Rachel Dolezal Take-Aways


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.


How Do We Stop Silencing Each Other? (Manliness and Disability 2)

*I wrote this post, which unintentionally became about guys and disabilities again. It’s problematic that I, as a female, write about this topic . But it’s really tough to get any of my guy friends to write about this, and I think someone should talk about it, already. So here we are.*

There’s a rather trendy, semi-controversial article being tossed around the internet right now, called, “Ladies, Please Stop Doing This on Instagram,about women showing their bare backs on the website. The piece is written by some guy who is a writer and claims his authority on the matter because he has a teeenaged daughter. He smugly asks women to stop posting bare-backed photos to the image-based social media website, as their self-esteem should be on the inside, not in the ‘likes’ button underneath their “revealing” pictures. (Ooooh, so that’s where my self-esteem is. Thanks, Mister.)

Earlier tonight, my friend and I Skyped. He has a disability, and we talk about social issues a lot. Okay, always. He shared his screen with me, said, “This is an interesting article,” and coincidentally pulled up “Ladies, Please Stop.” He smirked, baiting me to react, just a little.

I laughed, “Oh. Yeah, I commented on this article.”

“Of course you did.”

He searched my username and came across my comment. I warned him, “You won’t like what I wrote, it’s pretty feminist.” My almost-automatic disclaimer for anything I’ve said online, since like 2011.

He read my comment aloud, implementing his opinion [bolded] as he went:

“ Kdub155 •

Let’s let women [and men] do what they want, and refrain from judgement, unless it’s hurting others. Women [and men] are already told enough about what they should and shouldn’t be doing, this is simply an unimportant add-on. Ladies [Aaaand men], go on doing what you like with your bodies, as they’re yours alone.”

As you can see, he was stuck on the fact that my comment only addressed women, and shoved “and men” where I had chosen to be gender-specific. Many a feminist might feel saddened (or angered) by my friend’s addition to the comment, arguing something like, “Most things are already about men. Need we include them in every single conversation we have about women’s bodies, too??” This, in my opinion, is a completely valid and justifiable argument. Women still experience oppression on varying levels, and as such, should be able to have women-centred discussions, “healing” spaces, and otherwise purposely-segregated areas. I see women-only places as serving a need, part of that being a providing a place of safety, of understanding, of community.

While I recognize the need for issues of this nature to have some exclusivity, I feel two-fold about the affect this may have. I wish it were possible to speak candidly about one situationally-specific struggle (gender), while acknowledging and including another (disability). My Skype friend, with his insistent blue eyes and assertions that, “Guys struggle too,” creates personal conflict for me. Masculinity can be devastatingly harmful, especially for those who don’t fit able-bodied norms. Just ask a guy how “manly” he feels after he needs help eating, or going to the bathroom, or some girl calls him “cayyute” (because he’s not a real human, right? He’s a teddy bear?)

Ways Men with Disabilities Incorporate Masculinity

Manliness grasps at ablebodiedness like a squirrel to a peanut, and for guys with disabilities, this can feel overwhelming to navigate (I assume). In fact, I bet guys in any circumstance can recall a time when masculine norms have bugged or oppressed, them, if they thought long enough. The few studies which have been done on males with disabilities (unfortunately, dominated by paraplegics and quads—or people with unspecified physical impairments) show that men tend to ‘deal’ with physical disability by using any combination of three R-terms:

Reliance, reformulation, and rejection. (From: Men and Masculinities: The Dilemma of Disabled Masculinity)

These terms embody coping mechanisms and personal narratives that men with disabilities employ when thinking of themselves in relation to their environments. Different disabilities tend to breed appreciation for different narratives. The article showed that people with paraplegia (waist-down paralysis) may be more apt to rely on masculine norms, as that fits their circumstance. Think: Rick Hansen… who also reformulates masculinity and ablebodiedness, in his unabashed “Super Crip” genre (full of overcoming, triumph, and defying odds).

^^Just cuz.

Specifically, the article depicts each R-method as such:

”[…]some disabled men continue to rely on hegemonic masculine ideals for their sense of self, some reformulate these ideals in line with their limitations, and others reject hegemonic masculinity, formulating instead an alternate masculinity for themselves. […Men] who relied on dominant conceptions of masculinity were more likely to internalize feelings of inadequacy and seek to overcompensate for them, perceiving the problem to be in themselves rather than the social structure. This reliance model of disabled masculinity was found to perpetuate the gender order. Men who reformulated masculine ideals, although distancing themselves from hegemonic masculinity, did not present a challenge to the gender order because they still perceived their dilemma as an individual project. According to Gerschick and Miller, rejection offered the most hope for change which they linked to a socio- political model of disability. These researchers cautioned, however, that none of their participants wholly fit into one of these response types. “ (Disabled Masculinity, 2012, Italics and bolding added).

This chunk of info has a wealth of implications and extrapolations that generate many questions, but right now, I’d like to point out that the men in this small sample find different ways of adapting their body image in accordance with their disability. They use differing levels of reliance, reformulation and rejection to define their circumstance to themselves and others. Masculinity is accepted, rejected and remade to changing extents, as a way of readjusting worldview. This study acknowledges the inherent contrast between masculinity and disability just by way of existing. It speaks, however briefly, to the difficulty had when the two circumstances collide.The article is also a tip-of-the-hat to human adaptability.

**Side note: Later, “resilience” was tacked onto this study, which I found interesting, because resilience was the only relevant “R” word I could think of before reading the study (As in, men see themselves as resilient, and their disability as somewhat of a battle-scar, to put it in oversimplified terms).**

Studies of this nature are few and far between, and little over 20 years old at most. My heart breaks over this knowledge, though I’m not even a bit surprised. I see the issue of masculinity in the context of disability as super important yet under-discussed, partially because disability in general is under-discussed, and partially because of the divisive aspect of empowerment.

And this is the head  of my conflict on this issue: How do we, as a society, exist inclusively without the inherent exclusivity in over-defining our situations? Even some disability-specific narratives, like “super-crip” empower some while shutting others, with more severe or degenerative disabilities, down. How do we say, “Hey disabled girl, I see your struggle, do you see mine?” without feeling like we are playing Oppression Olympics? How do we claim our situations without stealing from another’s circumstance. How do we empower without overstepping?

As humans, we can remember only 5-7 items at any time, without overload, or forgetting the middle items. I think this emphasizes our need to have a system that combats our natural ‘forgetfulness’ around issues that don’t directly affect us. A system that acknowledges at the least, and empowers at best, without silencing others.

Is this an impossibility?

**For those interested, the full academic article Disability and Masculinities can be found online, with a search and a little bit of effort. The article goes through a solid history of prominent writings on men with disabilities (which is petty puny, comparatively speaking). It also discusses the issues with failing to specify the disabilities of participants in some studies, and other limitations found by researchers. Google it!**