You can’t ‘feel’ race, but can you ‘feel’ female? On Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and unspeakable questions

I think I can safely assume most of us have, at this point, followed the story of Rachel Dolezal, the former President of the NAACP chapter in Spokane and a white woman who claimed to be black.

The reasons behind her choice to represent herself as a black woman, as an adult, are not entirely clear — some have speculated that she suffers from mental illness, that she has some kind of addiction to victimhood, is a compulsive liar, or is suffering from body dysmorphic disorder. At Al Jazeera, Jennifer Wilson wonders if, perhaps, Dolezal felt the pull of identity politics, that is the idea that one must have personal experience with any given issue or culture in order to speak to it, have an opinion on it, or be an expert in the field:

…one must wonder whether Dolezal, despite her decades of work advocating for black women’s rights and racial equality, felt that she would never be taken seriously discussing black feminism if she was known as just some white girl from Montana.

Whatever the reasons, the widespread outrage at the idea of a white woman posing as a black woman, as though race is a performance or a costume one puts on or takes off, is wholly justified. Dolezal’s deception granted her positions of power that could and should have gone to actual black women, in a community where few opportunities for women of colour are available and where a history of discrimination and segregation is ever-present.

writes, for Vox:

What Dolezal is accused of is more than just the basis of a thought exercise about race. Many people are deeply offended by the idea that someone whose family suffered none of the horrifying systemic racism African Americans endure would seem to so gleefully immerse herself in and enjoy the trappings of black culture.

For members of an oppressed group who have suffered and continue to suffer without the option of simply identifying their way out of marginalization, the choice to adopt the identity of a member that group displays a deep lack of understanding of systemic oppression.

Alicia Waters explains, for The Guardian:

If blackness can simply be worn or performed, then every white woman with a weave and a cause, every white girl with a snap and a little attitude, can supplant the lived experiences of what it is to become a black woman: the journey of discrimination, the camaraderie of sisterhood, discovering the deep sense of responsibility and weight of the world, and ultimately finding the inner strength and acceptance that can only be built through struggle.

Rachel Dolezal may have perfected her performance of black womanhood, and she may be connected to black communities and feel an affinity with the styles and cultural innovations of black people. But the black identity cannot be put on like a pair of shoes. Our external differences from the white majority might be how others categorize us as black, but it’s the thread of our diverse lived experiences that make us black women.

Both people of colour and women are othered in a society that positions the white man as both neutral and the default human to which all the rest are compared to, institutionalizing a hierarchy.

Because of this reality, as well as because some of the language Dolezal uses to describe her self-identification is similar to that used by some transgender people, it didn’t take long before the comparisons between Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner began.

On TODAY, Dolezal told Matt Lauer that her “self-identification with the black experience” began when she was a very young child. “My life has been one of survival,” she said. “And the decisions I have made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive.”

Dolezal believes herself to be black, despite having lived most of her life as a white woman and Jenner believes she has “a female brain,” but moved through the world for 60-odd years as a white man. Jenner says she first began to try on women’s clothing when she was about 8 years old and said to Diane Sawyer that, while the two of them may not share all the same “parts,” what they had in common was that they both “identify as female.”

“I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live,” he told Vanity Fair.

Now, race and gender are not the same thing. On CBC’s The Current, Nikki Khanna explained that, while race is a social construct, we understand it to be based on heritage, ancestry, as well as physical appearance. It is, in part, because gender is not seen as something one inherits, that it is viewed as more “fluid” than race. Both may be cultural constructs, but they are constructs that ensure the maintenance of oppressive hierarchies and have material consequences that cannot be escaped as easily and some might like to believe.

Therefore, the question of identity and what it means to take on the identity of a member of an oppressed group, despite context for said membership, seems an obvious one to think about in both cases. Beyond that, it’s hard to miss the similarities in Jenner and Dolezal’s assessments of their own identities and the discourse surrounding both.

Whether accidentally or intentionally, Waters’ analysis outlines some of the questions many have about certain discourse around Jenner’s narrative:

Dolezal managed to put on an identity – that of a black woman – in a way that renders invisible the experiences that actually forged for us our identities as black women. She presented to the world the trappings of black womanhood without the burden of having to have lived them for most of her life.

Can the same be said of Jenner? She has not, after all, had any of the experiences women have that make us women, in this world. She hasn’t lived as a woman for most of her life. What is “camaraderie of sisterhood” built on, if not solidarity with women who’ve shared in your struggles?

While I don’t believe any of us (even scientists) fully understand transgenderism, because masculinity and femininity are categories males and females are forced into, the fact that transgender people exist is unsurprising. Many cultures recognize a “third gender” and, in fact, the gender binary is not natural or something that feels comfortable for most people. Rather, it is hugely restrictive. Women and men alike perform masculinity and femininity yet I doubt any of us absolutely relate to either category. These performances are learned and we engage in them for our own survival, as well as because it is what we know and have known our whole lives. People like to claim that girls gravitate towards dolls and boys towards trucks or that women are “naturally” more nurturing than men, thereby “proving” a “female” or “male” brain exist, but this has been disproven time and time again. We have no idea what a world without gender roles would look like, though feminists have been working towards one for some time.

All that said, gender is not, simply, a performance. It isn’t something we have the ability to escape. Women cannot simply “perform” differently in order to escape their place in the hierarchy. We cannot choose to escape the tyranny of male violence and power. When we talk about gender as “fluid,” we fail to acknowledge the material reality of women in a patriarchy.

At Huffington Post, Zeba Blay argues that what Dolezal did “plays into racial stereotypes and perpetuates the false idea that it is possible to ‘feel’ a race.” While Jenner may have transitioned for her own survival, the notion that one can “feel female” remains problematic for similar reasons that the idea of “feeling” a race is. It perpetuates the stereotype that femininity is something that exists deep within us — in our souls and minds. If it didn’t, to say that one “feels female” would mean nothing but “feeling human” or “feeling like a human that has female body parts.”

The alternate argument would be that both race and gender are simply superficial qualities achieved through synthetic interventions like plastic surgery, bronzer, a wig, or a weave.

The very least we should be able to admit to is that we are in a bit of a pickle as far as the discourse surrounding these two individuals go.

Beyond the question of a “female brain” or a “male brain” is the larger one of social categories and hierarchies that oppress entire groups of people. I cannot, for example, simply identify my way into the upper class. I also cannot simply choose to start living as an Indigenous woman. The context for my existence, history, and life experience is attached to the fact that I was born a working class white female in Canada.

So it’s difficult, when we see race and class as categories that one cannot simply identify our way in and out of, to know what to make of someone like Jenner, who lived her whole life as a rich, white man, until recently. She may believe she felt like a woman on the inside and will likely learn what it is like to move about as a woman, now, but she was treated and socialized, for her whole life, as a man with a great deal of privilege.

When people say, of Dolezal,

[She] passed for black for a number of years, but she cannot undo her past. She was born into a white family, grew up as a white child, attended Howard University as a white woman. She can’t erase—or re-race—all those years that she experienced the world as a white girl and woman.

I wonder whether they would say the same of Jenner? Can she “undo her past?”

Beyond that, the question of what “feeling female” means remains. It might, arguably, make more sense to say that one does not “feel” like a man, as defined by the gender binary, than to reinforce the idea of brain sex by saying one “feels like a woman on the inside.”

To be clear, I have little interest in challenging Jenner’s sense of self, chosen name, or how she chooses to present herself or live her life. I am not against transition if it makes a person feel happy or feel more comfortable. I do not wish for anyone to suffer or be forced to live in a way that makes them deeply unhappy. I also acknowledge that I have no idea what it is like to be transgender. From what I gather and from what I guess, it is hard. Transgender people are subjected to abuse, violence, and discrimination and suffer in ways no one should. I can’t say what it means to be transgender because it is apparent that various transgender people have different experiences and understandings of what being transgender means to them.

That said, I asked my friend and ally, Aoife Emily Hart, who is white and identifies as a transwoman, what it means to her. She said, “Being a transwoman isn’t about being ‘female’ as an essential sex, but is a way of recalibrating my body and social presentation to soothe both the unbearable agony of sex dysphoria and to enable my personality to emerge. I was born male, medically and socially transitioned to a transwoman, and now live happily.” She adds that, for her, transition was never about being a woman. “It was about being me, Aoife.”

Jaqueline Sephora Andrews, a black transwoman, told me, “I really can’t say that I always felt like a woman because I really don’t know what it means to ‘feel like a woman.’ I have had wishes of being a woman, and it did, at one time, cause severe depression. Even now, honestly, it still is a wish, but I still accept my biology.” She, like Aoife, says she suffers from sex dysphoria.

While I may not know what being trans is like, on a personal level, I do know is what it’s like to be a woman. The reason I know what this is like is not because of some innate sense — because of a feminine essence or feeling that exists inside me — but because I know what it is like to be treated like a girl, then a woman, from birth. Because I was told I was female and what that entailed. I am aware that the way I move around in this world has been shaped by socialization in a patriarchy. I know how I have been treated by men because I am a woman. I know that I learned being pretty and thin is the most important thing and that I should desire marriage and children. I learned how not to take up space, physically and in all other ways. I learned how to flirt, engage with, and relate to men, as a woman. I learned to be careful not to hurt or offend others and that to ask for what I want or to say what I really think is not an attractive quality for me to display. I know what it’s like to feel looked-at, to feel afraid in public (and private) spaces, and a myriad of other things, many of which I’m likely not even fully conscious of. But all of this was learned over time. When I was a young child, I played with trucks, wore sneakers, hated pink, and had short hair. I did not desire “femininity” until I learned I should.

There is no need to compete at the game of who-is-most-oppressed with regard to these issues; there is a great deal of oppression and suffering in this world, whether it be through patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, or capitalism — enough to go around, you might say. Certainly we should be able to acknowledge that sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and transphobia all hurt people, but also acknowledge and understand that women’s particular experiences in this world are shaped by a particular kind of oppression that begins the moment we emerge from the womb and that this oppression is not “natural.” We are not born neutral. Even the women I know who intentionally avoid traditional displays of femininity cannot escape the oppressive confines of gender. Certainly the political category of “woman” matters for these reasons.

At the same time, it matters to be trans in a world that has created a binary wherein there is only “masculine” or “feminine.” That room must exist in between and outside those categories is necessary if we ever dream of living outside their confines. What I’m asking is not that the suffering and real lives of transgender people be ignored, but that we acknowledge that context, history, and socialization are real and also matter. That when little girls are taught to be pretty and polite, to not take up space, to spend their lives on a diet, to be desirable but also that they will be punished through that desirability, those experiences matter and happen to us because we are born female. That we learn to understand our sexualities only in relation to what men want matters. That we learn our bodies are not ours, but public commodities, matters. That we learn our boundaries are “rude” and that they will be violated matters. That we must fear those we depend on (or even love) for our survival matters. That we learn to put ourselves last and to “sit down and shut up” matters. That we learn solidarity with men will get us further than solidarity with women matters. We aren’t fighting against trans people, we are fighting for our lives and the right to speak about our lives, bodies, history, and oppression, as a class. We are also fighting against the notion that either femininity or masculinity are innate parts of our beings, an idea that reinforces male power and female subordination.

When Jenner — a wealthy, white Republican — came out as Caitlyn, the pressure women felt to embrace her sexualized, objectified performance of femininity as something vaguely liberating and empowering was hard to swallow for many of us. Jenner likely has suffered in ways that I cannot understand, but I and my feminist sisters who were raised and socialized as women and are fighting against the very notions of femininity we are told to celebrate have suffered because of the ways Jenner’s (and, of course, many celebrity women’s) image is being presented and in ways I’m not sure she understands. Simply, femininity and objectification aren’t “good” for women.

I don’t have all the answers to many of the questions I and others are asking with regard to connections between Rachel Dolezal’s cooptation of blackness, as a white woman, and Jenner’s new identity. But surely those of us who were born and raised as female have the right to define and discuss that experience and our movement, as we have done for over a century now, as we see fit. While I am happy to fight alongside transgender and male allies to end male violence and misogyny, I am less happy to be told what it is, in this fight, I should celebrate as liberatory and even less happy to be told what defines womanhood by someone who only just chose to start living as a woman now, at 65. Her gender identity was kept secret, which is something I imagine would feel torturous, but that does not erase male privilege and does not translate to being socialized and oppressed as a woman. That fact, without making any arguments for or against Jenner’s chosen identity or feelings about who she truly is, matters when it comes to talking about womanhood and what it means to be a woman in a patriarchy and to have femininity forced upon you from birth.

I want people to be free to be who they are and to feel happy in their own skin. This is why I choose not to dispute how individual trans people want to live. But I also want to be able to fight back against a system that says I am less-than because I was born female. Not to imagine that reality out of existence by pretending gender socialization isn’t real and a primary way in which women are systemically oppressed, throughout their lives. I also don’t want to romanticize and glorify femininity and worry that narratives like Jenner’s do just that.

The fact that Dolezal felt all she needed to do to be “black” was to get a perm and a tan and to begin identifying as part of the black community, as though history and social contexts that maintain and perpetuate systemic racism don’t factor in, and that she thinks by choosing to identify as black makes it so, begs a number of questions. If we acknowledge that women are an oppressed group, under patriarchy, some of these same questions we are asking about Dolezal come up, with regard to folks like Jenner.

Identity can be an individual thing. But systemic oppression, whether it be through race, class, or gender, is not simply about individual feelings or how one chooses to present or express themselves out in the world. It is not a personal matter or a personal choice. And as complex as these issues are and as much as I struggle with them, myself, this is something that must be acknowledged within political movements.

The way in which the political and activist landscape has been overtaken by identity politics, by which I mean both that we tell one another we have no right to speak to particular issues unless we have direct experience with whatever it is we are commenting on (i.e. “You may not have an opinion about the sex industry unless you identify as a sex worker”) as well as the trend of individualizing absolutely every experience and obsessing over our own personal feelings above all else (for example, “Taking sexy selfies makes me feel empowered, ergo self-objectifying is empowering because I feel it and because I say so”) has had a detrimental impact on movements, particularly the feminist movement.

If gender identity is an individual, personal thing, as we are told, is gendered oppression no longer a social issue but rather a malleable choice?

In a scene from Orange is the New Black, Sophia, played by Laverne Cox, speaks with her son, Michael.

We are not simply individuals floating around in personal bubbles among other individuals. Society is real and so are systems of power. Both must be acknowledged in order for us to confront them.

If “the black identity cannot be put on like a pair of shoes,” can womanhood?

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.