It’s About The Privilege

My high school friend T. posts a lot of inspirational memes to her Facebook wall. I usually glide right by because many of them hook into the “let go and let God” or “God never gives us more than we can handle” schools of thought. I’m not a big fan of God perse. Too much contradiction in the PR. Occasionally, though, she posts something I find interesting. A couple of weeks ago it was this. It is not necessary to react to everything you notice.

This speaks to me not just as an introvert but also as someone who finds thoughtful analysis valuable and largely lacking in our increasingly noisy world. These days it’s not thoughtfulness that matters but speed to publishing and how loud you say what you say. Access to multiple channels – think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Blogs, reblogs – or channels with lots of followers that will repurpose your content as their own virtually guarantees that no matter how shitty or ill-thought your conclusions someone will read them.

I’ve been doing my part for months to up the signal-to-noise ratio in the world. Silence here doesn’t mean I don’t notice things. It means I’ve been doubting whether or not my opinion matters at all. Every now and then, though, something happens, some meme, some incredible piece of cultural effluvia ranks so high on the bullshit scale I just can’t let it go by.

Unless your head has been under a rock for the past month there is no way you have missed two of the biggest cultural bombshells in years: Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out and Rachel Dolezal’s exposure. In case you have been under a rock, or are the next unibomber, or maybe have a different filter bubble than I do I will recap.

The ABC News magazine 20/20 aired an interview with Caitlyn Jenner, still then publicly using Bruce and male pronouns, which dragged the transgender community into the public spotlight far quicker than Laverne Cox’s quiet elegance and dignity ever could. Loathsome as it is, we are a celebrity oriented country that often needs that celebrity push to do the right thing that was already in front of us. Once celebrities start saying something is OK or acceptable, values begin to change and a lot of ground gets covered rapidly. In this case, the change in values, much the same as the way Ellen Degeneres’ coming out pushed forward acceptance for gay and lesbian people, is a good thing.

In this interview, which can be viewed in its entirety, Jenner stated that she first knew the outside, the boy she saw in the mirror, didn’t match the girl she felt like on the inside when she was about 8 or 9 years-old. Eight or nine years-old. I’m sure that seems unbelievable to a lot of gender-conforming people who take their gender identities, gender expression, sex, and sexual orientation for granted. My friend J.’s 6 year-old son is already insisting on nail polish and dresses in public. He’s fortunate; his parents want him to be who he is.

Rachel Dolezal, the now former head of the Spokane, WA NAACP, spent nearly a decade presenting herself as a black woman both in public and professionally.  At least she did until her estranged parents outed her as a white woman.

These stories aren’t related in the slightest, except they are. They’re about cultural appropriation and privilege.

Sorry, Grammy. DNA says no.

Sorry, Grammy. DNA says no.

As soon as Rachel Dolezal was exposed, the Twitter-sphere exploded with both mockery of Dolezal and questions about whether or not transracial identity is a real thing. A lot of words have been written about whether or not it’s possible to be transracial. I tend to agree that it’s not. Social construct that it might be, race is largely tied to the color of your skin, which is a function of genetics.

If you belong to a group that isn’t racially privileged, no matter how much affinity you feel for the in-group becoming a member isn’t usually an option. Not only that, but racial identity is largely about shared history, which, unfortunately, is usually about shared oppression. It doesn’t matter how many times my mother repeats that story her Gran told her about our earliest ancestor in this country jumping his indenture, moving west, and settling with a Cherokee woman 23andMe says no Native American DNA exists in me. No matter how drawn I am to Native American myths and culture they aren’t mine by rights.

But then this other thing happened: People started comparing Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner. And…cue the progressive media’s rabid denials that they are in any way the same. Rabid denials of similarity that are just as logically flawed as the assertion of similiarity.

The shouting on Twitter, on Mic.com and on HuffingtonPost asking if Bruce can become Caitlyn why white-Rachel can’t become black-Rachel (or in the case of Twitter, vice versa) asks these questions from a position that assumes Caitlyn Jenner is fake, pretense, and merely pretending or performing. Indeed, Michelle Garcia, Mic.com’s Identities Editor and a former Managing Editor at The Advocate (aka: someone who should know better) specifically addresses the Rachel/Caitlyn comparisons from that angle in her article “Rachel Dolezal Is Nothing Like Caitlyn Jenner — And Here’s Why” writing

So what’s the difference between identifying as black and identifying as a woman?
It’s pretty clear: Dolezal has lied. She’s spent the last decade going out of her way to falsely represent herself as black.
[…]
On the flip side, transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner are not lying. If anything, their decision to come out is the ultimate declaration of honesty, of being upfront with who they are.

Note: Emphasis appears in original article

Garcia is right about that: Coming out, whether it’s as gay or lesbian or trans is one of the hardest, most costly forms of honesty someone can engage in. And it’s not a one-time thing. It’s something you do all your life. What Garcia ignores, what the progressive media will ignore or just choose not to discuss, is that Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner are similar in that they both perpetrated fraud, and in Jenner’s case it was for decades.

Dolezal received a full-ride scholarship to Howard University, often referred to as the black Harvard, which may or may not have been open to her as a white woman. She apparently lied on her application for her position at the NAACP, even going to far as to present a black man who was not her father as her father to legitimize her racial claims. While I’ve been writing this blog entry she’s appeared on the Today Show and in an interview saying she “identifies as black.”

It’s worth noting at this point that gender identity is a combination construct built of both societal expectations and internal psychological perceptions, neither of which is necessarily inherently tied to biological sex.

Caitlyn Jenner spent decades presenting herself to the world as Bruce Jenner1 all the while accessing the privileges available to a white, heterosexual, Christian, (seemingly) gender-conforming2 male.

Put down your green crayon, read the note on language at the bottom, and engage the thinking part of your brain before you decide I’m some kind of anti-trans bigot.

The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were not decades known for their progressive attitudes towards women. Many advantages, like the football scholarship awarded to Bruce Jenner to attend college and the decathlon scholarship he graduated on, just didn’t exist for women. Title IX, which theoretically guarantees equal access for “boys and girls” in all programs that receive Federal funding, wasn’t passed until 1972 when Bruce Jenner was already competing in the Olympics in Munich.

The idea that a woman could earn a money in a sales job while training for the Olympics in the late 1960s/early 1970s is fucking laughable in a time period when women were routinely denied credit simply for being female. The Equal Opportunity Credit Act wasn’t passed until 1974 and women also couldn’t keep their jobs while pregnant until 1978, something Bruce had no problem doing before the birth of his first child Burton that same year.

Bruce Jenner appeared on the front of the Wheaties box making him a household name which he then leveraged into endorsements and other employment opportunities. The first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box: Mary Lou Retton…seven years later.

To deny that Caitlyn Jenner was the recipient of privileges and advantages available to Bruce that would not have been available to Caitlyn is to ignore the systemic inequities of sex and gender in our country.

The difference between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal is not one of actions – fraud is fraud is fraud – but one of necessity. Rachel Dolezal’s choice was one of appropriation. Dave Chappelle said of Dolezal “There’s a white lady posing as a black lady. There is not one thing that woman accomplished that she couldn’t have done as a white woman.”

Caitlyn Jenner’s choice was about survival. Those same eras that were so beneficial to a white, heterosexual, Christian, (seemingly) gender-conforming male were pretty much hell for anyone else. But just because we understand Caitlyn Jenner’s choice doesn’t make the impact of that choice any less squicky and morally slippery.

Coming out is hard. Anyone who does it is incredibly brave, but please, please don’t hold Caitlyn Jenner – a thrice-divorced, self-described Christian, Republican who hasn’t done shit to help out the trans community until it benefited her, and someone who helped foist the fucking Kardashian clan on an unsuspecting world – up as some paragon of virtue.

Yes, Caitlyn Jenner deserves our respect as a human being and as someone who has done something incredibly brave that will benefit people she has never met in ways we can never fully comprehend, but one brave act does not erase a lifetime of sucking up unearned privileges.

Notes on Language

Green crayons down.

1) I realize the proper, respectful form is to refer to Caitlyn Jenner as Caitlyn and to use the traditionally accepted feminine pronouns. I have specifically used Bruce and masculine pronouns here to make a point about privilege and appropriation.

While Caitlyn Jenner may have known she was Caitlyn for most of her life there was no way anyone else did specifically because of her presentation as male and masculine, a presentation which allowed her to accrue benefits that would have otherwise been unavailable if she had been living as Caitlyn.  No matter what she felt inside, the world awarding those benefits and privileges thought they were going to Bruce.

2) Gender-conforming: the term the trans community says should be here is cisgender which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as

Denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender

I vehemently object to cisgender. Its definition, like the definition of gender non-conforming, is problematic because it is largely oppositional. Both terms are defined specifically in their relationship to being “not trans.” Plus, it also contains an inherent flaw: it perpetuates the linking of gender and sex that seems wrong   in a way I can’t quite put my finger on right now.

I get it. We’re all trying to find a term that doesn’t set up the false dichotomy of normal and abnormal, but if the trans community gets to reject the term tranny the rest of us should get to reject these shitty, incoherent, inaccurate, confusing, oppositional definitions.

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