Yes, I know that we already hit this story yesterday. Ed covered it here, while AP weighed in here and here as well. But as I watched the media coverage of the Rachel Dolezal news roll out yesterday I just couldn’t let this particular sleeping dog lie. (And I apologize in advance if this is a bit long but there’s a lot of material to cover. Please bear with me.) The initial questions about what Dolezal is alleged to have done seems fairly cut and dry at first glance, but are they really?
Sure, barring some proof that her parents turn out to be lying or the early life photos are somehow faked, it seems fairly obvious that the woman is about as white as white could be. If you looked in an encyclopedia next to the phrase “white woman” you would probably find her picture. And yes, she seems to have woven an extensive web of lies about who her father is, claimed that her adopted brother was her son and a host of other things which clearly seem to be intentionally deceptive. To what purpose? Was it to advance her career in the civil rights movement? I suppose so, though the NAACP is insisting that she could have gotten that job anyway and that they welcome people of all races.
But here’s my main beef with this coverage. As soon as I read about Dolezal it crossed my mind that there was another, underlying story waiting to be told. Even if she knowing lied and deceived everyone, what if she did it out of desperation to fit in where she felt she truly belonged? What if – in a modification of the speech of the LGBT community – Rachel Dolezal was born in the wrong skin and she truly, honestly, deep down in her brain and her heart self identifies as a black woman? Unfortunately, before that question could even make it out of the gate it was being decried by many people, warning us not to try to conflate the story of Dolezal with that of Bruce / Caitlyn Jenner.
My good friend (and radio co-host) Doug Mataconis didn’t want to discuss this underlying issue, and in fact went out of his way to be insulting and dismissive of anyone who dared bring up the question.
As is usually the case with stories like this, many people in the social media and punditry world seem to have latched onto this story to make some other political point. Specifically, there are conservatives making the argument that if Caitlyn Jenner can choose her gender then why can’t Rachel Dolezal choose her race? You can find one example of that argument in this blog post, and another example here. These aren’t serious arguments, of course, but rather yet another attempt by social conservatives to demean transgender people, a phenomenon that has been quite prevalent on that side of the political spectrum over the past two weeks.
The defense offered as to why this isn’t a serious argument (which we’ll get to below) is weak tea at best, but even if it weren’t it’s a very poor showing when you seem to feel that your argument won’t hold up under scrutiny and you declare it to be The End of the Discussion. (Cheap plug for MK Hammer and Guy Benson there, I know…)
Others chose not to talk about this at all, and I admit that the way Rachel lied about so many things made it extremely easy to focus on that aspect of the story and ignore the other. One example of this was a post by Washington Post editorial board member Jonathan Capehart. Jonathan spends a serious amount of time talking about the damage she did by lying about being black, but he didn’t tread on the ground we’re covering here. But since I’d already interviewed him for Politinerds and stay in touch through social media, I took to Twitter to ask Capehart what seemed to be the key question: You didn’t touch on whether a genetically Caucasian individual can legitimately self identify as black if they don’t lie about it
Jonathan was nice enough to answer that one promptly and he caught me by surprise.
Good question. The answer lies in whether others will accept it. And I find that hard to believe…. https://t.co/mXl7qx8w4j
— Jonathan Capehart (@CapehartJ) June 12, 2015
In case that embed doesn’t display properly for you, Jonathan said, “Good question. The answer lies in whether others will accept it. And I find that hard to believe.”
Capehart’s comments are telling on a few levels when compared to the case of Bruce Jenner. I find that hard to believe …that many people would accept a genetically Caucasian woman who claimed to self identify as a black person. And yet we were told by this same author back after Jenner’s big reveal that it was imperative that we accept the “fact” that Jenner is a woman and we are disrespectful if we don’t employ the new name and chosen set of pronouns. How are we to square these two things? To accept, despite all scientific evidence, that a person is female despite having a Y chromosome and the usual supply of lower anatomical parts associated with being a male is a bit of a stretch to say the least. But if you do accept this prima facie, why is it “hard to believe” that people could accept a statement about someone’s self identified race? After all, race is far more ambiguous than gender in the modern world. It’s not at all impossible that Rachel had some black ancestors somewhere back in history. And failing that, we all came from Africa originally, right?
The arguments being foisted upon us as to why these backwards sounding observations must be correct are simply implausible. Let’s take a look at the science involved. From the linked article above, Doug Mataconis sought to invoke brain scans in an effort to back up his point.
Even taking the arguments at face value, though, they don’t add up. As I’ve said before, I don’t pretend to understand what transgenderism is or what the people who fall into that category are going to, but it seems fairly clear that it is a real phenomenon and not just a choice that someone makes. The best example of this can be found in brain scans, which show that the brains of transgender males or females seem to be closer to the brain of the gender they identify with rather than the one they were born with. This has been documented in studies that go as far back as 1995, as well as more recent studies in 2011, and again in 2013. There have been no documented differences in brain scans between people of different races. Therefore, the analogy that these people are seeking to make has no merit whatsoever.
No merit whatsoever? Not only is it bad debate form to haughtily dismiss any question of your point by essentially saying the science is settled, it’s even worse when the science you cite is beyond sketchy. Basically every doctor in the field will tell you that the brain is the least understood organ in the body. Oh, sure… we’ve made great advances in finding things like tumors and broken blood vessels, but as to the organization of thinking, feeling and reactions, we’re still throwing darts at a distant board in many cases. Doctors can’t even agree if we can use brain scans to conclusively act as a lie detector. The science is improving, but it’s hardly bullet proof.
DNA science, on the other hand, is solidifying quickly, at least in the broad strokes. We can tell who has a Y chromosome and who doesn’t. And there are telltale markers which anthropologists can use to identify the racial heritage of most any person, living or dead. But humans are so blended at this point that most of us have a mix of races, each of which can be partially ferreted out through DNA analysis. The bottom line is that brain scans are dubious at best, but DNA doesn’t lie. DNA can identify gender 100% of the time and it can nail down most of your racial heritage nearly as often. Which science do we believe in more strongly? Brain waves or DNA?
And yet, both Doug and Jonathan Capehart are readily willing to accept the “science” behind a male claiming to be a female, but scoff at the idea of a white woman claiming to self-identify as being black. I think this argument is quickly boiling down to one of people sheltering in their own corners of the political boxing ring far more than relying on any science. And in light of that, perhaps Dolezal actually has done some damage, as Allahpundit previously noted in the second article linked at the top of this piece.
Dolezal, meanwhile, diminishes the seriousness of civil rights for blacks by suggesting that being black is as easy as changing your hair and hitting the tanning bed more often.
In the end, this is the conundrum. There is a political convenience in making these claims, but you are forced to effectively paint yourself into two different corners to do so. So do us all a favor and stop telling us how horrible we are if we don’t accept that Bruce Jenner has always been a woman if you’re not willing to concede that Rachel Dolezal might be black.