The Rachel Dolezal question everybody is afraid to ask
Something weird happened in 2015. A woman who had a position at the local chapter of a nationwide NGO in Spokane, Washington was forced to resign in a blaze of controversy. The reason seemed incomprehensible. Apparently, Rachel Anne Dolezal was passing herself off as African American when she was in fact, a white woman. On the surface while that was certainly weird and confusing behaviour, surely she didn’t actually do anything wrong, did she?
Rachel the pretender
Well the thing is, the NGO in question was the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), an organisation solely dedicated to civil rights and the general advancement of African Americans since it was founded in 1909. Apparently, it had never occurred to anyone in the NAACP to do a background check on new members and those reaching out for elective positions to determine whether they were in fact, black. And who could blame them?
With all the opportunities available as a member of the dominant group in the world’s most prosperous country, why would a white woman choose to turn her back on that and pass herself off as someone at the very bottom of America’s racial totem pole – a Black woman? The scenario was too unlikely to imagine, yet that is exactly what Rachel Dolezal did until she was outed in June 2015. Using her racially ambiguous olive-coloured skin, a practised African American drawl and sheer audacity, Dolezal didn’t just join the NAACP and become a regular member – she rose to the very top and became President of the local chapter in Spokane.
She wasn’t just a “black woman,” but was now speaking for black women and African American people in general. Being there illegitimately was not enough – she wanted to dominate and in a sense become a standard for blackness. When she was outed, she was forced to step down amid a blaze of global publicity, and she was even made to pay back some of the money she made in the position. Regardless however, an important marker had been laid down which has severe connotations for everyone with an interest in living in a world where rules matter.
The Elephant in the room
In episode 7 of season 23 called ‘Board Girls’, South Park took on the thorny issue of transgender identity in the context of male athlete transitioning to female and then competing against athletes who were born female. Unsurprisingly, such athletes have an immense physical advantage over their new competition, and they end up not just participating, but dominating these competitions. In the South Park episode, regular feminist heroine Strong Woman comes up against one such trans athlete in a female athletic contest she is used to winning.
This athlete thoroughly wipes the floor with her in a manner that clearly and obviously suggests that they have no business competing in a sporting contest for women. Strong Woman however, finds it impossible to voice out her obvious discontentment with the situation, and she ends up mouthing some insincere platitude about being “inspired” by her trans co-competitor. The question “Should they be here?” is not even countenanced, as she slaps it down with the response, “A trans woman is a woman.”
Predictably, this episode set half of the internet on fire, with creators Matt stone and Trey Parker labelled as “Transphobic.” For many though, the real issue that disturbed them about the episode was that it brought their most shameful thoughts to the surface. According to what the gods of liberal left wing politics have decreed, there is no conversation on this matter. Questioning the admission of people born in one sex to spaces reserved for those of another is apparently akin to anti-semitism or homophobia, so no self-respecting person of a politically liberal persuasion dares ask such a question.
Instead, everyone clams up and pretends to be happy with a situation they are clearly not happy with. Like Strong Woman, everyone who comes across a Transgender conversation drops a fake platitude expressing non-existent inspiration and joy about something they deeply, strongly disagree with. Apart from a tiny minority of fruit loops, absolutely nobody wants to see a boxing match between a woman and a trans-woman, because everyone knows deep down, that it is a ridiculous and horribly mismatched fight that can only have one winner.
Nobody looks at Bobrisky and thinks “What an amazing woman living her best life.” Nobody looks at a 9 year-old “transitioning woman” and thinks “This is so great to see! My heart is so full!”
Absolutely nobody thinks that – but that is what people say, because to say otherwise would be to instantly become a cartoon right wing deplorable who should be shot. If you ever dared to say “Bobrisky is a terrible person, and there is no such thing as a transgender 9 year-old,” the fruit loops would chase after you on Twitter with clown emojis and shout “TRANSPHOBE” in your ear until you eventually give in and say “I’m so sorry – Lanre Idris Okuneye is a total inspiration and a heroine, and I also want to do her, but I am not worthy. Also, when I have one, I dream of helping my preteen child through a gender-transition, so help me god.”
As the fruit loops successfully police what people say on this issue and create a false consensus on Twitter, right wing politicians who are explicitly transphobic coincidentally happen to be winning huge majorities all over the world from Brazil to India to the Philippines. Who is voting for them? Apparently nobody on Twitter did because on social media, everyone apparently loves seeing women getting beat up by Trans athletes – who are totally women too and an inspiration to all. It must be a recurring global error with self-voting ballot papers or something. Nothing some more Twitter screeching won’t solve.
You can be anything you want? Actually, not really
So far, I know two types of people are reading this article: Those who have already clicked the ‘x’ button and returned to Twitter to proclaim “DAVID HUNDEYIN IS A DISGUSTING TRANSPHOBE,” and those who want to use this article to justify their actual bigotry. The purpose of writing this was not to appeal to either of these groups. It was to ask one simple question:
If individual freedom and choice is absolute, and nobody has a right to enforce cultural expectations on an individual because they can do absolutely whatever they want as long as it is not illegal, then what did Rachel Dolezal do wrong?
Is pretending to be Black illegal? Obviously it is not. Is working for an organisation that seeks to further the rights of Black people illegal or morally objectionable? Clearly not. Did Rachel Dolezal feel that she was born in the wrong body and she should have a right to transition into the identity she wanted? Yes, she did.
So why did the world – and especially black people – respond the way they did? What was wrong with Rachel being embraced fully as a transitioned black woman by the African American community? Why did she not have a right to walk into an identity she wanted and just take it? Is there any law or ethical code against that?
The answer to that is the same answer to the question of why having plastic surgery and taking estrogen injections does not – can not – qualify a man to gain entry to female spaces, whether he feels that he belongs there or not. The answer is that there is history in these identities. They actually mean something. In a way, Dolezal’s con was the most vulgar expression of white privilege imaginable – someone was so safe and secure in their untroubled identity that they could decide to take a joyride in someone else’s identity like it is hobby or a McDonalds Happy Meal.
As if the disrespect were not enough, she then rose to the top of an organisation founded to help that historically oppressed identity knowing full well that at any time she could call off the act and go back to the societal privilege of being a white woman. She even deprived an actual black person of the salaried position at the NAACP. Using Twitter’s logic, she was perfectly entitled to do so because she “identified” as Black, and once a person “identifies” as something, everything else including biology and common sense must fly out of the window.
Using this very logic, certain Canadian criminals like rapists and pedophiles who are afraid of being placed in prisons with fellow male prisoners have figured out how to game the system and turn it into something dangerous. Under Canadian law, if they “identify as women,” they must be placed in female prisons instead – a law that was created to protect trans women from violence in male prisons. And yet these are men in every sense of the word – no plastic surgery, no pills, no injections, nothing. But by just “identifying” as women, they are placed with actual women who are now at risk of physical and sexual violence. The right of the individual to “identify” as something thus takes priority over the right of actual women – who suffer vast amounts of violence from men – to be protected from male predators.
How on earth can this make sense?
Of course, the noisemakers may win the arguments on social media, but the fact is that if they think that will translate into bullying an entire human civilisation into accepting what no one deep down really wants, then they are hurting trans people more than anyone else. Recent events should have made it clear that when much-needed public discourse is forced underground by the shrill screeching of a mob, it finds ways to express itself that many of us may not like – such as through the ballot box for example.
The world is dealing with Dueterte. Modi. Bolsonaro. Orbán. These are all products of a growing far right wing ecosystem that is not going away anytime soon. The last thing we need is for this sort of intellectually vexatious issue to further split the already-divided global centrist space and gift more political real estate to people who exploit the perceived anti-free speech position of the left to push real bigotry on undecided voters.
Those of us who are interested in preserving a political centre instead of burning down the world as we know it should be brave enough to stand up to the bullies wearing victims clothes and tell them “No.” History tells us about the world of past centuries, which was ruled by far right ideologies. It was a terrible world of wars, slave trading, genocide and disaster capitalism. The political centre that took decades to build has brought modern humans together and made us the most successful civilisation ever to exist on the planet. Anyone who wants to destroy this equilibrium by using the language and form of liberalism to push things that alienate and polarise people should be ignored and possibly ostracised.
Whoever wants to create a new global civilisation where an individual is the human equivalent of a light cirrus cloud – a formless ideological abstraction with no cultural or historical expectations of them – can take the next spaceship to Mars, and take Rachel Dolezal along with them. She incidentally, has moved on from merely being trans-Black to being trans-West African. She now goes by the name “Nkechi Amare Diallo.”
Our reaction to this issue is one of a number of things that will define our generation – either as limp wristed reactionaries like our parents, or as the confident free thinkers we like to portray ourselves as on Twitter.
To paraphrase Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean, “You better start believing in ghost stories. You’re in one.”