My take on the Rachel Dolezal scandal might differ from that of many of my fellow contributors to The Mitrailleuse, but I’d like (for some foolish reason) to wade in anyway.
The shocking revelation — salaciously captured in a video interview — that a self-identified African-American NAACP leader and Africana Studies professor from Spokane, Washington, has been “passing” as black when she was in fact born white has caused widespread confusion about the politics of social construction and identity.
This confusion is understandable, and should be engaged with rather than mocked.
After the former Bruce Jenner recently made her prominent debut as Caitlyn Jenner, many embraced her decision on the grounds that, yes, gender is socially constructed and something fluid and not essential. So if, as Jenner had repeatedly claimed, she felt she was in fact living a lie as a man and was instead really a woman, then we should accept her self-identification as a woman. “Call me Caitlyn,” she told us, and we have done so.
Now we have a case of a woman born white and claiming to be black, but who, rather than praised, is reviled as a phony and a fraud.
Social conservatives see a contradiction here. Two people self-identify with groups into which they were not born — one born a man, self-identifying as a woman; the other born white, self-identifying as black — but we are expected to praise one and condemn the other.
As Sean Davis at The Federalist asks, “If Rachel Dolezal isn’t black, how is Caitlyn Jenner a woman?”
Some on the left have treated this question as cut and dried. “Race isn’t gender,” scoffed @BlackGirlDanger. “Just like apples aren’t tomatoes. Just like the moon isn’t lollipops. Just like you aren’t informed.”
Most social conservatives reject the social construction thesis, and thus are gleefully observing the knots progressives seem to be tying themselves into rather than genuinely asking questions about this issue. So I agree The Federalist and many social conservatives are concern trolling when they ask about the difference between the social construction of race versus that of gender. But that doesn’t make it a bad question. It is in fact an exceedingly good question.
If I don’t immediately understand why I’m expected to praise Caitlyn Jenner and condemn Rachel Dolezal, that does not make me merely misinformed. It makes me someone engaged with a deep philosophical problem that has occupied major recent theoretical heavyweights, including Sally Haslanger, John Searle, Ian Hacking, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, to name just a few.
In other words, social construction is an irreducibly complex topic. It is hard to digest and requires a lot of background to understand. I’m not suggesting you need to have read any particular thinker, including the ones I listed above, or possess any level of formal education to engage this question. But the fact remains that you do need to have a certain degree of knowledge — of theory, anthropology, sociology, and/or recent trends in activism — to understand the subtle differences in these two cases.
What makes the construction of gender different from that of race is not a question to be lightly dismissed. But according to @BlackGirlDanger, if you don’t understand that difference, you should just “Get your head out of your ass.”
Sorry, but I’m not buying that. What I’d rather see than such dismissiveness is a deep conversation about how social construction works. If you want to advance a politics that embraces the contingency of identity, you need to accept how novel this concept is to almost everyone who hasn’t taken seminars in gender theory or sociology or who doesn’t regularly read The Awl.
You build a community of like-minded citizens not by bullying them or deriding them for failing to immediately grasp these subtle differences, but by engaging in dialogue, in exchanging ideas, and in mutual education. The fact is these ideas take most people a lot of time and effort to comprehend.
If the social construction of gender is different from that of race — and to be clear, I for one do believe the two cases are different — then show how. Explain it. Convince people.
I imagine there are many people reading about Dolezal today who agree she should be condemned as a fraud, and who agree Jenner was brave to come out as trans, but who are nonetheless not clear about why their intuitions differ in these two cases. Many likely don’t see why everyone is acting like the distinction between the two is obvious. And if they go out and seek edification on this topic, and instead see what many are saying about people like them — that they are simply ignorant, and should get their heads out of their asses — I imagine their reaction will likely be to walk away and move on with their lives.
They will think, This is not a movement where I belong. And as things stand, unfortunately they are correct.