Just what you wanted; two big news stories everyone is already sick to death of — Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. Still, there are some interesting parallels and differences, and some questions I’d like you to think about. These two women’s stories are indicative of the times in which we live.
I remember watching Bruce Jenner win the gold medal in Men’s Decathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, earning him the title of World’s Best Athlete. This shaggy haired beefcake adorned a Wheaties box; he was a really big deal. For years he was basically a background fixture in the so-called reality series “Keeping up With the Kardashians.” I never watched this perversion of the public airwaves, but occasionally saw clips on my guilty pleasure, “The Soup,” which made good fun of such nonsense. Anyway, now she is Caitlyn Jenner, and says she has identified as female since she was five years old. She has recently had what’s called gender reassignment surgery and is featured on the current cover of Vanity Fair. I understand digital enhancement has replaced the old air brush, and the amount of construction she’s had may be comparable to that of the Hoover Dam, but I have to say she looked pretty good for her late sixties.
Her transformation was the subject of much vitriol on the Right, where anything but old, pale males makes people uneasy. Fox (alleged) News used the term “freak,” The National Review called her “a surgically damaged man,” and on Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze she was referred to as “a mentally disordered man,” although her happiness didn’t cost any of these hatriots a dime. Transgender people are becoming more visible; they are the T in LGBT. Last year we heard another trans story, that of Private Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley), who is in military prison for blowing the whistle on U.S. war crimes in Iraq. She has yet to be allowed the necessary surgery, but the last I heard she was being transferred to a facility that can give her the hormonal therapy, and that’s good. I don’t understand why someone can’t identify with whatever gender they feel comfortable with, and to me it’s one of the most courageous decisions I can imagine. Transitioning from male to female involves some surgery that makes a lot of men, including me, a bit queasy. It’s pretty final, I’d say.
The Rachel Dolezal epic is a much more convoluted tale of identity. Until a few weeks ago, she was the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. The regional office had said she “has proven herself to be a fierce and unrelenting champion” for the causes of black people. Then her estranged white parents outted her. She’s white, they said, of German and Czech ancestry. That’s when the excrement hit the whirling rotor blades. Suddenly she was all over the media, with her stories of being raised in a tepee in Montana, the black man she refers to as her dad, even if he’s not her biological father. “Are you white?” she was asked, answering that she identifies herself as black. Her appearance is of a light-skinned, braids and corn rows in her hair black woman, though photos of her when younger show a pretty white bread blonde. When asked about the difference, she said “I certainly don’t stay out of the sun.” When pushed, she said her racial identity is more complex than it seems. Gee, I thought it was pretty complex already. She resigned from her position with the NAACP, citing the usual “distraction” excuse. At the time she was also an ombudsperson of sorts, as chair of the Police Oversight Commission, but has since been fired. With each page turned, her story gets weirder and weirder.
She went to college at historically black Howard University, majoring in art. When she didn’t get a teaching assistant job she’d applied for, she unsuccessfully sued the university for discrimination because she was white. She’s also an artist, and one particular painting, the centerpiece of a triptych, has turned yet another page in this bizarre saga. The title is “The Shape of Our King” and it’s nicely done. It’s also nearly identical to an iconic painting by 19th Century English artist J.M.W. Turner, “The Slave Ship.” So Rachel is a complex figure, to say the least, and disingenuous, at best. A lot of white folks are upset. A lot of black folks are even more so. In his recent column, Leonard Pitts, Jr. makes the point that “most people who identify as black don’t have the option of trying on another identity when it’s convenient.” Jonathan Capehart, a regular on MSNBC who I like very much, was even stronger. He likens Rachel’s deception to blackface, which he said is racist in any context.
All kinds of questions come to mind. Can one adopt another ethnicity? Half a century ago light-skinned black people tried to pass as white, probably more for economic than cultural reasons. Rachel took the opposite road, and this parallels Caitlyn Jenner. Both took a path that took them from a more privileged class to a lesser one. Jenner became a woman, and Dolezal wants to be black. I’d say they must feel pretty strongly about it. Alright, if there’s some social taboo on adopting ethnicity, how about adopting a cultural preference? Remember that until she was exposed, Rachel was reportedly doing good things for the NAACP. Cultural identification is older than the country. There are numerous accounts of early colonists being captured by Indians and later rescued, who escaped to return to Indian life. We’ve seen the theme played out in films from “A Man Called Horse,” “Little Big Man,” and “Dancing with Wolves,” to a more modern adaptation, “Avatar.”
Anyway, all this hullabaloo over skin color is a canard. In 2000 researchers mapped the genetic codes of groups of African-Americans, Caucasians, Asians, and Hispanics. They announced that they could find no difference among them. “The concept of race,” said one, “has no scientific basis.” The only difference is the amount of a pigment called melanin in the skin, an evolutionary adaptation to climatic conditions. I’ll bet that if I went to the Deep South I could find more than one racist white Bubba with a black dog. I’m betting that if I asked him why he’d want a black dog, he’d say something like, “What you talkin’ about boy? General Lee here is a good dog.”
I’m half Swedish and half Irish, so I’m white as a butt. I personally couldn’t identify as black, having no experience of the black experience. But I do identify as African-American. Many Americans — and I’m talking about U.S. citizens — don’t realize that everyone in either North or South America is an American also. And here’s maybe an inconvenient truth: every one of us is an African-American. The first humans appeared in Africa; it’s been pretty well established. I guess what I’m getting at, is why the hell can’t we leave each other alone? So what if someone identifies as whatever they feel, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else? We have real problems, like eternal wars and terrorism, corporations and oligarchs running our government, and everyone is under constant surveillance by either the government or internet giants. Our food, water, and air are being poisoned, and even more dreadful environmental disasters loom on the horizon. Why in the world are we worried about how people want to see themselves? Unless all that is a distraction from the horrors listed above, that maybe we’d rather not think about.
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.