Skin


Image from Duncan Philpott

This week’s post is one which has somehow managed to begrudgingly sustain my attention yet annoy me at the same time. Granted, this doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen I really do feel it. One on hand, I really didn’t want to write about this because I feel that it has received enough media attention, trivialised serious issues that ethnic communities around the world continue to face and has shifted our focus from more pressing matters. But on the other hand, this case is thought provoking and opens up an avenue of discussion about personal identity which is very rarely discussed.

As many of you know, the former leader of the Spokane, Washington Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Rachel Dolezal has resigned. Her resignation came following Dolezal’s parents ‘outing’ her as a Caucasian woman and that she had been pretending to be an African-American woman for nine years.  Newspapers and online publications, as well as social media, has been saturated with stories as the world struggles to understand why a Caucasian woman would choose to identify herself as an African-American woman in this day and age. In fact, it’s almost impossible to not go online without being submerged in a sea of stories about her.

It wasn’t long before people began comparing Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner (which is a completely different thing), stating that it was acceptable for her to have lied because she had done a good job and that Dolezal probably suffered from a mental illness. The latter has not been confirmed or disproved, but it was disheartening to read and hear such things, because it mocked the nature of mental illness. These comments were often backed up with people stating that Dolezal was trans-racial to remarks about ‘Michael Jackson wanted to be white’ and sweeping generalisations that most people of ethnic origin want to look Caucasian.

“Race is a social construct; those condemning Dolezal are merely poking holes.”

Initially, I’d never heard of the word ‘trans-racial’ or even knew that such a concept existed, but once I read this insightful article from Media Diversified it began to make sense.

These comments hurt and shocked me at first; it is not wholly true that all people of ethnic origin want to look more Eurocentric. More and more people of colour are unlearning generations of destructive behaviour and are embracing the way that they look. However, when a universal standard of beauty has sought to demonise and ostracise those who do not look European for generations, it come as no surprise that some feel compelled to alter their looks in order to fit in and/or live with an inferiority complex. The end result? These individuals face condemnation from their own ethnic communities and are subject to ridicule from mainstream society. As a result of this, many grow up simply hating themselves, their cultures and denying/fabricating their ethnic heritage. In addition, they very rarely get an opportunity to openly express the relationship that they have with their identity, in the way that Rachel Dolezal currently has.

I am generally a ‘live-and-let-live’ person; if a particular lifestyle makes an individual happy I generally support it (as long as it does not cause harm, impede other people’s lives or breaks the law) because in our modern world to experience happiness is quite rare. However, even after watching Dolezal’s interview with the Today Show, I still feel deeply uncomfortable about her actions. It’s all very well and good to state on national television: ‘I identify as a black woman’ without experiencing the way that our world perceives and treats African-Americans. Even though I am not of African-Caribbean descent, I would be furious if someone pretended to be a South Asian woman, lied about their background to become a self-styled voice for South Asians.

The final point which I want to take to task is one which has been echoed both online and offline – sadly by some people that I know. “Race is a social construct; those condemning Dolezal are merely poking holes.” This has particularly gotten under my skin; yes race is a human and social construct, but race and ethnicity ultimately form an intrinsic part of a person’s identity. For some people, including myself, their ethnic heritage is borderline sacred which is why such cases feel so raw and cause so much pain. It is a very deep part of an individual’s culture, a community’s culture, their experiences and – most importantly – it is how the world perceives them which in turn has a huge influence on the way that we view ourselves, our cultures and the world that we live in.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Skin

  1. Point of information: Rachel Dolezal was widely believed to be black for at least nine years so you can assume she was fully experiencing the way that our world perceives and treats African-Americans.

    Can you explain why Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation of self-definition is any different to Rachel Dolezal? As far as I can see, the transgender issue is in current popular media whereas this is the first mainstream discussion around transracial issues. In both cases, someone born white and male may choose to define themselves as black and female and that has no impact on what it means to be male, female, black or white. It has no impact on you as a person who is male, female, black or white. My personal view is that you are born what you are born so Caitlyn Jenner is still a man and Rachel Dolezal is still white as far as I can define it but if they choose to be seen otherwise then I respect their right to do so and the rest of us ought to accept them accordingly.

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    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment – I apologise for my late reply as I’ve been unwell recently.

      Sure, nine years working within and posing as a black person could arguably make an individual much more nuanced and ‘in tune’ with what African-American communities face. However, it does not mesh with what Dolezal has been doing – firstly it was deception on a massive scale (which also exposed the NAACP) and although she posed as an African-American woman for nine years, for many, that length of time does not make her an authority on struggles that African-Americans face.
      Dolezal was reportedly sending herself hate mail and sued a university for not hiring her on the basis that she was a pregnant Caucasian woman. She opted in and out of identities when it suited her – for an ethnic group which has been enslaved and severely discriminated against for the best part of 400 years, this is a slap in the face. From the research and conversations that I’ve had with several journalists and individuals who study identity, race and ethnicity this is a prime example of white privilege in a dangerous form. Can you imagine a person of colour. who identified as a Caucasian despite not physically looking Caucasian, being given the amount of media attention and the opportunity to explain themselves in the way that Dolezal has been given? It doesn’t happen.

      Caitlyn Jenner is a completely different issue because it is about gender. While it is fair – and valid – to argue that gender and race are both social constructs, it is easy to understand why many have been comparing the two cases.
      I have found Jenner’s transformation deeply problematic because it has conformed to certain stereotypes about women which I believe should not be encouraged.
      At a glance, Dolezal and Jenner appear to be similar because they are two individuals who have chosen to change themselves based on how they choose to define themselves.
      Defining yourself by race is far more explosive than choosing to define yourself by gender. One is taboo, the other is now generally more accepted.
      The definition of ‘trans-racial’ is not the same as transgender. Being trans-racial is used to describe children who are brought up in a family whose ethnicity and race are different to their own. In this instance, such children grow up being denied of their ethnic heritage, history and sense of belonging.
      In accordance to this definition, what Dolezal has chosen to do, is nothing to do with what being trans-racial actually is. I have no qualms with Dolezal wanting to be a civil rights activist; but why was she unable to say that she identified closely with African-American communities and wanted to help them? There’s nothing wrong with Caucasian people wanting to be allies – just because Dolezal had an adopted brother who is African-American and married an African-American man, does not make her an expert on the black experience.
      What she has done is deeply problematic – an article today in The Economist has published a piece stating that Dolezal has started a new ‘trend’ of white people blacking up. Since when was another ethnic group’s struggles and problems considered to be a ‘trend’? We have not seen this type of narrative being used with regards to Caitlyn Jenner – her transformation has not been touted as a ‘trend.’
      The fact that Dolezal decided to dress as an African-American woman, speak on their behalf and lie to an entire ethnic group (and an organisation) is a big deal. Currently, people of colour are not given much attention – and that becomes even more rare when we look at women of colour – so for her to continue this farce is not helping to address issues of racism or discrimination. I feel that it has exacerbated and inflamed a large part of modern society which is already contentious and nowhere near reaching a post-racial and peaceful stage.
      Nevertheless, it has been an opportunity for people to think about race, ethnicity and personal identity – as someone who used to work in the media, it is very rare for that to happen.

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