Let’s be blunt: The Rachel Dolezal situation confused almost everyone.Questions around privilege, deceit, trans-race, and victimization began popping up everywhere, and many queries still go unanswered. Though the conversations around Rachel’s “true” identity and motives are far from over, I have a few take-aways:
1. Trans identities go beyond gender. Duh, right? Some people are born feeling like they’re in the wrong bodies when it comes to gender. Some feel like they should be disabled, but have been born with full physical abilities. Some people simply identify more strongly with something that doesn’t align with their reality. In the words of Laverne Cox’s character from OITNB “Me and reality haven’t really gotten along.” And…So? In the words of my little sister, “Kids should be able to feel however they want to feel.”
2. The outcry against Rachel Dolezal is mostly due to her deceit. Maybe it’s still unrealized, but people seem to be more upset about the fact that Rachel lied about her heritage than the fact that she identifies as black. “Passing” as black is seen as manipulative.
3. In a more trans-comfy society, maybe such deceits wouldn’t happen. On the whole, we’re still not OK with people who claim to deal with oppressions because of their trans identities. Those of us that are born into a certain minority feel a sort of possession over the issues we face, and sometimes feel like those who identify with– but were not born into the marginalized group to which we belong– are stomping all over our sweat and tears and stealing our resources/culture.
It is this sense of ownership that might add to someone’s motive to lie about their roots. If we were more accepting of how people identify, and less focused on the burden of proof and possession of our own spaces, maybe things like being trans-racial wouldn’t show up as these big, bomb-shell surprises. Possession and ownership in the right doses can empower, but in the wrong doses–those that ask for legitimacy and proof–can exclude.
4. Oppression Olympics happen, especially in activism. Sometimes, layers of oppression can serve as currency in social justice circles, giving us clout–and many times, rightfully so. The more oppressions you deal with, the more people you can relate to, and the deeper the understanding you can bring to your work. The downside to this is that sometimes people start to compete for their “right to fight in the fight,” and lose sight of the collective goal.
Short from being in Dolezal’s head, we can’t really say whether or not Rachel purposely used her ability to pass as black to gain power within her field of work, or if she wanted to be black so badly that she didn’t dare admit to being born white–or both. Maybe in a few days they’ll be an explanation, but regardless, I think we need to at least talk about the ways in which oppression olympics contribute to issues like Rachel’s.
5. Rachel’s lies are not “the norm” for women. Articles have been showing up about the extent of Dolezal’s lies. This makes me heed a warning to the internet: Rachel’s story is not typical.
Some news stories are framing her situation as another case of a woman who lied and exaggerated (re: victimization) for personal gain, and I’ve seen many comments that enforce the distrust of women, based on Rachel’s deceit. What I’m saying is, our society has a general distrust of women, a default to see them as dishonest and cunning and batshit crazy. I caution against this–especially against using Rachel’s story as backing for this belief. Rachel lied, probably a lot, as she claimed to be black for (at least?) 6 yrs straight–but her lying does not prove or enforce anything about the truthiness of women generally. Be mindful of that trope when you’re guilty-pleasure reading more details on her case later.