Race, Gender, and Social Constructs

This story about Rachel Dolezal – the NAACP leader who represented herself as black even though she is white – has been blowing my mind since I first heard about it.

Seriously, I have so many questions.

But with Dolezal announcing her resignation today, it seems unlikely that I’m going to get any of the answers I’m looking for.

But the whole affair has raised some interesting questions.

Isn’t race a social construct? How is being ‘transracial’ different from being transgender? Why should we celebrate Caitlyn Jenner but shun Rachel Dolezal?

Those are good questions, and they are important questions.

In my circles, these questions have mostly come from well-intentioned liberals – myself included – trying to articulate what our instinct tells us so plainly: ‘transracial’ – if that even is a thing – is not the same as transgender.

There may be some parallels, sure. For example, I can imagine Dolezal claiming that she is a “black woman on the inside,” or that she was born into the wrong body. I’ll never know Dolezal’s true motivations, but I have personally heard at least one white person make such a claim.

My instinct is to scoff and to find such a statement deeply offensive. I mean, what kind of white privilege do you need to feel comfortable declaring such a thing?

But perhaps that’s how transphobic people react to the struggle of the transgender. I couldn’t say, but it seems tenuous to simply trust my instinct with such a response.

There have been some great take downs of so-called “transracialness”: in pretending to be black, Dolezal indulged “in blackness as a commodity.”

Transgendered people face a real struggle – as Jenner told Vanity Fair, “I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live,” while “Dolezal is not trying to survive. She’s merely indulging in the fantasy of being ‘other.'”

Or as another article puts it: “Rachel didn’t want to be Black because she *felt* Black, because Black is not a feeling.  Black is an existence that was created for us by racists as a tool to justify ill-treatment and codify oppression into law.”

These are helpful arguments, but they still don’t quite satisfy me.

After all, it was just last week that I was hearing that long-time feminist leaders felt uncomfortable with Jenner’s decision to come out as femme. After all, what does it mean to “feel” like a woman? Certainly it is more than being a pin-up girl.

While it is easy to dismiss such concerns as transphobic, I think it’s more productive to engage assuming good intentions.

Elinor Burkett writes that “Women like me are not lost in false paradoxes; we were smashing binary views of male and female well before most Americans had ever heard the word ‘transgender’ or used the word ‘binary’ as an adjective.”

Whether appropriate or not, I can see why she might be disappointed to see a person who has benefited much of her life from male privilege choosing to showcase her womanhood in such a gender-stereotypical way.

So all of this has gotten us nowhere.

Power and privilege are make it more inappropriate for a white woman to claim blackness, but its not solely an issue of power and privilege.

After all, there is a power dynamic at play when it comes to trans women – but I believe it is our moral responsibility to welcome trans women as sisters and invite them to (re)define womanhood with us – whatever that means to them.

The situation with Dolezal is different. I wouldn’t presume to tell the black community what they should or should not do, but neither would I fault them for refusing to embrace Dolezal and for finding her blackface routine offensive. It is offensive.

The reality is that race is a social construct, and that gender is a social construct, but that does not mean that we should treat them the same.

That fact that this is all so confusing is good – it emphasizes the constructed nature of these institutions and forces us to re-evaluate what it means to have a gender or a race, and it makes us confront the important question of who has the right to define those terms.

As a white person, am I comfortable leaving it to the black community to define blackness, but as a woman I would be dissatisfied with any definition of “female” which excluded trans women – even if that’s what was wanted by the majority of people who were identified as women at birth.

So power is a critical piece of this, but there is some more.

Michel Foucault brilliantly documented how mental illness is a social construct. And how, like many other constructs, it can be dangerous – giving those in power permission to detain and torture those who are found to be outside the norm.

But just because it is a social construct, doesn’t imply that anyone can declare themselves mad.

In fact, mental health can be a positive social construct – allowing people who need help to get the help that they need. And hopefully, someday, removing the stigma around mental health.

All of that is to say that “social construct” is not one thing. They are not universally bad and we should not deconstruct them all to be universally permeable.

Social constructs are how we make sense of the world around us. They are how people in power maintain their power, but they are also how those who are oppressed reclaim their power.

It’s messy and it’s complicated and its complex – because by its very definition a social construct is “constructed” by society. It’s a thin facade that quickly looses coherence when questioned.

These are our rules, our collective rules, and we have the right to change them – or not – as we see fit.

The social construct of race has a very different history from the construct of gender for one simple reason – they are not the same and they shouldn’t be treated as such.


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