Recent events in blackface have brought renewed attention to the concept of social construction. If gender is a social construct and race is as well, some wonder why it’s okay for transgender people to change their gender presentation but not for white people to become black. The answer is that yes, race and gender are both social constructs, but they are not constructed in the same way and to treat them the same way is reductive and does a disservice to both people of color and trans people.
We can thank Rachel Dolezal for all of this. People are getting things confused because she’s a confusing person, whose motives make little sense. Her insistence on doubling down and digging herself ever deeper is amazing, because it’s a level of commitment you rarely see. It’s a level of commitment she surely didn’t carry into pursuing her MFA, conidering her plagiarism.
So we’re going to talk about the difference between race and gender in an American context. Let me start, then, with an analogy. Race and gender are social constructs. That is, they are built up by agreed-upon social convention. Constructs, however, can have wildly different appearances, functions, and building materials. A roller coaster made of K’nex and Fort Knox are both constructed, but one would never compare them because the only thing they really have in common is the fact of their construction.
Just as a K’nex roller coaster and Fort Knox are both constructs but wildly different within that very broad category, so too are race and gender both constructs but highly different.
But before we get there, one point of clarification. Even if gender and race were constructed of similar stuff in similar ways, we couldn’t call this Rachel Dolezal transrace, or trans black, or her parents cis white. Transrace already exists as a concept and label for those who are one race and whose parents are another, particularly among adoptees. Transracial adoptees, despite their parents’ good intentions, may find difficulties in the world as a result of the disparity of races. Indeed, even the most well-intentioned parents of one race cannot know from the inside what the lived reality of life in another skin is like. They may very easily unintentionally fail to prepare their adopted children for the realities they will face on account of their race.
But that’s semantic. It addresses why we can’t call Rachel Dolezal transrace, but it doesn’t touch on the difference between race and gender.
Let’s start with gender. Gender is a construct of identity and language, as the ability to think and express a gender identity is essential to claiming one (rather than having one thrust upon you, as many do upon seeing a baby’s genitals). It’s not until children become verbal that they begin to process and sort out what they understand gender to be, as they try to map language to the world they see. Since our society so strongly prefers a binary understanding of gender that maps onto genitals (because humans never, ever, have genital configurations or chromosomal makeups that map onto anything other than a penis/vagina, XY/XX binary), it simplifies things and collapses gender and sex into one thing.
Except we don’t walk around seeing each other’s bits all that often. Since we don’t see people’s genitals or chromosomes, but their appearance, people conflate sex and gender by assuming what the bits are based on a person’s gender presentation. This is highly unreliable, not least because it becomes confounded by anyone whose presentation doesn’t land squarely in a culturally accepted norm of gender.
Other people’s junk just isn’t anyone’s business but theirs and the people they are consensually using that junk with. And gender identity, as a thing that is very much an internal identifier with your culture’s conception of gender, doesn’t much relate to the junk. Some trans people feel dysphoria because of how strongly culture enforces the idea that sex and gender are related, but others seem content to live the gender they identify with even if they have what society deems to be the “wrong” pants bits.
When a trans person comes out of the closet, they are sharing with you something personal, something that until then has been known only to them. They’re giving you a glimpse into their mental pants and removing the issue of assumption that pervades our cultural understanding of gender. They’re giving you their pronoun, the keys to how they see themselves. After all, any time you mentally assign a gender to a stranger on sight, you’re guessing. You may be right nearly all the time, but you’re guessing all the same. A trans person coming out to you is giving you the gift of not having to guess, and entrusting you with that knowledge. Be a good person about it. After much time presenting as the wrong gender, now they can present as they see themselves. It’s liberation.
Race is, well, a different thing. Biologically speaking, race isn’t a thing. There isn’t enough genetic difference for it to be one. That said, there are biological factors of sorts which come into play in the social construction of race.
Race is in part built upon appearance. That is, part of the definition of race relies on grouping people into smaller groups based on superficial features. Skin color is a well-known element in this grouping, though not determinative by itself. If it were the sole determiner, half of New Jersey would have to change their racial classification to Oompa Loompa.
Race is partly heritage. Blood quantum was used for so long to keep people in one box, despite appearances. The Latin American casta system of the colonial era was an extreme form of this, though examples such as grandfather clauses also employed this.
(Note how in the casta system it was possible to “redeem” the Native upwards into whiteness if the mixed-race child of a Spaniard and an indigenous American had a child with another Spaniard, but that if any African blood entered the bloodline, it would lead to generations of “impurity” and inescapable blackness.)
Race can tie into religion, as well. Part of the early construction of the idea of whiteness as a racial identity was tied up in the identity of white peoples as Christian, as opposed pagans and Moors (a category conflating blackness and Islam). In this way, Islamophobia ties into racism.
There’s social agreement. White has been a very fluid racial category, often accepting and dropping groups when it is convenient. Latino Americans, for instance, have been tossed back and forth into and out of whiteness for a long time, even as many of us maintain our mixedness and difference as its own racial identity. Famously, the Irish became white too (there are a lot of traditionally Catholic ethnic groups who were not initially accepted as white, just to bring us back to the way religion is part of this. You didn’t think WASPs were that combo by accident, did you?)
And then there’s the way other people read your identity, how other people interpret your racial identity.
Let’s take a few examples.
Imagine a young woman of Vietnamese ancestry. She was adopted when she was a baby by a very caring white couple in the United States. By inclination, she hasn’t expressed much interest in her heritage, and her parents do not know enough to give her more than very basic information mixed with some stereotypes.
She’s very close to her family, and despite having a name which does not indicate her heritage, her skin tone and facial features very much correspond with an American cultural understanding of what it means for a person to look “Asian.” Her appearance makes clear to her that she has a different heritage from her parents. Even if she hasn’t judged it personally interesting, she knows it is there.
And, as other people encounter her, they read her as having this heritage. Some will erroneously assume a Korean, or Chinese, or Japanese heritage. Others may guess correctly. Either way, she gets to “benefit” from the racist assumptions people hold about Asians in America. Whether she wants to or not, she is forcibly brought face to face with the way she is perceived differently from her parents based on people’s idea of race. And despite having white parents, she can’t just take off her skin and live life as a white person because her race is part of her heritage, and that’s not skin deep.
Another example. Let’s say there’s a young man of Puerto Rican descent, who is 1/4 Puerto Rican and at times in his life was white passing. His grandfather died young and left his white wife to raise their children, who visibly weren’t white - they are clearly children who would be classified as mestizo under the old casta system, at best.
The young man’s father was raised without ties to his father’s culture and married a white woman, ensuring the young man is raised fully immersed in white culture. When he’s small, it doesn’t matter much. People don’t read him as other than white, and if they do his mother steps in and insists otherwise - that only begins when he’s older and his features begin to define themselves. Now, despite having moderately light skin, he is clearly read as not white, which ties him back into a shared history that his father never spoke to him about and he could never learn from his deceased grandfather. He forms his identity in part in response to how others treat him based on their perceptions, and in part based on his attempts to reconnect with the heritage his family could not connect him to directly.
Even if he has limited ability to pass, he does not have the ability to simply take off his Latino heritage and declare himself completely white. He has no desire to, but rather to try and reclaim it. He, like the Vietnamese woman of the first example, has no ability to just assume whiteness. He is me.
What a transgender person is doing when they come out is announcing that they will not accept society dictating who they are based solely on an arbitrary presentation decided for them by their parents. Some choose to adopt a new presentation to force society to perceive them as they would like to be. Some adopt presentations designed to confound society’s arbitrary and limited ability to perceive gender.
What Rachel Dolezal has not done is not stand up to a society that aggressively misinterprets her heritage and features. She has co-opted another race’s oppression for fun and profit. She has used visual cues to mislead people about her heritage and features.
What’s more, Rachel has fabricated a history in order to give herself the appearance of having blackness in her bones, convincing a black man to pretend to be (or pretending that some arbitrarily chosen black man was) her biological father, convincing her adopted brother to maintain her cover, learning just enough of the discourse about what it means to be a racialized person in America to be able to talk around those who are less educated in the capacity of an adjunct professor, plagiarizing black artists for her own benefit, taking a position and scholarship at Howard University that would be better used to help a young black person go to college (if not specifically earmarked for just such that purpose), wearing blackface, taking up a leadership role in the NAACP under false pretenses (white people have been leaders in the NAACP and there’s no reason she couldn’t have done this without pretending to be black), and fabricating hate crimes in order to bolster the idea that she’s hated as a black person.
A transgender person does no intrinsic harm to people of their newly-proclaimed gender identity. Rachel Dolezal’s pretending that she can just up and be black does very tangible harm to black people purely in the production of her illusory blackness, including taking scholarships away from deserving black students, increasing suspicion that racially motivated hate crimes are bull, plagiarizing black artists, trying to stand as an authority on who gets to be a person of color, wearing blackface, creating tension between mixed-race and monoracial black people (as well as mixed-race people of other racial backgrounds and their parent races), and many other harms.
She unsuccessfully sued Howard University for reverse racism against her as a white woman, perhaps the second whitest thing about her.
The long and the short of it is this: ten years in blackface doesn’t make you any less a cracker. It actually makes you more a cracker. And Rachel Dolezal is the biggest, blandest, whitest cracker ever.
Image of Rachel Dolezal before and after from CNN.