UPDATED! Don't Confuse Rachel Dolezal with Caitlyn Jenner

There's a pretty bright line between being a fraud and being trans. Unless you're a conservative pundit.


Note: I've updated this post below in response to various reactions.

So it turns out that Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane NAACP chapter, was born white and has been passing herself off as black. Despite getting generally positive reviews for her performance in that position, what's she been up to is a form of professional fraud. 

This isn't fraud in a legal sense, but it's still fakery and trickery designed to get certain outcomes otherwise unlikely. Which isn't to say the NAACP has a problem with it (and as her employer, its position is most important). In a story that gives a concise overview of Dolezal contentious relationship with her (white) parents, the Washington Times' Jessica Chasmar reports the rights organization is standing behind its officer.


Thanks to such odd, if not downright pathological, behavior, Dolezal can't even be seen as the latest in a long line of wiggers ranging from Norman Mailer (whose 1957 essay, "The White Negro: Superficial reflections on the hipster" pretty much conceptualized the category) to Eminem (and virtually all white rappers to one degree or another) to Johnny Otis (the Greek-American rock-and-roll pioneer who explicitly chose a black identity, saying "As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.") In this sense, Dolezal is more akin to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who asserted without evidence (or worse still, contra evidence) that she was part Cherokee.

If progressive social activists are largely pissed at Dolezal's unmasking, conservatives are yukking it up, and for obvious reasons. Dolezal is an embarrassment and confirmation of conservatives' sense that most left-wing, liberal, or progressive race-based discourse is a form of phony special pleading, of trying to explain away relatively negative outcomes for African Americans in a country that is no longer racist and where race no longer matters. As anyone who has caught five or 10 minutes of Al Sharpton over the past 20 or so years can attest, conservatives aren't all wrong. The country is massively less racist than it was just a few decades ago and race is clearly less of a factor for good or ill than it ever has been. To argue, however, that certain systemic issues don't disproportionately affect black Americans is to wish away the drug war, criminal justice questions, dumb labor and licensing laws, and other continuing problems related to race.

But it turns out that what conservatives dig most about Dolezal is that she is a punchline regarding not racial misrepresentation but gender identity. Hence, conservative folks are using Dolezal's unmasking to yet again mock Caitlyn Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and reality TV star formerly known as Bruce.

"If Rachel Dolezal isn't Black, How Is Caitlyn Jenner a Woman?" asks The Federalist's Sean Davis in a representative example of the genre. Breitbart's Ben Shapiro has posted a series of tweets on the following theme:

To say that Jenner's very public coming out disturbed social conservatives is an understatement. Between the ritual unwillingness to use female pronouns in relation to Jenner to exhortations that she is clearly deranged, it's fairer to say that cons lost their shit. "A surgically damaged man appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the applause is mandatory," opined National Review's David French. "If we're not going to defend as a party basic principles of male and female, that life is sacred because it comes from God, then you're going to lose the vast majority of people who've joined that party," howled Iowa talk-radio host Steve Deace. 

It probably didn't help that Jenner called herself a Republican in a widely viewed interview with Diane Sawyer and that low-wattage GOP presidential candidates Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum have shown unexpected kindness toward the one-time world-record holder. In a great roundup of conservative responses to Jenner (from which the French and Deace quotes above are cribbed) and a keen analysis of why the antagonistic response is "ultmately a loser" for conservatives, The Economist's Will Wilkinson writes, "Caitlyn Jenner of Malibu is a leading indicator not of the secularisation of America, but of the ongoing Americanisation of Christianity."

At Outside the Beltway, Doug Mataconis argues that when conservatives equate Dolezal and Jenner, they aren't making "serious arguments, of course."

[It's just] 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. Even taking the arguments at face value, though, they don't add up….

Rachel Dolezal didn't "choose her race," she committed fraud by lying about her background. She can choose to adopt whatever culture she wishes, but that's not what happened here. She lied about her background, not just to the public but apparently also on job applications. That's fraud. The people who are trying to use this case to draw analogies to, or mostly just to make stupid, snarly comments about, the issues raised last week by the Caitlyn Jenner story, are just being obnoxious jerks.

Obnoxious jerks can have a lot of fun, but winning over large numbers of people to join their cause is typically a casualty of such mean-spirited hoo-larity.

Note: fixed some erroneous links.

Update (5.15 p.m.): So this post has generated a number of versions of the following:

I thought the difference between being a fraud and being trans was pretty self-evident, but I guess it isn't. Allow me to explain at least part of the difference. When Rachel Dolezal is asked whether she is African American or not, or whether she was born to white parents, she walks out of interviews.

Indeed, she does this below in this interview with a local TV station (around the 8.25 minute mark):

Why do you think she hits the bricks right then? It's because she has been found out and she knows it. She has been misrepresenting herself as black when in fact she was born white. Her life is built upon a lie that she knows is a lie. That also explains reactions like those of Marc Lamont Hill above. Even if she is good at her job (which she appears to be, at least according to the NAACP), Hill argues she owes it to her constituents to be clear that she wasn't born black. Perhaps more succinctly: Dolezal's crime isn't that she wants to identify as black, it's that she's denying the plain reality of her past (and doing so because to come clean would cause major problems for her).

Go back and watch the interview with Bruce Jenner (filmed before he has transitioned to Caitlyn). Social conservatives might be repulsed by the idea of a man becoming a woman (or acting as one). But Jenner isn't pretending that she was always biologically a woman, was literally born a woman, or anything like that. And unlike, say, folks such as Iron Eyes Cody—the famous "crying Indian" who was born Espera DeCorti to Italian-immigrant parents but insisted after a certain point that no, really he was a native American—there's no reason to believe Jenner will ever pretend that she was born with female genitalia.

If that example doesn't clarify the difference I'm trying to delineate, I'm not sure what will.

Still, I highly recommend social conservatives read Reason Contributing Editor Deirdre McCloskey's 1999 memoir, Crossing. The book chronicles how the University of Chicago-trained economist Donald became Deirdre (Reason published an excerpt here). Deirdre doesn't deny she was born a man (even if she felt trapped in that body); in fact, the whole goddamned book is about how she went (to crib the Reason excerpt's title) "from Donald to Deirdre." Compassionate conservativism is in bad odor given the George W. Bush appropriation of the term, but a little compassion or at least empathy might be in order. Conservatives would do well to actually try to understand the experience of people they immediately find laughable or disgusting. Especially ones like Jenner—a small-government Republican!—and McCloskey—whose widely respected books on "bourgeois virtues" articulate a powerful moral case for capitalism and self-governance.

It's easier, though, to push the line that being trans is a form of perversion, mental illness, or a crime against "nature" (good luck getting a conviction on that count). Yes, yes, I get it, you feel a need to, in Steve Deace's formulation, "defend…basic principles of male and female" because…why, exactly? Forget about the definitions of fraud and trans and focus instead on that question. What is it about trans identity that flips out conservatives? So much so that it becomes the sort of white whale that they're going to rope into other conversations that have nothing to do with the topic.

I'm not being coy here and trying to imply, a la Freud, that transphobic types are secretly attracted to that which they denounce. I really don't understand the rush to classify individuals such as Caitlyn Jenner as mentally ill or psychologically unbalanced simply because they transgress established gender norms. Just a few years ago, obviously, conservatives mostly felt the same way about gays and lesbians.

Contrary to David French in National Review, nobody is insisting everybody must "applaud" or even affirm Jenner's life choices. But if you claim that she is nuts, or a freak, or contemptible because she was born a man and would rather be a woman, well, don't expect everybody to agree with you.

And to bring it back to the closing notes of my original post, certainly don't expect people in a country who are simply less hung up about gender, sexuality, and alternative lifestyles to want to link arms with you. Knock yourselves out in making fun of trans folks, and gays, and immigrants, too. Just don't expect to swell in numbers based on your bold, courageous stances toward indivduals who might agree with you about the size and scope of government and the centrality of individual freedom and autonomy to human flourishing.