Caveats Abound

« June 2015 »

Memo to shitty arguments: YOU ARE DUMB.

With the ongoing, unnecessary saga of Rachel Dolezal, the former Spokane NAACP head who has apparently spent much of her adult life pretending she was black has raised an exciting new stupid argument amongst the right.

The argument goes something like this: If Caitlyn Jenner can declare her gender, and if we all have to abide by that declaration or get yelled at by people on Twitter and called "bigot", then why isn't it OK for someone to declare their racial identity? And while the argument is clearly meant to undermine transgender rights rather than support a more fluid definition of race, it's still worth addressing, because it's so fucking stupid it's almost accidentally smart.

The short answer, as it usually is, is that different things are different, so stop being such an asshole.

The long answer is that it sort of is OK, or it would be OK ideally. I mean, in a lot of ways, it's already happening, all the time. But since this argument is being made by stupid people, I should probably back up and explain the difference between gender and race.

Bearing in mind that I am neither a biologist nor a sociologist, gender and racial identity both live somewhere along the spectrum between biology and sociology. Just not the same place along that spectrum. For example, sociologically, someone born to a black father and a white mother is considered half black and half white. Biologically, they inherit a variety of traits from both parents, and their resulting appearance determines their racial identity largely due to society's reaction. I've mentioned this before as the "cab driver rule". Barack Obama is half black and half white (simplified), but is our first black president because the traits he's inherited will lead a cab driver to be less likely to pick him up.

Gender, while not binary, is more binary than race. A male father and a female mother don't generally produce offspring considered by society to be half male and half female. There's more biological stuff tied up in gender than there is in race, because race is a sociological construct we've largely projected onto smaller, mostly visible differences, no matter what The Bell Curve says.

Which is why people have been choosing their racial identity for centuries, for a variety of reasons, to a variety of reactions. Mixed-race people who can sometimes choose to "pass" as white, because even now, it's a lot easier. Because of oppression and tribalism, this can be seen as a betrayal of one's real minority status, but I'm not going to pass judgment either way, I'm just pointing it out for context.

What Dolezal is doing, changing your appearance to "pass" as a minority, is more complicated, because, despite what affirmative action opponents would have you believe, it's not easier. Dolezal herself is, as far as I can tell, has some shit broken in her brain beyond the issues at hand, but in general, changing your appearance to be perceived as a minority raises a lot of political issues - cultural appropriation, stereotypical caricaturization, and attaching yourself to a legacy of oppression you weren't actually subject to. All awkward stuff, all very grey-area stuff.

Gender identity is different, mostly. Nearly every story of gender transition I've heard starts with the person saying they've always felt they were a different gender than they were born as. I've never seen the parallel construction for race. Not saying it doesn't happen, but if it happened as often, I bet I'd have heard of it.

So the twist is that even though gender has a more concrete basis in biology than race does, and even though race is more of a social construct than gender is, declaring your gender identity is socially more clear-cut than declaring your racial identity, at least in the kind of comparisons stupid people are trying to make. It's all way more complicated than the oversimplification we're being presented with, and that's just based on the aspects of it I sort of understand as a cis white nerd who can't even pass as a tanned white person.

Which puts me back at the short answer. Different things are different, so stop being such an asshole.