Rachel Dolezal: Race, Gender, Sex, and Social Group Membership

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rachel-dolezalAnd now for the intriguing case of Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Washington NAACP leader who was born white but identifies and represents herself as black. This was working well for her — she’s been passing as black for years, apparently — until a few days ago, when her biological parents outed her. [Update: She announced her resignation as NAACP chapter president on 6/15/15.]

This controversial story has sparked important, hopefully long-enduring, discussions about the ramifications of race’s status as a social construct. If it is a social construct, some argue (often as a bluff-calling dig at Caitlyn Jenner supporters; more on that below), then Dolezal’s performance as a black woman should be respected as an authentic expression of the space she occupies in society.

But this is wrong. Even if race is a social construct (which it is; to see this: a white woman can have a black baby, but a black woman cannot have a white baby), this doesn’t mean that Dolezal’s self-identification as black must be honored. Society, through its collective activities, determines the conditions of race identification–i.e., creates the (very real) phenomenon to which we refer when we use the word race. She is not society.

Let me put this another way. There are many social groups in the world. Some of these are broad, like Women, Men, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians. Others are narrow, such as the groups Mulattos, Quarterons, and Sacatras found in 18th century Haiti, where, as CLR James puts it in The Black Jacobins, “They divided the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades into 128 divisions” (page 38). Social groups can also be arbitrary and socially insignificant, like Teenagers Living In Tribeca Who Sneezed Twice Last Tuesday.

Each of us is a member of a large number of social groups, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. A person is admitted into a group insomuch as that person satisfies that group’s conditions for membership. Often, though, admission criteria aren’t clear-cut. They’re vague and are determined by society, including when society is acting under the pressure of insuperable, systematized power, and including when society is getting things wrong (it often does). As such, the criteria may change over time.

Dolezal seemed for a while to satisfy the conditions for being black, but on closer inspection, her credentials were lacking. Performing the role of a black person, no matter how sincerely motivated, isn’t enough. Something more is needed — at least one black grandparent, perhaps. Whatever it is, she fails to have it. This isn’t about race being a biological fact, but is rather about Dolezal’s lack of certain biological markers — namely related to family heritage — that are required in order to be considered black.

Confusion about the role biology plays in social identification also underlies what has become another controversial dimension of this discussion, regarding gender. If Caitlyn Jenner can be considered a woman, many are asking, why can’t Dolezal be considered black? The responses I’ve seen to this question are naggingly unsatisfying. They posit race as something you can’t choose, while gender is, well, also not a choice. In either case, you’re born that way. Yet, at the same time, race and gender are often presented as social constructs involving the enculturated performances of “black person” or “woman.” So which is it?

Fortunately, these apparent inconsistencies can be reconciled. Let’s begin with gender.

Where the above responses miss the mark is in their failure to capture the widely accepted distinction between sex (i.e., anatomy and other biological characteristics) and gender (i.e., enculturated behavior). This sex-gender divide amounts to a nature-nurture distinction, where “nurture” can be understood as a form of gender socialization whose influence is powerful, but can be challenged (or is just plain unsuccessful in some cases).

This is an important distinction to recognize, as, while there likely are biological bases for some behaviors associated with gender, it’s unclear what these are, how they work, or that their associated behaviors would be so essential to gender identity as to compel membership into a particular group. Put in other terms, there’s no good evidence that birth sex entails an inborn destiny to act in accordance with a given culture’s gender guidelines.

For a thorough social scientific, and refreshingly skeptical, take on this, see Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, in which she persuasively refutes a large number of studies allegedly supporting the claim that gendered behavior, preferences (e.g., for the color pink), attitudes, and so on are pre-hardwired into “male” and “female” brains — a specious claim that’s used all too often to explain, and thus justify and sustain, systemic gender inequality.

The sex-versus-gender view is by no means unproblematic. It has come under criticism by influential thinkers such as third-waver Judith Butler, who has speculated that “the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.” This isn’t to say that she considers gender to be inborn. Indeed, she’s most famous for founding the notion of gender performativity, an account that’s as social constructionist as it gets.

I accept the view that posits gender as performance, and sex as a biological category of some kind — but category of what kind? This is where the account is shakiest. For many, this would be the category that liberals and progressives complained about not being sufficiently represented in recent debates about women’s healthcare rights. “I’m saddened,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), in February of 2012, “that here we are in 2012 and a House committee would hold a hearing on women’s health and deny women the ability to share their perspective.”

The point here is that those dismayed by things like all-men committee hearings seem to have in mind something fairly exclusive when referring to “women” — something related to sex rather than gender. In the discourse, this is generally reduced to the vagina, as when Michigan State Rep. Lisa Brown (D) said, at a June 2012 House floor debate on abortion, “Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested my vagina, but no means no.”

It seems to me, however, that reducing sex to reproductive organs, even if meant figuratively, glosses over the complexity of the dynamic interplay between sex (i.e., inborn biological features) and gender. For one thing, it’s not so clear (at least not to me) what biological features should serve as the criteria for one’s inborn sex. Consider someone who’s born female, yet whose internal body schema includes a phantom penis. That phantom penis has a robust neurobiological basis. Motivation to incorporate this internally felt maleness into one’s behavior would not necessarily be a matter of enculturation, though exactly what that behavior consists in would be. And that’s all we need to support the sex-gender account.

[Clarifying Note: I accept, though am not entirely sold on, the sex-gender distinction view, for philosophical reasons more complicated than I have space to get into here (even the utility of positing sex as a mere medical category, for example, is threatened by the promise of personalized medicine). But it’s a useful distinction for understanding and developing the current discourse, as it highlights the idea that body parts do not equal gender. That’s a step in the right direction.]

That is, the account’s job, fundamentally, is to point out that there are biological markers that make one the target of socially constructed notions of gender. If you possess those markers, you will likely be drawn to, or pushed towards, a gender performance that corresponds to those markers. Which markers are of greatest significance, however, is decided by society.

There is no principled reason why a similar account could not be given of race — thus the idea that it, too, is a social construct involving biological markers. However, behaviors and dispositions associated with race have often been posited as a matter of biological fact. And not just by white imperialists seeking to justify slavery and to maintain their superior class status, but also by many black intellectuals, such as Léopold Senghor, who wished to appropriate that conception of universal blackness — or Négritude — as a strategy for empowerment. (See, for instance, his 1966 paper, “Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century.”)

This move towards racial essentialism — in which blacks are driven by nature and rhythm, while whites are driven by rationality — has been vehemently opposed by the likes of Frantz Fanon, CLR James, and Wole Soyinka, and has all but lost out to notions about race as social construct. It seems to be coming to the fore again, however, when we say that Delozel simply is, by her essence, white, just as Jenner simply is, by her essence, a woman. Such statements oversimplify, or flat out overlook, the nuanced, dynamic interplay between essence and status — two possible connotations of the verb to be — in questions about race and gender.

I detect these different connotations at play, for instance, when Meredith Talusan, in a recent Guardian article, claims that she just is, by her essence, a woman, while she claims simultaneously that race is a social construct and that, despite being considered white, she is Asian:

…I’m keenly aware of the differences between how I “pass” as a white person and how I “am” a woman. Race is a social construction originally designed to separate and justify the subjugation of darker peoples for the purposes of European supremacy, so when strangers – even fellow Filipinos – refuse to believe me when I tell them that I’m Asian, that I have partial albinism and I’m an immigrant to the United States, I realize that they’re inviting me to pass [as white].

Unfortunately, Talusan’s account of race doesn’t explicate the distinctions I’m pointing out. I will do that now. The reconciliation of race as social construct and race as biological fact is summarized as follows:

Race is a social construct that was originally designed by making certain biological features salient in order to use those features as markers of inferiority, for the sake of perpetuating a dynamic that kept whites (especially white men) in control of class structures of which they were at the top. Social construction imposes or recommends certain enculturated behaviors (e.g., manners of dress, socio-political attitudes, ways of talking) on an individual according to the racial group of which that individual is a member.

Membership into a given racial group is determined by an individual’s possession of biological markers whose relevance is determined and evaluated by society — these include bodily features and parentage (never mind that, in theory, a strict parentage norm requires verifying each parent’s parents’ race, then each of those parent’s parents’ race, and on and on).

This explains how race can be an idea whose construction by society relies on certain biological facts. But, because the significance of a given biological marker changes over time, this doesn’t yet answer the question at the heart of today’s debate:

If Jenner’s penis (both literally and metonymically speaking) is a biological marker that only until recently would have absolutely excluded her from having genuine membership in the social group Women (which, I must add, she still unfortunately does not have, as even many progressives seem to be mostly just paying lip service to the idea, and to really be thinking of the group Transwoman when they call Jenner she; transphobia’s roots run deep), why should the biological markers for blackness not be just as progressive and flexible?

One possible response to this is that the biological components of race are disanalogous to one’s physical sex characteristics. Things like skin color, facial features, and parentage entail no chemical influence resulting in group-specific behavior, while sex runs deeper, involves hormones and such. This is a fair point, but it ultimately fails. The sex-gender distinction is intended to point out that one’s gender — or, more specifically, one’s behavior, dispositions, desires — is not guaranteed by anatomy or biochemistry.

In most instances gender roles are assigned according to sexed biological markers, and most of us, more or less, acquiesce (though with fluid variance across a spectrum that is not often enough acknowledged). Some of us challenge these roles because they are unjust or just plain silly. In other cases, one actually feels — vividly, intensely, mysteriously — that one’s anatomy is mismatched with one’s genuine, internally felt sex, and thus that one’s assigned gender role is inapt.

There is no blood or DNA test that can confirm the authenticity of such sentiments, nor should we endeavor to devise one. Not just because such sentiments aren’t really relevant (I’m not convinced they are — why should my right to identify as a woman depend on having some scientist’s operationalized definition of the “right feelings”?), but simply because gender should not be reduced to anatomy, biochemicals, or brain structure.

Indeed, even if we did find structures in the brain that correspond to gendered behavior, we still couldn’t be sure about the direction of causality — i.e., the extent to which behavior itself, along with environment, contribute to the formation of those structures. In other words, the brain is an awesomely complex and adaptive organ, and group membership status likely influences its ontogenetic development. Thus, the relation between brain structure and gendered behavior might be impossibly difficult to characterize. Women with phantom penises don’t always identify as men, just as men with physical penises don’t always identify as men.

Put simply, biology does not equal gender.

This brings us full circle back to the idea of social group membership, and to the fundamental question this discussion has been chasing. The reason Jenner has been granted (restricted) membership to Women, while Dolezal won’t be granted membership to Blacks, is that the groups have different membership requirements. Put in these terms, the question comes into sharper focus: Why does the social group Women have one set of criteria, while Blacks has another?

This difficult question is one that will have to be grappled with by historians, social psychologists, sociologists, and, naturally, random Facebook commenters. Groups differ in history, and in terms of how that history has situated that group within the social systems that surround it. Groups also must contend internally with their own culture, disagreements, contradictions, fears, goals, and accomplishments. Some of this work is done with collective self-awareness, through organizations such as the NAACP, and some of it arises from the accumulative activities of independently motivated group members.

Given this, you can’t expect the credentials for being in one group to be the same or analogous to the credentials for joining any other, even when they share much in common. You can’t expect the credentials for being admitted into the group South Koreans to be the same as those for Cherokees, Blacks, Whites, Women, Men, Jews, or, for that matter, People Allergic to Salmon.

The upshot of this is that there are differing conditions for racial and gender fluidity.

As for racial fluidity, though the details are many and tangled, the basic picture is that our society simply isn’t ready for it. Racial rigidity is built into our social system, and our recent history just isn’t amenable to changing that, I think for obvious reasons. One of these is that the struggles of the civil rights movement are not only very recent history, but persist to this day. For whites to be able to add to their privilege the benefits whose designed purpose is to counterbalance a long history of racial oppression just doesn’t sit well. To say the least. Particularly given that blacks can so rarely do the inverse (it’s easier to pass for black than white — it only takes the slightest air of blackness for society to pin you as black).

Racial distinction has also played an important role in Western capitalism’s rise to domination. That’s what the concept of race was solidified for back in the 18th century (a conception that originated in the 17th century), and that idea continues to influence our notions about wealth distribution and class structure.

As for gender fluidity, conditions are now such that you can demand to be called she for the day, and many people will accommodate you, especially if you’re in art school. Indeed, I’ve often encountered the passionately expressed assertion that, if you declare yourself a woman, you are a woman, because gender is an experience each of us self-narrates. Period.

A group that has good reasons to reject the “I declare myself” approach are those who claim to have been born the wrong biological sex. They might view such declarations, not as an act of solidarity, but rather as a trivialization of their situation — a situation they didn’t choose, and that doesn’t involve arbitrary or politically motivated declarations of gender, so much as as a definitive self-identification as a man or woman, firmly grounded on predominant notions of inborn sex. (Notice the conflation of sex and gender here, a move that Talusan seems to make in the above-mentioned Guardian article).

Many feminists, too — e.g., second-wavers — reject the declarative approach’s felicity, and sometimes go a step further to also reject cases of biological males claiming their true selves to be women, given their ability to benefit from being men when its convenient, thus not really knowing what it’s like to be a woman. This is a way of saying that their ontological status remains that of a man, though some of these thinkers will bend a little if the individual undergoes gender confirmation surgery. (A similar argument is used against Dolezal’s attempts at blackness, minus the possibility of a “race confirmation” procedure.)

Despite these disputes, gender fluidity is increasingly acceptable, and even celebrated. Racial fluidity isn’t. Even had Dolezal been adopted by black parents and raised as if black, she still wouldn’t be granted membership into that social group, though people might take it easier on her. In the comments I’ve seen, people have been accusing her of being a sociopath who should be shown no compassion (the most vitriolic of these tend to come from whites who, one gets the impression, wish to distance themselves as much as possible from Dolezal).

I think these accusations are unfair, and oversimplify the complexities of the situation. Who knows knows why she did what she did? Was it white guilt, or even disdain for her own whiteness, gone too far? Or a feeling that she couldn’t do what she wanted to do as a white person — that her message would be stronger coming from a “we” rather than “I”?

Or perhaps she saw her ruse as a means of gaining a more intimate understanding of what it’s like to be seen as black. Indeed, she claims to have been the victim of distressing racially motivated threats, a claim I’ve seen dismissed due to her actually being white. This seems wrong to me. If an aggressor believed Dolezal to be black, and threatened her for that reason, the action was racist, and Dolezal was its target, regardless of Dolezal’s actual race. Is it implausible that this could contribute to a deeper sense of empathy on Dolezal’s part? (Roleplaying with this idea in mind, in fact, is being explored in experiments involving virtual reality.)

[Note: To be clear, it’s unlikely that such threats would be psychologically absorbed by Dolezal in the same way they would be by someone who grew up black in the U.S., which gets at the heart, I think, of what makes her case unsettling for many — i.e., it’s assumed that there are significant racially contingent dimensions, especially negative ones, absent from Dolezal’s experience. Or, perhaps more accurately, the positive and negative dimensions of her racially contingent experiences are assumed to be out of whack, given her outward identification as a (light-skinned, blue-eyed) black woman, but her inward psychological disposition as someone raised white.

It would be particularly interesting to consider stereotype threat here, which is the distracting, or even debilitating, pressure we feel when acting in contexts associated with negative stereotypes about our social group identity. The idea is that we (consciously or unconsciously) expend precious energy worrying about confirming — or being seen to confirm — those negative stereotypes. This, it has been compellingly demonstrated, can lead to underperformance, even among otherwise high-performing individuals, such as American women in advanced math classes, certain minority groups at elite colleges, and accomplished white athletes. For more on this, see social psychologist Claude Steele’s excellent book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time). I can’t recommend it enough, along with Fine’s aforementioned Delusions of Gender. It’d be interesting to consider the role of stereotype threat in transgender experience as well.

At the core of all this is the daunting question of the extent to which various aspects of one’s (social, cultural, internal, etc.) experience have ontological significance for one’s identity as a member of a given social group.]

Or maybe she’s taking the next step in evading affiliation with whiteness, as many whites like to do these days — ever notice how proud liberal white folks are to score low on those “How White Are You?” quizzes? After all, “that’s so white” is not a compliment.

These speculations aside, I’ve been writing with the assumption that Dolezal’s identification as black is somehow the sincere expression of who she feels herself to really be. Whatever her true motives, sincere or fraudulent (I suspect the former), the theoretical questions explored here remain valid and important.

One of the more difficult aspects of her case is that there are things one simply does not do as a socially conscientious white person — such as saying certain words and, case in point, disguising oneself as black. Dolezal, however, does seem socially conscientious, making it hard to simply dismiss her as a racist in blackface. What she was intending to accomplish with her ruse isn’t clear, but caricaturing blackness wasn’t it.

I won’t push this point. Instead, I’ll end with the lovely closing words of Kali Holloway’s “Why It Was So Easy For Rachel Dolezal to Slip Into Black Skin,” one of the more interesting writings I’ve seen on Dolezal’s story:

I’m not sure what Rachel Dolezal’s next steps are, but hopefully, they involve becoming herself again, and sharing the ideals she seems to believe in — which so many people could benefit from learning about. Only this time, as her real, authentic self.

That’s a nice hope to have, and is certainly more compassionate than calling her a sociopath. At the same time, it would be difficult to know how to respond should Dolezal maintain that she has, for the last several years and the first time in her life, been her real authentic self, and that her cosmetological metamorphosis isn’t a forgery, so much as an identity-confirming corrective. While this, as many crudely suggest, might be a sign of a mind in need of help, we might also do well to consider society’s contribution to the emergence of such a sentiment, her felt need to hide that sentiment, and what her story can add to our ever-developing conception of race (and gender) relations in the Western world and beyond.

I hope, smart person she is, that Dolezal soon endeavors to share with us not only why she thinks her self-identification as black should be honored, but also what she thinks her unique experience has to teach us about our society. I hope we can listen with open ears and open minds.


Dan Jacob Wallace

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