Via the Book of Faces, a friend of mine posed the internet a challenge:
In thirty words or less, explain why Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are being treated differently.
My response was, “One lied, one stood up”, but I have been thinking about it more. Despite that one is a gender issue and the other a racial one, and that they are communicating to and from different communities, they are each touching on a point that humanity has not been faced with before this day and age: is it wrong/unnatural to change your body from what it was born as to better match how you feel? Where does nature end and choice begin, and vice versa?
Dealing specifically with Rachel Colezal and her situation, that question ultimately regards the differences between cultural and racial identity, and if racial identity is something that is a matter of choice. As a person of extremely mixed heritage, I hold to no cultural identity of any my ancestors, and yet my racial identity is something I cannot deny because my skin will always be this brown color. I think that living a lie about who you are can only lead to personal and silent suffering, but what if I associated with my white heritage more and then wore make-up/got surgery to make myself appear more white? Would my desire to be comfortable with my appearance be a step in admitting and accepting the truth about myself, or is it a denial of the truth? And for a person to put on airs about who they are and what they’ve been through to feel more comfortable only muddles up the struggle that people of color actually go through; the one of, “What does it mean to be non-white in America?”
Many would say you are how you were born and there is no change, but then many said the same thing about gender and now there is open acceptance (or at least a better understanding) of transgendered people. Is a transracial lifestyle acceptable? Is this the beginning of thinking of race the same way we are now considering sex and gender? A transcultural lifestyle is already a norm; look at the amount of people around the world and through time adopting the “black American” culture, just as there is a growing population of people of color who identify more with a middle-class, suburban (“white”) identity. While there are certain to be a number of posers and charlatans, there is also a good amount that feel more natural with a culture different than what they were born in. And yet, those groups of people don’t put on make-up to appear more like the race that they identify more with culturally, and if they do, they aren’t heading a chapter of the NAACP.
And that’s why it’s different. A person changes their gender to match who they are? Super! A person adopts and changes their race/culture to better suit how they feel? Awesome! But as a nation we have not resolved our conflicts about race, and when a leader on that front line lies about what they are and where they have come from, the entire cause is affected. Personally, I would have rather she done the same work, the same amount of good, while she was white and saying she felt more like a black woman. Would she be open to ridicule? Yes, but I think she would have done more, been a better symbol of unity and changing preconceptions, as a white woman in a non-white culture.
And this says nothing to her intent. I, for one, will give her the benefit of the doubt for now and assume she was doing this for pure and just reasons, however misguided the actions were – and they were misguided. No racial community is ever going to respond positively to a person who has lied about their race to get in with a crowd. If it turns out that her motives were not based in a desire to help others, though, then she has spit on all of those people, of any color, who gave their lives for civil liberty and equality. The insensitivity would not be criminal, but it would be grotesque and inexcusable.
And no matter what you think of her and why she did (had to do, from some arguments I have read), one thing is plain and clear: she lied. And that’s the difference. The questions that arise from this are fair, honest questions and they should be asked, but this deception is an obscene way to start the conversation. Whether it be in a society, a culture, a race, a gender, or within the individual, truth and change cannot be advanced with a lie.