Unless you are living on another planet (or perhaps studying for the California Bar Exam), you’ve likely heard the story of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP officer and college professor from Eastern Washington who, for the last decade, has apparently pretended to be an African-American woman when she is, in fact, white.
Dolezal has not only represented herself as a woman of color, but she’s based her professional career on this fact as well, even being paid to speak on the topic of race and her experience as a minority woman.
I am not even going to speculate here as to why she did what she did– I’m not a psychologist, which is what I truly think she needs. I guess I can understand why someone who was seeking attention somehow might think that pretending to be a minority would instantly give her a soapbox to speak on, but even this is hard to swallow.
What Dolezal did was selfish. She exercised her white privilege to decide to be a woman of color, and then took jobs at an institution of higher learning and the nation’s most well-known advocacy groups dedicated to advancing the rights of African-Americans. You know, jobs that probably otherwise would have gone to actual people of color.
In the aftermath of the Dolezal reveal, some people have been comparing her to Caitlyn Jenner. After all, if Caitlyn can be born into a different body and decide to transition as a way of expressing her true identity, then can’t a white woman decide that her true identity is that of a person of color, and then change her outside to reflect that reality?
The answer to that question is no.
1. First, trans people are still a persecuted minority. Yes, African-Americans are too in many ways, but in many places in this country trans people have no legal protection at all. Some places are even still trying to create special laws just for trans people, like trying to tell us which bathrooms we can and can’t use. Trans people can be fired, evicted, and any number of other terrible things just because they’re trans, which is something that our laws forbid when it comes to race (at least on paper). Trans people also have a high incidence of suicide, because being trans is stressful and challenging and very much demonized in many places. No one would pretend to be trans if they were not trans.
2. Rachel Dolezal is not expressing her “true self,” the way transgender people are. Transgender people aren’t “pretending” anything– if nothing else, they’re attempting to be their most authentic selves. I’m not pretending to be a trans man, I AM a trans man. Drag performers “pretend” to be another gender.
3. Dolezal’s costume is one that she can take off or put back on as she pleases, whenever it gives her the greatest benefit. When you’re trans, you’re trans when it’s easy and when it’s hard and there is no way to switch this up.
4. The world needs people to be allies and sympathizes, not imitators and appropriators. Both racial and sexual minorities need folks who passionately identify with our struggle to sit right where they are and say “I don’t think this is okay and neither should you” to all the other non-minorities in the room. Pretending to be one of us destroys credibility and distracts from the conversations that need to happen instead.