Who are we allowed to become? Children growing up today are likely to believe they can be anyone they want to be, and parents and teachers have grown fond of the phrase “Whatever you are, be a good one.” The emerging narratives of transgender children dovetail perfectly with this philosophy, children whose parents do not force them into a lockstep performance of the gender they were assigned at birth have become visible members of society. Yet the increased presence of transgender issues in our national conversation has prompted some to wonder—with or without their tongue in cheek, or in check—whether this is merely a sign of the times, a side effect of the chaos of modern life. If you can be born male and “become” female, some argue, then can’t you become anything else you want? And if you can be transgender, then can’t the label “transracial” apply, just as legitimately, to someone like Rachel Dolezal?
Dolezal has been in the national spotlight for a week now, and in that time the public’s opinion of her has never quite shifted, as it so often does in stories like these, to simple outrage. Before she became a public figure, Dolezal was most visible through her work as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP—which is to say, hardly visible at all. Her life wasn’t relevant to the world at large until her white parents come forward to refute her identity as an African-American. Now, she is all anyone can talk about.
One of the great fallacies that often arises in public discussions of transgender rights and identity is the idea of “becoming” someone: “becoming” a woman, “becoming” a man, as if the life of a transgender person is just one big bar mitzvah. Given the opportunity to tell their own stories, transgender people often explain that this has never been the case—that they have, rather, been mislabeled from the start, and are only stripping away the layers of false identity that have accrued around them without their consent.
It hardly seems a coincidence that Dolezal used the same phrasing Tuesday in a hotly anticipated interview with Matt Lauer on “Today.” When Lauer asked whether Dolezal was African-American, Dolezal responded, “I identify as black. … This goes back to a very early age, with my self-identification with the black experience.” At five years old, she said, “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon.”
Thinking about Dolezal, one is reminded of Ferdinand Demara and Frank Abagnale, two American men who took on dozens of separate careers and identities, and wanted little nothing more, it seemed, than to simply avoid living without the safety of a mask. Anyone can identify with the desire to be someone—anyone—else, and acknowledging this within ourselves makes it easy for us to understand the people who are actually successful at making these fantasies flesh.
But Dolezal’s story is yet more complicated. She clearly wasn’t stupid, and so it’s hard to believe that she didn’t know better: that she was at no time capable of looking at what she was doing, and realizing that it was wrong. Dolezal pretended—and likely is still pretending—to be not just a black woman, but an African-American. She lays claim to a highly specific heritage, one as defined by pain and injustice and ongoing trauma as it is by any other cultural hallmark, and defined not just alongside whiteness, but against it.
We have heard the same kind of stories, from transgender people, of youthful misidentification that we heard from Dolezal. Those who wonder whether Dolezal really can be “transracial” are perhaps wilfully ignorant, or even cruel—but some of them have to be truly curious. Dolezal’s story, if we accept all its complexity, does illuminate the fluid and often arbitrary nature of what we call “race” in America. The Scandinavian-looking blonde girl in the photos Dolezal’s parents supplied does not automatically contradict the idea that Dolezal might actually have African-American heritage. Looking white is not always the same as having only white ancestors, as any African-American who once passed as white could tell you. The problem is that Dolezal really doesn’t have African-American heritage, and that she is performing a culture and a narrative that does not belong to her.
In the days after Caitlyn Jenner unveiled her new identity and her new body, some argued that her brand of womanhood was equally fraudulent—that she could never truly be a woman because, as Elinor Burkett wrote in a controversial op-ed for The New York Times, her “experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine”; that she was, in effect, making off with a story and a struggle that wasn’t hers.
But the primary difference between expressing gender and expressing a specific cultural identity is that everyone lives life through the lens of gender, and must relate to it as a spectrum or a binary, even if they relate to it by refusing to relate to it. To be African-American is to be born into a highly specific cultural world, to have a specific history rooted in specific traumas and specific triumphs. To “identify as black” when one is not is to externalize something that is not internal, to invent rather than express. To take on a particular gender identity, at any time in life, is to explore and play with and live through a form of identity we all possess, and all have the freedom to use however we wish to, since doing otherwise inevitably means letting it use us.
Ultimately, Rachel Dolezal’s story seems like a story about fear. It expresses the fear all white Americans have, or should have: fear of acknowledging our own cultural history as creators of trauma and inflictors of abuse; fear of acknowledging the guilt inherent in this narrative, and, even more staggeringly, taking on the task of alchemizing guilt into something useful. Dolezal’s story also expresses, in its most redemptive moments, the love and respect she truly seemed to have for African-American culture—and the weakness that allowed her to see it not as a culture she wanted to use her white privilege to advocate for, but as a shelter in which she could hide from herself.