The Rachel Dolezal Issue: Is Transracial The New Transgender?

Another day, another race scandal.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, a woman named Rachel Dolezal who is a NAACP local leader and an African Studies professor, has been caught in her own lie of living life as an African-American woman for the past decade. Even after being “outed” by her white parents and becoming the target of the web’s furor within 24 hours, Rachel Dolezal still claims she considers herself black.

I’ve warned you on how common controversies involving ethnicity are in America, but this one deserves its own post. So much has been said in so little time about Rachel that it’s hard to keep track. But the question that sparked the most intense debate was related to another person who recently broke the Internet for revealing her true identity to the world: Caitlyn Jenner. Beyond people calling Dolezal crazy, many media outlets and celebrities are wondering why America is embracing Bruce Jenner as a female and not a white woman as black.

While this seemed like a simplistic reaction at first, radio personality Charlemagne Tha God made me consider this as a relevant argument:

“If you’re mad at her just because she’s having an identity issue, but you’re one of the people accepting what Caitlyn Jenner or any other transgender person does—which I don’t have a problem with, I just like to note people’s hypocrisy—you should be more understanding of what this young lady Rachel is going through. (…) This young lady was born a white woman. She now says she’s a black woman. (…) I don’t understand how the rules of acceptance change on a case-by-case basis. They shouldn’t.”

The reason why Rachel Dolezal is causing such a controversy is because her story raises one of America’s most feared questions of the moment: how far can the freedom of self-identification go? If Transgender people become the “new normal,” then what is next? Even before Rachel’s scandal, CNN hosts expressed similar concerns while covering Caitlyn Jenner’s news. 

While these are crucial and interesting society issues that deserve to be studied and debated over, I think the narrative of Dolezal as a “transracial” individual is not valid. Are the cultural exchanges and social dynamics of the modern era leading to cultural appropriation and even assimilation? Yes. Are we going to see more and more people identifying as other races? Maybe…but only History will tell.

If “Transracial” is ever to become a thing, it won’t be because or thanks to Rachel Dolezal. Comparing her story to Jenner’s might be tempting, but is actually offending to the Transgender and Black community because of one missing key factor: honesty. Rachel might have suffered from living life as someone who didn’t feel like her true self, but she didn’t come out. She fabricated a character and put on a costume instead. The “lie” for Transgender people is the one they live since birth and revealing the truth is what sets them free and makes them a community. Dolezal responded to her own existential lie of life as a White woman with more lies, and may I say, not the classiest ones. Let’s not give her the satisfaction of believing that she started a movement. I’ll be ready to blog about Transracial people if such individuals ever come forward, but right now they aren’t real. I personally hope that they will, just so that Dave Chappelle can come up with a Racial Draft 2.0.

Beyond the racial stereotypes that Rachel perpetuated to make up her black identity or claims that she was discriminated against, the fact that she felt the need to switch identity to make a positive impact as an activist should be the real focus. As Rachel resigned from the President of the Spokane Chapter, the NAACP released a statement that serves as a powerful reminder: “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership.” Had Dolezal given some thoughts to that policy ten years ago, she might have made the headlines for positive reasons today.

In the end, Rachel Dolezal is the living proof that post-racial America is a fantasy. It’s the story of a woman so passionate about racial justice that she lost sight of her own prejudice: assuming that racism is a Black matter. In a way, her extreme actions are nothing but the product of the society that brought her up, where race issues are usually given the “white silent treatment.” So why don’t we talk about that instead?

 

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How To Get Away With Diversity on TV

It’s not revolutionary to say that black people and minorities in general need more representation in Western media – just turn on your TV and see for yourself. So when ABC – one of the United States’ historical Big Three TV networks – announced a new all black cast sitcom, it definitely caught people’s attention – including mine. The first thing that came to mind when I heard about Black-ish was: “A new show featuring a black family? Great! But wait…why is it about being black?”

I guess the talented TV guru Shonda Rhimes got me used to dramas where black characters can be the heroes even when race isn’t a central piece of the plot. By taking over ABC’s Thursday night with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and her new show How To Get Away With Murder, the screenwriter/director/producer is not only the first female African-American to produce all shows on a network’s primetime – she’s the first person ever.

Shonda Rhimes has not only given leading roles opportunities to many African-American actors, she also made America care about powerful Female, Latino, Asian, Gay, and Lesbian characters. In a country where race and gender still affect salary, education, health and justice…this is a huge deal. But just like any race-related matter in the USA, Shonda Rhimes has raised controversy as some people don’t seem to understand her vision. And by some people, I don’t mean your average casual racist – I’m actually referring to a New York Times editor.

A very doubtful article written by Alessandra Stanley was recently published on the prestigious publication, in which the author questions Shonda Rhimes’ tendency to tell stories through the lens of strong Black Female characters, while ignoring racial issues in her scripts. Even if Stanley’s intention may have been to start a debate on minorities in the media vs. real life, it’s hard not to deem her piece as offensive when it starts with this: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.” Ouch.

The writer tackles interesting issues but creates confusion by not explaining why they are interesting: “They (Rhimes’ characters) struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.” By not putting things into context – which is a not so post-racial America –  it seems like Stanley’s says it’s totally normal for Black Women to question their legitimacy as powerful individuals.

As awkward as it is, this article does lead to a deeper and everlasting question: should art be a reflection of our society, or should it be a vector for change? Shonda Rhimes’ shows may be Utopian, but if all screenwriters created content that mirrors reality, our perception of the world would stagnate.

The New York Times’ article backlash made me consider Black-ish in a different light. The new comedy is uplifting the audience by showing something you rarely see on TV: a successful African-American family. But it also addresses the issues that come with making it as a Black person in America, like the struggles of staying connected with black culture in a white world or the lack of diversity in the workplace. The one thing it might be missing is the complexity of black identity itself, but for a 20 minute sitcom that has already been compared to Modern Family, I still think Black-ish is a necessary complement to Shonda Rhimes’ achievements.

Will you be watching?

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