt suffered from a lack of sympathy, you would appreciate that Rachel Dolezal, for all her faults, may just be another person who doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.

    Best regards,

    • There is a biological component that determines someone’s transgender identity. Scientists and researchers have proven this about transexuality. Hormones help to shape our gender identity from the moment we are in utero and beyond. Further, as fetuses we all start with the basic same parts, and similar hormonal changes dictate whether we have and inward structure form for our genitals vs. an outward structure. That is not the same thing as skin color, which is in and of itself a combination of biological and genetic components, that these are not things that are affected by exterior forces like hormones, which is what greatly affects gender identity. You should accept Caitlyn Jenner because her gender identity didn’t just suddenly come on. She has been struggling for years with this. She just finally had enough, and this is something she could not help. There’s absolutely nothing to say this is the same for Rachel.

      We will have to see if Caitlyn Jenner does anything for women or trans rights. It is still too early to see where she will go with this. I should add that no one has a right to demand anyone be a spokesperson, although it seems she wants to help where she can. We will see if she follows through.

      A lot of black people accepted her as black, because she lied to them about it. I think a lot of it is deceit, but transracial identity already relates to adoption… and a lot people who identify this way, are very upset with Rachel.

  2. Thanks for the response, Dominick. I appreciate the information regarding the biological component of transgenderism. However, by citing medical studies I feel you are saying that, in the absence of scientific support, it is okay to criticize someone’s life choices. I accept Caitlynn Jenner as a woman because that is what she has asked me to do. Whether she came to this through genetics or eating too much shellfish makes no difference to me. As an advocate of a free society I respect her wishes to the extent that they are not harmful to me or society at large.

    This is the same guiding principle I apply to the Rachel Dolezal situation. Yes, a large portion of the black community is offended, but she has also received support from prominent black leaders including Al Sharpton, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and the NAACP, all of whom are quick to point out the positive things she has done as a black woman.

    This notion that someone has a “right” to identify with a certain race is a dangerous idea. I have a friend who is half black but has whiter skin than I do. Does he lose his right to identify as black because he has the ability to pass himself off as white and thus suffer no discrimination? Or what if a black child is adopted and raised by white parents and has no interest in what is accepted as black culture? Allowed to identify as black? I don’t think that the criticism of Rachel Dolezal has as much to do with her personal issues as it has to do with issues that exist in the black community. I doubt this would have been a big deal if she had chosen to identify as Korean. That said, I wonder if furthering the notion that race is a malleable concept would benefit race relations in the long run.

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