Considering Racial Dysphoria
by Marie Marshall
A couple of weeks ago, I drafted the short post below, but never got round to publishing it. Then, the other day, the controversy over Rachel Dolezal broke out. So I wondered whether this might give me the opportunity, in fact, to address the issue after all. Accordingly I have redrafted it in the light of recent events, and the result is below.
Our current view of sexuality and, more especially, of gender identity is that it is fluid. For example, someone born with all the physical attributes of a girl might, at an early stage or much later in life, feel that a male identity was more in keeping with their psychological and emotional outlook. For some this can be a tenuous feeling, for others it is the strongest indication that they* should take radical steps to correct – as they see it – the mistake of their physical birth-gender. Their first step is often to ‘live as’ a person of the other gender, presenting themselves socially, in appearance and behaviour, as one would expect from a person of that gender, expecting those people-in-the-street who don’t know them, simply to accept what they see. Modern, Western society is increasingly accepting of this fluidity of identity, although the subject still does attract controversy.
I want to ask this question: if gender, then why not other fundamental birth-attributes? Why not race? I can see that you’re shaking your head already, just like we all would have done a few generations ago at the idea that someone could identify with another gender, let alone change theirs to it.
When I was at school in the 1970s, I had a friend who was a James Joyce completist, and if asked for her ethnicity she would say ‘Pseudo-Irish’. I realise that this is a simple question of cultural affinity, and that whether she was by heritage English or Irish she would always be regarded as ‘white’, but on the other hand in these islands the distinction between ‘Celtic’ and ‘Saxon’ was serious, deep, and fundamental. No Irish Nationalist at the time would have seen her as anything but a ‘Brit’. Heads would be shaken at any suggestion that she identify with an ethnicity other than she one she was born and brought up in.
In 1921, in Vallejo, California, a son was born to Greek immigrant parents. His name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. His father ran a grocery store in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood. Although his racial heritage was Mediterranean / Southern-European, he identified himself with the African-American community, and lived his life as one of them. He wrote, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.”
No doubt his Mediterranean complexion and his dark hair helped to give the impression that his heritage genuinely included African, and his familiarity with black culture made it easy to fit in. Nevertheless it was a definite trans-racial identification. As ‘Johnny Otis’ he became a musician and bandleader, and was highly influential in R&B, an essentially African-American genre. As such, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame in 1994.
Johnny Otis’s case was, until recently, exceptional. Incidences of trans-racial identification are far, far rarer than gender dysphoria – until the issues raised by Rachel Dolezal’s covert identification surfaced, the closest I could get was that of Johnny Clegg’s identification with Zulu culture in South Africa. However, when one considers that we are all one species, why should such a thing be a matter for head-shaking? I grant that this would be a problematic issue where there had been extremes of prejudice between the races concerned in someone’s identification – imagine an African-American who today identified as European-American, imagine the resistance to that idea amongst members of both race communities – but even in such scenarios, the overt action of Johnny Clegg and the covert action of Rachel Dolezal may be regarded as politically pioneering.
Seriously, if we ceased to regard matters such as race as fixed – exactly as we now do with gender – would race-hatred gradually lose its relevance in the world? Just think about that for a minute, consider it, ask yourself the question. At some time in the future, will all the opprobrium currently heaped on Rachel Dolezal change, in retrospect, to admiration?
*I’m using the ‘singular they’ throughout; it’s a usage with a long pedigree, and if it’s good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for you.
How about we simply acknowledge the simpler, more obvious conclusion; that both race and gender are in fact fixed and we can’t simply self-assign them according to our internal desire.
You do right to point to two things. Firstly how people regard themselves. Secondly how society regards them. I’ve been alive long enough to know that these things are not as fixed as we would like to regard them. Such a view is simplistic (see immediately above). I have seen them change several times during my lifetime, and I expect them to change just as often and just as radically after I’m gone. Human beings are complex, and we understand only very little about ourselves, particularly the way our minds and our perception work. An Occam’s Razor approach will not work where we neither know nor fully understand the factors involved. We kid ourselves if we think it will.
I am inclined to the conservative view that as race and gender are factual things, and not matters of perception, one should fly in the face of those givens only in exceptional circumstances. A lion neither does or should behave like a tiger, nor aspire to be one.
Sex is a bit difference to race. There are men who physically appear as women when their gonads failed to descend in utero. I’m not sure what’s behind men wanting to be women, though, like Ms. Jenner. I met a man recently who started out as a woman and has had umpteen sex change operations including constructing a penis. I could not tell he was not a man in action and behavior. There is an argument that sexual roles are inculcated in children, so that would argue that how a person feels about their sexuality is somehow a choice, and so I guess it’s a combination of nature and nurture. Race is something different since it is not a term that biologists use as we are all one species. Race is a social construct and is power issue where one group can dehumanize another for economic ends based on a physical characteristic. Culture is something that can be learned and people can empathize with certain facets of culture and even the oppressed, which seems to be what Rachel did. It’s not so much that she identifies as black, but that she pretended to be black to gain positions of power in the black community. Obviously blacks could not do the same because of the color of their skin. A question to ponder would be could she have risen to the same level in the NAACP if she identified as black but openly disclosed she was white?
The analogy of tiger/lion is not a good one. Lions and tigers are separate species. We human beings are not.
Sociologists and sociolinguists will tell you that how we present ourselves to others in what we do and say is a performance, an enactment. We like to assume that it is ourselves showing what we actually are, but that is hardly ever the case. Every day involves us in hundreds of minute, moment-to-moment adjustments in our self-presentation, which, if we were able to stand back, see them, and analyse them, would make us wonder whether we had a ‘self’ at all, and whether what we regard as ‘self’ is in fact something very changeable, very fluid. Every day we change our appearance. I put clothes over my pinkish skin in order to keep warm in this climate, but those clothes are not pink; by-and-large they’re dark blue, but sometimes red, sometimes grey. These chameleon colours on me, and on others, say things about mood, about priorities, about status, about aspirations, about conformity and non-conformity, and above all about the enactment of identity; but how much do they really say about actual self and true nature? A person may dye or bleach his or her hair, a person may wear coloured contact-lenses or a bronzer – what do these chameleon colours say about the role that is being attempted? If nothing else, they say “I am blonde”, for example, when I was born brunette.
Some of these changes can be put down to ‘internal desires’, others to social and cultural expectations, even those that are adopted to flout such things. Others still, probably many, may not be so easily analysed by such sweeping terms. They all impact on perceived ‘fact’, challenge the notion of ‘givens’, test what is ‘fixed’, if only in small ways.
But if this is so in the micro, why not in the macro? The actions of Rachel Dolezal throw performance into sharp relief. Her deception, most surely a deliberate enactment, became a statement of her utter belief in an identity. Can we actually assume that what she did was done only ‘to gain positions of power in the black community’? In our societies power is a fact, and despite relative privilege it is not something one is necessarily born to. Rather it leans on a narrow set of talents, depending on the field of activity. The two most obvious fields are the entrepreneurial and the political, and it is easy to see the narrowness of the band of talents required there. In Rachel Dolezal’s case, the field was not so much one of conventional politics but of political activism. In that particular field, one of the talents of the successful is being prepared to stick your neck out, to stick your head over the parapet. A better question to ponder than could she have ‘risen to the same level’ in the NAACP if she had openly disclosed that she was white by birth, is did her role actually further the aims of the NAACP?
Could she have been as effective as a mere ‘Wigga’?
It could be argued, with some success I think, that if her actions were covert, then they were only so because society would no more recognise her racial dysphoria and realignment than it would, a few short decades ago, have recognised the same dysphoria and realignment in, say, male dysphorics – the ones who were subjected to aversion therapy as a ‘cure’. Or, a few decades more back, have given any legitimacy to those of us who could only form meaningful emotional and sexual bonds with someone of the same gender as ourselves. We had to be covert in order to rise in societies and enterprises where heterosexuality was normal, normative, a ‘fact’, a ‘given’, ‘fixed’. Yet in many ways our difference was as radical as Dolezal’s.
What marks out hers as exceptional is simply that it is, as far as we know, a dysphoria that is very, very rarely encountered. I gave another example when I cited Johnny Otis, I know of no others, and admitted that his circumstances were totally different from hers. Is rarity a reason to doubt its genuineness? That’s the question worth pondering.