Why Comparing Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal means that You Don’t Know what You’re Talking About

So it’s been a few weeks since the energy surrounding Caitlyn Jenner was at its peak. Same with Rachel Dolezal. Both of them really exploded into the main stream focus (with good reason, in my opinion) with fairly polarized views. Inevitably, they were compared, and regardless of where you side those comparisons fell far short…because…well…you can’t really compare them in the way those comparing them would like.

So with anything, we need to know what we’re talking about. We are talking about race, sex and gender. Race refers to the social constructs surrounding the inert biological markers loosely tied to ethnicity, and that are in turn connected to socioeconomic status.

Sex refers to the anatomical traits tied to males and females. Also connected to socioeconomic status.

Gender refers the social constructs dictating the ways in which boys and girls–later men and women–“should” behave. Also connected to socioeconomic status.

For those of you somehow unfamiliar, Caitlyn Jenner is a woman born a man–Bruce Jenner–who was an olympic runner back in the 70s. She came out as transgender and after years of the treatments (therapeutic and otherwise) was ready to go public. Some say this was because of her fame and desire for attention–I say it was despte her fame because of some of the treatment trans people face once coming out publicly.

And Rachel Dolezal is a woman who was until recently the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington. I say recently because recently in an interview she was asked if she was African American…to which she essentially replied that she didn’t understand the question and then walked off. She later resigned.


Yeah, apparently she’s actually white. This caused quite a stir, obviously. She claims that she identifies with black culture and is essentially trans-racial. And there is where the comparisons were born. And really on the surface it seems a pretty accurate analogy. Both race and gender are social constructs. So if one can be transgender, why can’t one in turn be trans racial? Isn’t the denial of the legitimacy of trans-racial identities by extension to say that race is biologically valid?

No. At least not in this case. And here’s why.

There comes a certain privilege with being part of different social groups. In America, it’s essentially WASP type stuff at the top…White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Pretty much white dudes. I’m a straight, white dude. I’m privileged as can be.

Does it mean I get everything I want? No. Does it mean I am definitely going to get the best jobs and definitely never going to get bothered by the police when I’m driving 3mph over the speed limit on my way to work? No.

It also doesn’t mean I will never have a shitty day. It doesn’t mean I will never be fired or not get into a crowded restaurant even though I really want to go there. It doesn’t mean I am immune to sexual assault and it doesn’t mean it is impossible for someone to hate me because of the color of my skin.

It also doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.

What it does mean is that the odds are simply stacked in my favor. More often than not, white folks have a more solid family history, which I’ve talked about at more length elsewhere. In a nutshell, white people were immigrants in this country long before other ethnicities, and our society is built around and reflects that. I may get some serious perks, I may not. But what I choose to be up to will definitely offer me less resistance.

And one more thing…it also doesn’t mean I can’t squander it. I can make awful choices for all of my 20s and be screwed for life. That’s the thing about privilege…you can do what you want with it. Basically, if you’re in a position to ignore or completely deny the legitimacy or reality of the issues faced by a group to which you do not belong, there’s likely some privilege at play there.

Right now I’m talking about white privilege and male privilege. Those are the big ones involved here.

All of those things I mentioned just a bit ago…they’re all statistically more likely to work out in my favor. And no matter how many times some YouTuber with a Facebook-meme education “debunks” things like white privilege or the wage gap, when people who actually study this stuff in real life control for every variable they can, the results pretty much invariably come back with skin color or sex being the one consistent thing tied to predicting success, or ease of success, or infant mortality, or lifetime income, or a whole mess of other things.

There can be different forms of privilege and disadvantage at play. A white woman experiences white privilege but not male privilege, while a black man experiences male privilege but not white privilege; but, the effects of the disadvantages of being a person of color may outweigh the privilege of being a man, and in some cases more than others. All of these complexities in privilege and disadvantage and how we look at and discuss them are called intersectionality–the intersect of different forms or systems of oppression or discrimination.

Trans people may or may not have privilege in the body to which they were born. Jenner did. Bruce Jenner was a talented athlete. He rose to fame and prosperity despite never feeling he was the person he should have been. Years later, the life he had been leading, great as it was, was offset by the disconnect he felt. He transitioned into a woman, and she is now Caitlyn Jenner.

Caitlyn was largely embraced by the mainstream media (and a lot of people were upset, too). Some complained that it wasn’t a relevant issue. Some hate her for it. Some say it was for publicity. Some say who cares, millions of people do this all the time. And lots of people do do this all the time. And some are murdered for it. They don’t get catapulted into the spotlight. Maybe they can’t afford the therapy and surgeries. Every one of those reactions, perhaps especially those that say it’s irrelevant and those that say lots of people do this, are why we should be talking about these issues even more.

But I think it says something about the social climate where something like this can be discussed and positively embraced as a whole. And I don’t think it’s disrespectful to the trans community to accept and celebrate Caitlyn Jenner.

Rachel Dolezal is a white woman. She was born to a white family and her parents adopted children who were black. She grew up and married a black man and has a son with him. All of this is fine. But Dolezal sued Howard University for discrimination, partly based on race. Her race at that point was white.

So she sued on the grounds that she was discriminated against as a white woman.

Anyway. She would later go on to claim a black identity. She would darken her skin and have her hair done to look the part.

She claimed some black guy was her dad so she could pass even more.

Oh. Passing is the ability of a person presenting themselves as a member of a group and being accepted by said group as a member. Typically this refers to a person of color passing as white to eliminate some of the barriers posed by systemic and unconscious racism. It can also refer to trans people passing as men or women.

There are all sorts of other things with her past…allegations someone hung a noose on her door step that had later turned up no evidence, saying she was born in a teepee when she wasn’t. Saying she had memories of hunting for her food when that, according to her parents, never happened.

So what I’m getting at is this. Jenner, and any trans person who elects to undergo a physical, anatomical transition is entering a changed life. Jenner already had an affluent life and so maybe won’t suffer much from leaving male privilege behind. But if she wasn’t in the situation she is in, she would be leaving a life of privilege for life as a trans woman, two groups pretty far disadvantaged from the typical white man.

Dolezal had an upbringing in a white family, and used her race to sue for discrimination as a white woman. Then she assumed the identity of a black woman in order to reap the benefits of affirmative action and also the prestige of being a successful woman of color.

But once the shit hits the fan, she can return to life as a white woman. That’s the difference here. She was born with a certain amount of privilege as a white woman that isn’t extended to people of color. There are institutions in place to try to offset the effects of one group being the elite, political founding class of a country (white) while another was considered cattle (literally) and later emancipated into a country with no framework for them (black). She flipped flopped in order to suit what worked best. That looks like opportunism, not cultural identity.

I can believe that she truly believes, at least in part, that she is black. Kind of like Joaquin Phoenix believed he was Johnny Cash because of how engrossed in the role he became when filming Walk the Line. He had to undergo therapy to undo it. But he wasn’t “trans-Johnny Cash.” It doesn’t work like that. There’s a difference between trans people and delusional people.

Jenner, and all transwomen, became a woman and is now living life as one, whatever the avail. She cannot go back to being a man (ok I guess she can hypothetically but not realistically).

I’m reading about how Jenner is a “cross dresser” and we are celebrating “his delusions.” No. If I dress as a woman and go out for the evening, who cares? I’m still a man. Maybe some people laugh or whatever, but later  I can still walk around without anybody wondering what’s “wrong” with me. I can turn it off.

Cross dressing and transitioning are very, very different things. And if you disagree, you’re simply ignorant, whether willfully or actually. You’re either completely unaware of the actual issues, which is fine but means you need to stop weighing in on them in any real context, or you’re dismissing them to suit your needs, which is fallacious logic and detrimental to your position. Unless the only way you can maintain your position is to remain willfully ignorant. In that case I guess you’re just in denial and maybe potentially stupid.

I’m reading about how Dolezal did so much good, and how race is biologically invalid, so let’s focus on that good. And how saying that she cannot be transracial is tantamount to saying that race is a biological reality. Honestly, that’s garbage. Yes, race is biological invalid. But socially it’s a reality.

Black skin in present day does not mean anything biologically. It’s just more pigment in skin. Just like blonde hair and blue eyes didn’t mean anything in Nazi Germany. But it sure as hell meant something socially now didn’t it?

Race is not a biological reality but it has some biological indicators, however inert. People seize on those indicators as a way to try to understand something about someone. In the case of racism…it’s not a good thing. That’s the point of this.

Dolezal can wash off her blackface. She can’t cut those ties to her white upbringing. I don’t care if she has black family members, or if she’s had “more black cultural experiences than most of us ever will.” What a cop out that is.

I have a brother who got into hip hop while still in middle school. The other kids who were into it were mostly people of color. As a result, many of his friends are people of color. He married (briefly) a black woman. He identifies socially more with his friends than, say, me…his brother. I like science and bicycling. I bake bread. My ideal night out is pretty different from his.

Doesn’t mean he thinks he’s actually black. He’s not undergoing any inherent hardship because of the community with which he predominantly interacts. And if he were, he could walk away. Like I said, you can’t cut those ties.

Dolezal did do some good while she was involved with the NAACP. If she had never been found out, those things would have stood as simply good things. I think it would have still been kind of messed up in theory, but no harm, no foul, I guess.

But she was found out. And in doing so she has made a mockery of racial and trans rights issues in the United States. She has also in my opinion become a figurehead for the misunderstandings that mainstream culture has regarding race, gender, sex and privilege.

So often I see misguided posts and articles written by people who just…don’t get something. It can be hard to deal with when people have such harsh gut reactions to something that they clearly do not understand, who are then vocal and unyielding about it. It’s equally frustrating when someone who IS in a position to understand the issues (I’ve read articles written by anthropologists who completely miss the point, blinded by race being biologically invalid) say something that starts off exciting but winds up coming to conclusions that the authors themselves would see made no sense, if they were more invested in the social aspects of the issues.

Information is everywhere. It just might be a little more difficult to find than what presents itself to you on social media. If you’re actually interested–whichever side you take on an issue–learn the history behind it. Read up on the activism and social work and rationale behind something.

We should absolutely keep talking about these issues. But make sure you understand them before you form solid opinions.


About Pedal Powered Anthropology

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. This blog is intended to be for the development of my own positions and ideas, mostly regarding paleoanthropology and paleontology in general, with a heaping helping of evolution on top...but also includes bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

Posted on 06/27/2015, in Cultural Anthropology, identity, racism, Sex and Gender, Social Justice Babblings. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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