“I was drawing portraits with the black crayon instead of the peach crayon.”
Hearing Rachel Dolezal say these words in her interview with the Today show’s Matt Lauer, I found myself immediately thrust back to early childhood memories, when I drew stick figures and wanted to depict myself in a skirt. Obsessed with women’s gymnastics, I tumbled across the open fields of my rural Philippine childhood pretending I was Mary Lou Retton. I read both Alice in Wonderland and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but I imagined myself as Alice, while, in my mind, I only observed Tom’s shenanigans.
I saw my childhood in Dolezal’s words — as a transgender woman, I deeply identified with the isolation that comes with being perceived as one thing and feeling yourself to be another.
I wrote a widely circulated piece for The Guardian last week called “There Is No Comparison Between Transgender People and Rachel Dolezal.” My major argument was that race as a social construct is much less likely to be as fundamental as gender, but Dolezal blew that out of the water when she described her early experiences of identifying as black, invoking the pitiful image of the light-skinned blonde girl drawing herself with the brown crayon.
There’s a lot at stake in parsing the comparison between race and gender. As the ever-smart Janet Mock tweeted: “I'll always champion intersectionality, but in this case trans folks' lives should NOT be part of the Dolezal conversation. It's dangerous.” The danger here is that the comparison has enormous potential to trample on the experiences of both black and transgender people, and expose us to justifications for the constant harassment and violence we experience.
“Who’s to say she wasn’t coached?” my friend Raquel Willis, herself a black trans woman, asked when I talked to her about the brown crayon moment over the phone. “It sounded like a copy and paste from Caitlyn’s trans narrative.”
Yet there were pauses of palpable silence between us as we carefully questioned Dolezal’s story, because we as good trans people are ever so highly trained not to question another trans person’s personal experience, and to affirm their identity as much as we can, however they describe it. We ourselves are subject to constant questions about the formation of our identities, and are under constant pressure to justify ourselves.
Dolezal is now under public scrutiny to justify apparent holes in her narrative — her parents dispute her crayon story, and she’s filed questionable reports of hate crimes for years, to name just a couple. But assuming she is telling the truth: If Dolezal says she identifies as black from earliest memory, who are we to doubt her experience? And more importantly, does it matter if she does?
When Dolezal said in her interview with Savannah Guthrie on NBC Nightly News, “My life is one of survival, and the decisions I’ve made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive,” I heard similarities to general transgender experiences — and also, specifically, my own transgender experience. I lived for a decade as an undisclosed trans woman, allowing everyone except those closest to me to believe I am cisgender, revising my descriptions of my history so people wouldn’t find out I’m trans. Just one person knowing could mean I’d be outed to everyone, risking both my psychological and economic well-being. The consensus in the trans community is that this type of fudging is justified, just as it’s justified for gay people to be in the closet and pretend to be straight to protect themselves.
If I don’t question Dolezal’s description of her experience or her history of deception, as has been justified in my case and those of many other trans people, on what basis would it be possible for me and the wider public to judge her, and prevent her from assuming a black identity?
To answer this question, I’m compelled to tap into my own experience with race. I am generally perceived by a majority of strangers as white even though I’m Asian, but there was actually a short period of about three weeks when many people did not perceive me as either of those two races, but as black.
Back in 2001, in the very early stages of transition before I even took hormones or changed my name, my friend Joyce Bishop, a theater administrator who styled black hair on the side, decided to cornrow my hair for my birthday (one way that Joyce made me feel better about passing for white was reinforcing my identity as a minority through this type of bonding). Afterward, as I took the Red Line train from the black-majority Boston neighborhood of Dorchester where Joyce lived to my job at MIT in Cambridge, I noticed black people on the train look and smile at me in a manner I wasn’t used to, that hard-to-define way that indicated acceptance and acknowledgment, part of a long history of black people accepting individuals with a broad range of backgrounds and skin tones as one of their own.
Over the next couple of days, I saw similar reactions from black people, but also more cautious looks from white people. I even got several queries from strangers, a couple of whom were black, along the lines of, “You’re albino, right?” which I’ve only experienced a handful of times the rest of my life in the U.S. The fact is, I loved being mistaken for black even though I didn’t experience the same legacy of slavery and struggle. It felt so much better than being mistaken for white, given how closely I identified with my minority experience as a first-generation immigrant from the Philippines, where people were called n***ers by white American soldiers during the Spanish-American war.
I would love to continue braiding my hair to reaffirm this mistaken perception of blackness, given how difficult I’ve found it to be perceived as Asian with my naturally straight blond hair, as Dolezal did when she started adopting black hairstyles. But I don’t do it — because it would be such an egregious form of white entitlement, and would be such an enormous betrayal of what it means to be a racial minority in America. Though white people identified me as black, the most I got was a surprised look or a stare because of my light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. I’ve known a number of black trans women who have been arrested for solicitation simply for dressing as they were, a phenomenon known in the community as “walking while trans" — I wasn’t subjected to that danger even when I was seen as black. This is why even though I feel an enormous amount of identification with black people, I would never claim to be black as Rachel Dolezal did — it’s just about the whitest thing a person who isn’t black can do.
I believe this to be true even as I feel empathy for Dolezal, and even if I make the increasingly far-fetched assumption that everything she’s said about herself is true. Transphobes can once again make the equivalent analogy — something like, “Claiming to be a woman is the manliest thing Caitlyn Jenner could ever do.” But the difference, as Raquel so insightfully pointed out during our conversation, is that by claiming to be black, Dolezal (forgiving her deception) becomes the ideal representation of what a dominant white culture wants a black person to be: light-skinned, educated, unthreatening. Jenner and other trans women, no matter how hard we try, will never live up to the expectations of the patriarchy.
Elinor Burkett, in her deeply offensive “What Makes a Woman?” op-ed for the New York Times, argued that Caitlyn Jenner benefitted from decades of male privilege. But what’s clear given how Jenner’s body has been picked apart over the past few weeks is that by transitioning, Jenner has given up a vast proportion of that privilege, as is the case for other trans women. As soon as I transitioned, arguments I make that used to be forceful or intelligent are much more likely to be viewed as strident or hysterical. Even now, my opinions are more likely to be seen primarily as passionate rather than well-reasoned, one of the many unconscious ways in which even well-meaning people diminish women’s ideas.
On the other hand, Dolezal’s potential “transition” from white to black, a word she herself has used, can only benefit her. She wishes to claim the position of a light-skinned, socially respectable black woman, as well as the legal and social protections that black people and other racial minorities have long fought for, and the authority to speak to the black experience she wouldn’t otherwise have.
Moreover, Dolezal does this with a weave, a tan, and a check in a different racial box. She benefitted from others’ assumptions, as she failed to correct news articles that presented her as black. I may have been one of the rare trans women who has managed to be perceived and treated as any other woman without medical intervention, because I was lucky to pass as cisgender even in early transition — but I’ve still had to endure numerous transphobic encounters with government officials and the constant threat of harassment and violence pre–medical transition from people who might discover I’m trans. Other members of my community endure so much worse. Dolezal, conversely, was able to enjoy the benefits of being light-skinned — all while also laying claim to experiences not her own, and expecting the world to accept them as hers.
There is no other word I can think of to describe Dolezal’s actions other than entitled, and no other way to describe how that entitlement is embodied in American culture other than by whiteness. Even assuming that every single justification she’s made about herself is true, the fact is that she wants to lay claim to a history she didn’t inherit, to receive social recognition and legal protections meant for people who continue to endure a long legacy of subjugation.
It is Dolezal’s very belief in her ability to claim blackness that reveals her whiteness. It is the belief that the blank slate of her “human” race can conquer and encompass any other. It is the belief that the only way she can save a downtrodden people is by becoming one of its superior members. It is the belief that Dolezal’s self-perception matters more than any damage she can do to a community she claims to love.