There’s been a lot of chatter about the recent interview with Rachel Dolezal by Ijeoma Oluo, published in The Stranger. Here’s a sample of some of the response that it has generated. Most people seem to regard it as having buried Dolezal, once and for all. I found it rather mysterious. To see why, imagine that someone did an interview with Caitlyn Jenner, in the same tone, making the exact same arguments. It would instantly have been denounced as transphobic, everywhere but in the furthest reaches of the alt-right. What I don’t understand – I have no axe to grind here, what I really don’t understand – is how people can view the two cases, of people opting to change race, and people opting to change gender, as so very different, or how they could regard the former as more dubious than the latter.
For instance, before even getting to the interview, Oluo spends two entire paragraphs mocking Dolezal for having changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. She then proceeds to ignore the name change, and calls her Dolezal throughout. Suppose a journalist were to treat Caitlyn Jenner in the same way – after all, changing one’s name from Bruce to Caitlyn (with a “y”) does leave one vulnerable to certain forms of mockery – and then insisted on referred to her as him, and calling him Bruce throughout. Microaggression! Or better yet, just ordinary aggression…
Okay, so let’s not be that way. From now on I’ll refer to her by the name that she chooses to be referred to by, as Diallo.
I’ve been thinking about this issue lately, because I’m teaching Germaine Greer in the fall (The Female Eunuch), and several colleagues that I’ve mentioned this to have responded by saying (roughly) “OMG she’s transphobic!” It’s largely because of the argument that Greer has made, that it is “unfair” for men like Bruce Jenner to grow up, enjoying all the benefits of the patriarchy, and then decide later in life to become women (or that they have been women “all along”). Being Germaine Greer, of course, she puts it in a somewhat pithier way: “If you’re a 50-year-old truck driver who’s had four children with a wife and you’ve decided the whole time you’ve been a woman, I think you’re probably wrong” (here, and for an even more blunt expression of her view, here).
Anyone who understands what she meant by the phrase “female eunuch” would, of course, be unsurprised that this is her view of that matter. She is simply being consistent. Her more straightforward argument, however, is that the Caitlyn Jenners of the world are acting out a form of male privilege, by choosing to become women, and then demanding that everyone honour that choice without question. (As far as I know, Greer only has a problem with men deciding to become women, I haven’t come across her complaining about women becoming men, “third gender,” etc.) In any case, what I found striking is that Greer’s view on the transgendered is basically identical to Oluo’s take on Diallo. Oluo thinks that a women like Diallo “deciding” to become black is just a manifestation of white privilege (and not at all the same thing as black women who “pass,” or identify as, white). Here I just don’t see any difference between Oluo’s view on race and Greer’s on gender.
Diallo has been a needle in the side of contemporary race theory, with its emphasis on the “social construction” of racial categories – a tendency that reaches its pinnacle with the insistence that racial minorities be referred to as “racialized” minorities, as though there were no physical substratum to the terms whatsoever. There is something similar going on with the use of the term “female-presenting” and “male-presenting.” Both expressions are, of course, pleonastic if one accepts the social constructionist thesis. (Just for fun, I have started referring to my wife as a “female-presenting, racialized minority,” just to savour the bemused expressions that it produces.) In any case, if it’s all just about how people perceive you, if there is no essence to the category (e.g. if gender is merely “performance”), then shouldn’t changing the way people perceive you change your category? Oluo has a not-very-persuasive argument against this (she says, roughly, “just because money is socially constructed, doesn’t mean I can choose to become a millionaire”). In another paragraph, however, she tips her hand a bit more:
By turning herself into a very, very, very, very light-skinned black woman, Dolezal opens herself up to be treated as black by white society only to the extent that they can visually identify her as such, and no amount of visual change would provide Dolezal with the inherited trauma and socioeconomic disadvantage of racial oppression in this country.
This is where things get a bit dicey. Lots of people want to make this argument, that because Diallo did not have the experience of growing up black in America, she cannot later choose to become black. Substitute “female” for “black” and the argument applies with equal and perhaps even greater force to Caitlyn Jenner. But set that aside for a moment, and consider the case of Oluo herself, who is a striking illustration of how varied the “black” experience in America is. There isn’t a great bio available, but as far as I can piece together, Oluo is mixed race (“technically” mixed race, she says), with a Nigerian father who disappeared when she was 2 years old, leaving her to be raised by her white single mother. So when she talks about “inherited trauma,” it’s not clear what she is referring to. Technically, she is no more African-American than Diallo is, in that she is not a descendant of the slaves brought to the Americas from Africa, nor did her family experience segregation, Jim Crow, and all of the other formative experiences of the African-American community. Nor did she experience the socioeconomic disadvantage of racial oppression when growing up, having been raised by her white mother in what she describes as a “lily-white” suburb. In other words, it seems to me that Oluo is someone who has chosen to identify, and to identify very strongly, with the struggles, aspirations, and identity of the African-American community. Which seems to me just fine.
I was struck, however, by the following conversation that she reports with her mother. As Oluo became older, her mother found it hard to see “that my blackness was so complete that I couldn’t take her with me”:
I was flabbergasted.
So yeah, reading this helped me to understand why the meeting with Diallo did not go so well. Oluo’s identity, it seems to me, is very clearly based upon a choice that she has made, but she is heavily invested in denying that it is a choice – and instead regards it as her “authentic” identity, so authentic that even her own mother cannot understand or share in it. Then someone like Diallo comes along, whose racial identity is also based upon a choice, but who has absolutely no plausible claim to authenticity. To accept someone like her as having the identity would, in effect, be to call the bluff on the authenticity claims made by herself and a great many others.
This is my best theory as to why Oluo reacted so negatively to Diallo. As for the transgendered, I suspect the lack of comparable resistance is due to the fact that gender is, for most people, an “ascribed” status, and pretty clear-cut at that, so they don’t feel any need to prove or think of themselves as “authentically” male or female. As a result, the fact that some people are transforming it into an “achieved” status, by changing gender, or gender presentation, does not really threaten many people’s identity in the same way, and so there is not the same resistance to it.
This is just a theory however. If anyone can recommend some good literature on the topic — focusing on the difference in the treatment of these two statuses — I’d be happy to read it. I’m teaching Greer’s work in a historical survey of 20th century social criticism, in talking about the sexual revolution and 2nd generation feminism. I hadn’t really wanted to tackle these contemporary debates, but with the reaction of my colleagues, I see now that I’ll need to have something to say about them. (Greer had to cancel some campus speeches in the U.K., because of students protesting her. That’s wrong on so many levels, but in any case, it leads me to think that the issue might come up.)