The year 2015 is increasingly becoming the year that trans-binary self-identification went mainstream. Ground zero for this is obviously Caitlyn Jenner, and with good reason; Jenner is the highest-profile figure to come out as trans in modern history, and has done so with an impressive grace. Caitlyn Jenner has, very rightfully, been accepted, for the most part, as a woman (and, perhaps even more surprisingly, as a Republican).
The central argument for accepting Caitlyn Jenner, or any other trans person, is that social identity is not biologically determined and is ultimately based in self-identification. A human being, of sound mind, has the right to determine exactly what kind of human being that person is; personal identity is not for a third party to decide. This is something that we, as a society, increasingly accept. This is good.
There’s a very vocal segment of social activists online and off that have taken great pains to separate the situation of Caitlyn Jenner from that of Rachel Dolezal, the former Spokane NAACP chapter president who was discovered to have been born and raised white. There are differences, certainly; Caitlyn Jenner, for one, was never deceptive about her identity, either past or present, while Dolezal represented herself as having been black from the start.
What’s missing from this conversation is that race is at least as much of a social construct as gender is. Sure, there are racial characteristics that correspond to certain ethnic backgrounds (same as there are gender characteristics that correspond to certain sexes), but there’s no intrinsic connection between them. Reason‘s Ronald Bailey discusses the science behind race and gender at great length. America has a long history of black citizens “passing” for white — when confronted with a white citizen who “passes” for black, we’re gobsmacked. Racial identity in the United States has always been complex, especially around white and black citizens, but that complexity is social, not biological. Biologically, outside of certain geo-ethnic indicators in the chromosomes, there is no difference between white and black citizens. The importance of race is one that is imbued socially. It’s a construct, one that we can admit is meaningless or even harmful, but still insist on defending.
Rachel Dolezal lied — this is undeniable. She is not of African descent, and the people she put forward as her parents were not. She is not an African-American. She does, however, identify as black. She’s lived an adult life as a black woman, and worked tirelessly for the black community. She has internalized black culture and worked for it. Why is this a bad thing?
She didn’t grow up black, and didn’t have to face the pressures that America puts on its black citizens — but Caitlyn Jenner didn’t grow up being treated as a woman, either. That doesn’t make her identity any less valid. It’s who she had always been. The way society treats her is irrelevant to her identity.
The ability to define who we are, as individuals, is one of the defining features of a freer and more liberated world. The lesson we should take from Rachel Dolezal isn’t that people who are one race can’t identify as another; it’s that, in as racially fraught a society as we are, it should be done without deception. I’m not sure Rachel Dolezal would’ve been accepted had she been open about being transracial; I’m not sure we’re at that point. What I am sure of, without hesitation, is that her identity is not a crime.