Tiffany Jenkins: Identity is never black or white

QUESTIONS of identity are never black or white, and neither are the answers writes Tiffany Jenkins

Rachel Dolezal, here being quizzed by Matt Lauer on the Today Show in the US, has faced condemnation but is it self-identifying as black so bad? Picture: AP
Rachel Dolezal, here being quizzed by Matt Lauer on the Today Show in the US, has faced condemnation but is it self-identifying as black so bad? Picture: AP

Where did Rachel Dolezal come from? Not biologically; we know that, now – she was born to white parents – but what made this woman, a civil rights activist, so disturbed that, though she is American and of European ancestry, she felt the need to black up, by way of spray tan and a hair-do, and pass herself off as a different ethnicity?

And not just in a fancy-dress way, for a night out: for years she made a living out of being black. She revealed to no-one that she is, in fact, white. She was president, until Monday when she had to resign, of the anti-racism organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Spokane, Washington. She was professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. All on the basis of her supposed ethnicity, which gave her the necessary credibility to fight and analyse racism.

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For years she fooled many people about who she really is. Then the story fell apart, when her parents revealed to the media that she is white.

Her father said: “We’re puzzled and it’s very sad.” Which is something of an understatement, one that underlines the poignancy of the situation.

Rachel Dolezal is, in all likelihood, troubled. Though now exposed, she continues to say that she “identifies as black” and describes herself as “transracial”, a term used by black people who have been adopted by white people.

She has said she “takes exception” to suggestions that she has deceived people. But beyond being just being one deluded woman, who needs as much help as the hate currently thrown her way, her story should come as little surprise. The conditions for such an act of pretence are present, here. I may not know her, but such a decision to pass oneself off as black seems understandable, though not excusable. In no way do I mean to suggest what she did is OK, more to ask: “Can some of the answers to the question ‘why did she do it?’ be found in our culture, in society, in current social trends?”

We need to look at the broader social context, to work out why she may have acted in this desperate and deceptive way.

Because there here have been a number of developments in politics, and in identity politics in particular, that may have cultivated the conditions where a person might want to take on a particular, different, identity and think that it’s OK to do so.

In November last year, a group of Oxford students prevented a debate from taking place at the university. Two men, with opposing views, had been invited to speak on the motion: “This House believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All”. Outraged students protested that men rather than women were speaking about abortion. One statement issued, read: “The Women’s Campaign (WomCam) condemn SFL for holding this debate. It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies.”

Their point being, men cannot talk about abortion because they do not go through it.

Many campaigners today, in America and in Europe, suggest that you can only speak about inequality or a social problem if you have experienced it. The popular phrase used with abandon by social justice activists is “Check Your Privilege”. This phrase suggests that when considering another person’s plight, “one must acknowledge one’s own privileges and put them aside in order to gain a better understanding of the situation of others”. In other words, you have to be black to understand what it’s like to be black and discuss racism: white people cannot get it. Unless you are black, or unless you are a woman, or poor rather than rich, you have no right to speak about the problems these groups experience. Back off.

Just a few weeks ago, the cover of Vanity Fair showed a photograph of a beautiful, voluptuous woman in cream lingerie. Only she had been born a he. The photo was of Caitlyn Jenner, who was once upon a time Bruce Jenner, a famous American athlete who won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games, now known as Caitlyn having undergone gender transitioning. It was a transition that was unquestionably celebrated. Indeed, it is not possible to query Caitlyn’s decision and desire to be seen as a she, without being accused of transphobia. So one viral ask, after the “outing” of Rachel Dolezal, was: “Why is it OK to self-identify as a different gender but not race?” It’s a good question, one that is not easy to answer.

The two cases are different, but an important challenge was posed: if a person feels they are a different sex to their biological sex, and their feelings are now respected as was Caitlyn Jenner’s, what is wrong with what Rachel Dolezal did? Indeed, take any number of courses at university, especially, say, gender or racial studies, and you will have to wade through a great deal of theory that argues both gender and race are, to an extent, socially constructed – not natural. Given Ms Dolezal was ensconced in academia, with these popular theories floating around, it is likely they helped to reinforce her misguided belief that she can indeed choose to be black, or that maybe she’s not so white after all.

So it’s no surprise that a woman who was keen to do something about injustice went too far and pretended to be something she isn’t, when you have be a particular identity to join a cause, and identity is understood to be something that can be chosen.

Instead of continuing down this path, we need to accept that you don’t have to be black or a woman to speak about serious political problems and to fight for a better life for others. Some of the most important battles in the past that led to significant change, to progress – the ending of segregation in the US; women’s suffrage – came about because black and white, men and women, joined together to shape a better world.