The story of a white woman who seems to have fake-tanned and permed her way into a position as a black civil rights activist in Spokane, Washington, was too juicy to ignore. Late last week and over the weekend, Rachel Dolezal became the latest face who launched a thousand think pieces when her parents, who are by all accounts two white people from Montana, told reporters that Dolezal has been posing for years as a black American. In response, many have drawn comparisons between Dolezal and last week’s op-ed fodder, Caitlyn Jenner. On Twitter in particular, these comparisons were made in a facile manner, using hashtags such as #transracial, #wrongskin, and #TransracialLivesMatter in a way that mocks and demeans transgender people and black Americans alike.
Some in the queer community have summarily dismissed any possible similarities between the two, focusing instead on the insulting way the comparison is being made. But a reasonable person could wonder what the difference really is between someone who is genetically white and feels culturally black, versus another who is genetically, chromosomally male and feels themselves to be female. There are differences—and important ones—but they’re not necessarily as easy, or as obvious, as the queer community would like them to be.
Race and gender have a lot in common in our culture. Both are socially constructed categories that often determine how individuals are viewed and treated by others and where each person falls in a rigid and oppressive hierarchy. Both are constructed on top of biological markers that are observable in infancy. Because of this, they both tend to be seen as clearly defined and immutable, in spite of the fact that there are individuals (for example, black Americans light enough to “pass” as white and people with intersex conditions) who don’t fit within the pre-existing categories. Historically, race and gender hierarchies were even more rigidly enforced than they are now, leading to decades of struggle by those on the bottom to gain the rights and privileges they’d long been excluded from.
In infancy, Dolezal and Jenner were each assigned to a high-status race and gender category, respectively. Both subsequently altered their appearances and sought entry into a different, lower-status category. The discomfort and anger some people who were born black or female feel toward each of them comes from a similar place—to those who never had a choice of whether to grow up being discriminated against and seen as less than, it feels appropriative when a privileged person claims that status in adulthood. There’s no procedure that could give Caitlyn Jenner a girlhood of athletic options limited by her gender, and no hairstyle will ever result in Rachel Dolezal’s grade school teachers lowering their academic expectations for her based on her skin color.
But for liberals who support trans rights and racial equality, there’s an instinctive sense that Dolezal and Jenner are different, and that being transgender is in-bounds while being “transracial” isn’t. The explanation commonly given is that Dolezal misrepresented her actual identity, while Jenner and other trans women are being true to theirs. This leaves a big question unanswered, though: If race and gender are both social constructs, and if both have been built around observable biological traits, then what is the crucial difference that makes a felt gender identity a true one, but a felt racial identity fraudulent? The short answer is that most trans people and their allies suspect that transgender people are born that way.
I say that we “suspect” trans people are born that way because the science isn’t in, yet. When Caitlyn Jenner spoke vaguely of female brains in male bodies it was because there isn’t any clearer terminology that can be employed to speak about this hunch, but it persists in the minds of many trans people and their allies anyway. We do have increasing evidence for specific genetic and epigenetic differences between gay men and straight men that result in homosexuality, but so far scientists have yet to investigate the rest of the letters in LGBTQ as thoroughly. For now, even those who are most familiar with this topic can’t say for sure what being transgender is, and what might cause it. There are, however, circumstantial reasons to believe it may also have a genetic and/or epigenetic basis. For one thing, many trans people report feeling that their assigned gender didn’t match their inner conception of their gender from earliest childhood. We also have evidence of individuals who dressed, acted, or passed as the opposite sex across many cultures and many historical eras. This, paired with the evidence that sexual orientations are innate, not learned, leads us to hypothesize that gender identities function similarly.
The cultural traits related to racial identity, on the other hand, have not been shown to have any genetic basis—quite the opposite, in fact. Science has largely discarded the idea that racial differences beyond superficial physical features have any basis in genetics. Whether men and women differ more profoundly than racial groups do remains a somewhat contested question, but science continues to be done that supports the idea of gender differences within the human brain, while the possibility of such differences existing between races has been roundly rejected
In addition to the suspicion that people are born, rather than made, transgender, there’s also the very real fact that being openly, visibly trans is a far riskier proposition than openly appropriating aspects of black culture is for a white person. White Americans are more or less free to dress in black styles and use black slang unquestioned and unmolested—some white Americans in the music and entertainment fields have even gotten rich doing so. Being identifiably trans, however, brings with it some of the most intense and unrelenting stigma, prejudice, and vulnerability to violence in our culture, particularly for people perceived to be dressing as women. Trans women seeking to pass as cis should therefore be understood as marginalized people (due to their trans status) trying to escape oppression by passing as members of a less marginalized group (cis people of either gender) than as privileged ones appropriating a marginalized group’s identity.
Taken together, this means that being transgender really is different enough from taking on a different racial identity to justify supporting trans people like Jenner, while questioning the appropriative behavior of Dolezal. Still, for most Americans, who don’t know any openly trans people personally and who haven’t devoted any of their time or energy to wondering about them until recently, understanding and empathizing with the experience of transgender people remains a challenge. The Rachel Dolezal comparison may not ultimately hold water, but it’s not unreasonable for some people to have wondered about it, and we should be willing and able to fully engage with the argument, rather than summarily dismissing it.