So, it turns out that if you start a write-in column about race in Maine, and a white lady heading an NAACP chapter on the other side of the country gets outed for pretending to be black, you get a ton of questions about that. The queries took different forms, but the basic question goes something like this: Since Caitlyn Jenner was once Bruce Jenner, why can’t white Rachel Dolezal now be black Rachel Dolezal? Transracial, right?
First of all, that’s not what “transracial” means. Lisa Marie Rollins wrote a great piece on the subject for Lost Daughters (thelostdaughters.com), a writing project by and about women who were adopted as children, in which she explains the actual definition of the word: “the term ‘transracial’ is used in scholarly research, creative writing and cultural work to denote a particular ‘state of being’ for people adopted across race. It also describes a kind of family unit/type of parenting.”
I get what you mean, though. The implication is that, because both race and gender are socially constructed concepts, they can be measured and perceived by similar means. Well, not really. Money and citizenship are both socially constructed, but if you go down to the corner and try to buy yourself a delicious slice of pizza with your citizenship, you’ll see a very clear difference in how the two are considered.
The thing that makes everything extra confusing is that both race and gender are parts of our identities. And since these parts of our identities can also make us uncomfortable, the tendency is to make up our minds before we look too closely at them. Well, I hope you’ve had a relaxing day, because we’re about to look very closely.
A key difference between race and gender is that gender is primarily about how you view yourself, whereas race is primarily about how others view you. Chances are Caitlyn Jenner would not have risked the public scrutiny and potential global humiliation had the decision not come from within her. Her coming out seems to have little or nothing to do with the views of the outside world.
I can tell you from personal experience that race works in the opposite way. Having a black father and white mother has left me looking ethnically vague. In Maine, I’m black, but in New York City, I’m Puerto Rican. In Texas, I’m Mexican. In airports, I’m Middle Eastern. Race can have everything to do with the outside world and nothing to do with the individual.
You get to be who you are. You do not get to decide how others see you.
Now, I can only speak to the experience of one side of this, but let me introduce you to Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi. She’s the author of the novel Yemaya’s Daughters, a performance artist, and a member of the Leadership Team for the TWOCC (Trans Women of Color Collective). I asked her for her take on this subject.
“The fact that there are people even entertaining a notion that this white woman can somehow be black by the process of osmosis is a byproduct of colonization’s violent creation of the ‘white every man,’” she replied. “While most of the time people of color are the innovators of culture, non–people of color are often its appropriators. Rachel, a white woman, is using blackness to line her pockets and literally take up a space created for black women. This is a tactic of colonization, another form of racism, a story we have seen countless times in several different forms.
“On the topic of transgender vs. transracial,” she continued, “the use of ‘transracial’ to denote what Rachel D. did is indicative of the way white supremacy utilizes language to excuse what is simply good ole racist appropriation. Comparing the two is another white supremacy tactic, which attempts to invalidate the essentiality of trans people within culture while utilizing the tokenization of our identities (through a white lens) to excuse the theft of black culture. Trans people are pre-colonist, we have existed since the dawn of time. … Bottom line, you cannot be black by osmosis.”
That’s one hell of a reply, and she’s right. If she was wrong, then it could go the other way, and culture would be genetic instead of environmental. If she was wrong, then the next time I’m presented with a racist cop I’ll be able to explain that I identify as white and all will be right in the world.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker and Videoport employee. He lives in Portland and can be reached at email@example.com.