Every week there seems to be a social media battle, and a recent one brought up two of the hottest topics we’ve got going at the moment: gender and race.
Bruce Jenner came out as a woman in an interview with Diane Sawyer, then introduced herself as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair. Shortly after, Rachel Dolezal “came out” as a white woman — or should we say — was outed.
Dolezal was the NAACP chapter president in Spokane, Wash. and a faculty member at Eastern Washington University teaching Africana Studies, claiming to be at least partially black for almost a decade and doing speaking engagements on the experience of the black woman in America.
On Facebook and Twitter, people compared Dolezal’s “coming out” to that of Jenner’s just weeks before saying if someone can “choose” to be a woman, why can’t they “choose” to be black?
For LGBT activists, the very idea that the two are the same is shut down starting with the word “choose” — transgender people don’t wake up one day and decide to be another gender.
In fact, the National Center for Transgender Equality didn’t even accept an interview request with SFGN, saying they’ve said their piece on the comparison.
“Simply put: there isn’t one,” they wrote in an email.
Osamudia James, professor of law at the University of Miami, studies racial identity and equal protection together with her studies in law. She also came to the same conclusion.
“I don’t think they’re the same,” the professor said of race and gender. “They’re both social constructs, but as someone on Twitter said, they’re constructed of different things.”
James explains that both race and gender are social constructs — or dictated by society. While some people believe that race is a biological factor, it’s not – there is no black gene, no Asian gene.
Furthermore, with the “one-drop rule,” one is labeled a minority even if they are part white, as if their white blood has been “tainted,” — something society decided. For example, President Barack Obama is just as black as he is white, but he is considered to be a black man. Then there are also social ideas of “talking black” and “acting white.”
Gender gets even more complicated, because it is a social construct with a mix of biological factors. Even though the genitalia between a baby’s legs tells us a newborn is male or female, that baby’s brain could have an entirely different feeling.
That’s where things set race and gender apart, James said, that one can “feel” male or female.
“Your brain wiring tells you that you’re female. That may or may not match with how your chromosomes express themselves through genitalia,” she said. “We do know that very young children understand themselves to be one gender or the other.”
Gender and sex gets even more complicated with the wide array on the gender spectrum, with cis-gender (non-transgender) men and women, transgender people, and gender fluid individuals, or those who do not identify with being either female or male (and this is breaking it down very broadly).
Kat Blaque, a black transgender woman, made a video breaking down the difference between Dolezal and Jenner’s experiences.
“Rachel’s story and Caitlyn’s story are not at all the same,” she explained. “Race and gender are absolutely social constructs, the difference is gender is not a biological trait passed from parent to child whereas race is. Evolution was regional and there’s a reason why my skin is dark…. gender is not passed from parent to child.”
Blaque added a note in her video that it’s not so much race that is the biological trait, but one’s skin color, which is based on melanin levels carried down from one’s ancestors.
With Dolezal’s story, the hashtag #TransracialLivesMatter started trending, playing off of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag following multiple cases of black men being killed by white police officers during arrest.
The word is being used incorrectly — many media outlets have also wrongly described Dolezal as being transracial. Actually, the word refers to those who are adopted into a family that is not the same race as them, for example, an Asian child adopted into a white family would be considered a transracial person.
“I cannot manipulate what race is for my own pleasure,” wrote Lisa Marie Rollins, a transracial adoptee, for “Lost Daughters” blog. “The crucial difference here is that I had and continue [to] have no choice in my blackness.”
In light of Dolezal being outed as a white woman she resigned from the NAACP and is no longer listed as a faculty member at Eastern Washington University. Oddly enough, comedian Dave Chappelle may have said it best, “There is not one thing that woman accomplished that she couldn’t have done as a white woman.”
James noted that while her life as a professor and black activist may have been different, being a white women, “it would have been more honest work and it would have been work that’s needed.”
Much like the importance of straight allies in the fight for LGBT rights.
“People draw these comparisons between Rachel and Caitlyn because they believe that trans people, at the end of the day, are deceptive,” Blaque said. “Who I am at the end of the day is the most truthful incarnation of myself. Transitioning took honesty.”