Is it Because I is Black?
The character created by Cohen in the name of satire has found its somewhat tragic factual counterpart in Rachel Dolezal, the very white woman who has been presenting herself as black for years, and become a well known figure in the civil rights movement. Dolezal’s parents have now ‘outed’ their daughter, and released pictures of her pre-transition self, complete with straight blond hair.
Interestingly, Dolezal seems to have reaped more opprobrium than praise for her decision to live as a black woman; unsurprisingly, this reaction has prompted comparisons with the widespread enthusiasm expressed for Bruce Jenner’s recent ‘transition’. However those making the rather obvious point that it seems inconsistent to applaud Jenner for deciding to live as ‘who she really is’ while condemning Dolezal for living as she believes she really is have themselves come under fire – the BBC quotes one such tweet: “There is nothing ‘trans’ about #RachelDolezal. Stop w/ the false equivalencies to transpeople. Rachel is a lying, deceitful fraud. The end.”
This is strange.
Way back in 2000 an article in The Guardian examining the Ali G phenomenon showed some prescience when it described him (in a phrase that probably would no longer escape the editor’s pen) as, ‘the racial equivalent of a gender-bender.’ G was ridiculous because it was so obvious it wasn’t because he was black.
Unlike Sacha Baron Cohen, Dolezal does seem to have genuinely believed herself to be black. Whether this was because of a psychological illness, a genetic predisposition, a sense of increased social kudos, an innocent untruth that took on a life of its own, or because ‘Rachel is a lying, deceitful fraud’, I have no way of knowing. Nor, in a sense, is the reason for Dolezal living this way especially interesting. What is interesting is that she seems to have genuinely believed she was black – this was not simply a cosmetic decision about hair styles, but a deeply felt identification with the sufferings and struggle of African Americans – and it is therefore painfully ironic that she should not be treated with at least as much sympathy as, say, Jenner.
If what one feels about oneself is the basis for gender identification, why should what one feels about oneself not be the basis for racial identification? Why should anyone have a problem if I tick the ‘Black, Caribbean’ box on a census form? They should check their trans-privilege and let me express myself as I want.
Of course, the lunacy of this is plain. I am white, not black. Yet the differences between races are far less significant than the differences between the sexes. A black man and a white woman are as able to produce children as a man and a woman of similar skin tone – precisely because of the fundamental distinctions between men and women. Which is why laws to prevent mixed-race marriage were always wrong, but legislating for same-sex ‘marriage’ is madness. How then can we celebrate Jenner while denigrating Dolezal?
Actually, I don’t think either celebration or denigration are the appropriate responses to these individuals. Rather, our response should be one of compassion, alongside a clear-eyed reality about the tragedy of people claiming to be what they are not.
Ali G was not black, neither is Rachel Dolezal, no matter how much she believes herself to be. And a man cannot be a woman. The bare-fisted obviousness of this is made clear in the realm of women’s sport, which is impossible to sustain if trans men are allowed to compete as women. For instance, transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox has been smashing his way through female opponents. Of course he has. There isn’t any need to ask, ‘Is it cuz I is a man?’ – what else could anyone have expected? Bruce Jenner wouldn’t have won that Olympic gold medal if he were really a woman.
Ali G was a joke, because pretending to be something we are not can be funny. But believing we are something we are not is tragedy.