African Americans, black, black lives matter, Bruce Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner, fairness, gender, integration, justice, LGBT, NAACP, race, race relations, Rachel Dolezal, racial identity, segregation, white
Caitlyn Jenner, who once was a man, says she is now a woman. Rachel Dolezal, who once was white, says she is black.
Yes, they are serious about their new gender or racial identity, and, no, even though you may feel dizzy, you probably have not walked through the looking glass.
People don’t always tell the truth about themselves, but the conviction with which each identifies herself as, respectively, female or black, seems genuine. And the fact that each represents one of the two most significant streams of American social protest and cultural change — justice and equality for LGBTs and for African-Americans — suggests that they are not just toying with us, but challenging us to rethink our definitions of gender and race.
But public response to these two provocateurs has been very different. Jenner gets a Vanity Fair cover and a reality TV series, with raves, and Dolezal goes on unemployment, with decidedly mixed reviews.
Is this fair?
Some of the difference is chance and timing. Jenner has been a darling of the American public since his 1976 Olympic gold medal for the decathlon and has astutely kept himself in the public eye with the Kardashians and his/her gender transition.
Dolazel, on the other hand, is a public figure by default — denounced by her estranged parents, weighed down by a brother accused of child molestation and by troubling allegations that she skirted with the truth in the past. Not an easy hand to play.
The rap against Dolazel is that she’s slumming, that she could, if she chose, go back to being white without consequence, whereas those blacks who historically tried to pass as white, if discovered, were destroyed.
But Dolezal clearly is not slumming. Working for the NAACP on behalf of African-American rights is not slumming. Furthermore, the criticism is illogical and unfair if it favors one person’s right to be treated as white, regardless of ancestry, but opposes another’s right to be treated as black, regardless of ancestry.
Think of the absurdity: to prove that Dolezal has no legitimate claim to being black, we would have to subject her to DNA testing. Do you see the outline of a swastika emerging?
And, when it comes to criticism from within the African-American community, what rational purpose is served by putting up a No Entry sign? Don’t we define a self-contained, racially/ethnically/culturally pure community as a ghetto?
If we adore Jenner, who has done little more than trade on his Olympic glory, doesn’t some kind of moral balance demand that we give equal credit to Dolezal, who has put in the hard work, in what would have been anonymity but for her having been outed?
After all, fairness and justice for groups like LGBTs and African-Americans only matters if individual lives also matter.