Dolezal’s Damaging ‘Transracial’ Game

With her Today appearance, Rachel Dolezal seems determined to appropriate not just blackness but the rhetoric of transgender identity as well. Even more troubling: she’s getting away with it.

06.16.15 8:00 PM ET

“I identify as black.”

With those four words, uttered during an uncomfortable Today Show interview with Matt Lauer, recently-resigned NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal may have singlehandedly set perceptions of transgender people back at least as many years.

In the past few days, some conservatives have latched onto Dolezal’s bizarre tale of “transracial” masquerading as a way to discredit Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender people, prompting a flood of response pieces pointing out the scientific spuriousness of the comparison.

But with her Today appearance, Dolezal seems determined to appropriate not just blackness but the rhetoric of transgender identity as well. Even more troubling: she’s getting away with it. Despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary, some liberal commentators are beginning to repeat Dolezal’s use of transgender rhetoric.

When asked by Lauer point blank whether or not she is “an African-American woman,” Dolezal simply responded, “I identify as black.”

The language of identity is often used in the transgender community to describe a disconnect between the gender someone was assigned at birth and the gender with which one identifies. Most transgender men, for example, were listed as “female” on a birth certificate but identify as men and, accordingly, take a range of social and medical steps to correct that initial assignment.

By expressing her racial identity in this now-familiar “I identify as…” format, Dolezal is drawing a direct parallel between her own fraudulent behavior and transgender identity in a post-Jenner moment when the public was beginning to accept the latter’s psychological legitimacy.

Two weeks ago, the media was celebrating Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out on the cover of Vanity Fair. Now, we’re debating how closely Jenner’s relatively straightforward transgender narrative resembles the story of an Idahoan white woman who has been lying about her race for years while holding a leadership position in the NAACP.

But Dolezal’s endorsement of the transgender analogy didn’t end with the “I identify as black comment.” In response to a disapproving statement from her parents read to her by Lauer, Dolezal said, “This goes back to a very early age with my self-identification with the black experience as a very young child.”

Dolezal told Lauer that she began identifying as black when she was about five years old.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and black curly hair,” she said. “That’s how I was portraying myself.”

The experience of early childhood cross-identification is another common feature of transgender rhetoric. If one reads any random sample of transgender narratives—like this collection on The Advocate—most trans people can recall developing an implicit understanding of their gender identity at an early age.

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“When I was young, I loved reading Conan the Barbarian,” writes one transgender man.

“When I played games with friends and siblings, I automatically took on the male role,” adds another.

By trotting out an anecdote about drawing herself as black in crayon, Dolezal is speaking the instantly recognizable language of transgender people—whether intentionally or unwittingly—to justify her own identification as black, which seems to have only taken palpable shape after she sued Howard University for discriminating against her on a teaching assistant job application because she is white.

In other words, Dolezal is not just trying to pass as black, she’s also trying to pass as someone whose identity deserves respect on the same grounds as transgender people.

The idea that Dolezal and transgender people are fundamentally alike shouldn’t need another debunking.

There are at least 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. alone—enough to establish it as a palpable, if often invisible, population. People like Rachel Dolezal, on the other hand, are few and far between, hence her almost inherent newsworthiness.

The American Psychological Association (APA), too, has long recognized the possibility of one’s “gender identity” not conforming to “the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” There never has been nor is there likely to ever be equivalent recognition for identification as another race.

Transgender people transition out of medical necessity. Dolezal’s “transition” to black, on the other hand, is surrounded by layers of deception—the Howard lawsuit, the false claim to an African-American father, the refusal to correct newspapers that misidentified her as “biracial”—that she was unwilling to fully unravel in her conversation with Lauer.

And unlike transgender people who can undergo medically-proven hormonal and surgical treatments to embody their new gender, Dolezal cannot become black in any meaningful sense. When asked by Lauer how she had altered her physical appearance, she responded, “I certainly don’t stay out of the sun.”

There’s no comparison between the effects of years of hormone therapy and a day on the beach.

But that hasn’t stopped some commentators from endorsing Dolezal’s claimed blackness by making dubious analogies to transgender experience.

On Monday’s episode of The View, Whoopi Goldberg said, “If she wants to be black, she can be black. Look, just like people say, ‘I feel like a man, I feel like a woman, I feel like this.’ She wants to be a black woman, fine.”

On Tuesday, a sympathetic op-ed on CNN that uses Jenner’s previous name asked, “Why is it that we celebrate [Caitlyn] Jenner’s gender change and frown upon Rachel Dolezal’s racial change?”

And this past weekend, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry—who has a history of support for the transgender community—was surprisingly willing to accept the conflation of trans terminology with Dolezal’s story.

“I want to be very careful here because I don’t want to stay it’s the equivalent of the transgender experience,” Harris-Perry said. “But there is a useful language in ‘trans’ and ‘cis.’”

“Can it be that one will be cis black and trans black?” she went on to speculate, angering many of her longtime fans, as The Root reports.

Dolezal already managed to convince her professional and personal circles that she was black but, even in the midst of her public discrediting, her powers of persuasion still seem to be intact. She’s subtly using transgender identity to lend credence to her own and even a longtime transgender ally like Harris-Perry cannot see through the scheme.

Dolezal’s domination of public conversations around identity comes at a particularly inopportune time when she has the potential to further stall acceptance of LGBT people.

Despite the current widespread support for Caitlyn Jenner, a February poll commissioned by GLAAD found that nearly 60 percent of non-LGBT Americans “would be uncomfortable if they learned their child was dating a transgender person,” with over a quarter saying they would be “very uncomfortable” with this situation. Based on this data, Americans are already predisposed to see transgender people as somehow less than others.

At a moment like this—and as strange as this possibility seems—this lone woman from Idaho has the potential to do real damage to public perceptions and conceptions of transgender identity.

Her mere existence was enough to spark initial delegitimizing comparisons on the Right between her and Caitlyn Jenner. The fact that these comparisons are sticking on the Left as well is not quite as expected but still discouraging.

Caitlyn Jenner can identify as a woman because she is a woman psychologically, socially, and hormonally. Rachel Dolezal can “identify as black” all she wants but she isn’t black and she never will be. This is not a contradictory political position. It’s science.