Appropriated identities

I was having coffee with a woman yesterday when the topic of what we might call appropriated identities came up. This is an issue I’ve struggled with in the past, particularly with regard to the cases of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal.[1] I hadn’t expected to talk about this and, in fact, it was pretty far from my mind when it came up, but after citing experiences where whites venture into American Indian communities and try to adopt an Indian identity, she mentioned the cases of Jenner and Dolezal.

What she said about transgender women was something I’d probably heard before and failed to take note of (I’m quoting from memory): “They say they’ve felt like a woman all their lives. I’m a woman and I don’t know what that means.”

My oversight would be unfortunate because of course she doesn’t know what that means. Walter Truett Anderson argues that each of us has multiple identities that, putting it loosely and from memory, we wear like masks for different situations.[2] I wasn’t much impressed by Anderson’s argument when I read it but where I cited my cat, who is very much her singular autonomous self,[3] this woman was pointing to a totality of her experience of being herself. Post-modernists might imagine multiple identities but probably most of us understand ourselves as having singular identities that really are more than social constructions. Our identities are the products of our own total experiences before we even get to how other people may see us or how we project ourselves to others in various situations.

My counterpart doesn’t know what it means to “feel like a woman” because she has been a woman her entire life. To speak of “feeling like a woman” would require her to be able to differentiate it from some other experience of not feeling like a woman.

Queer theory suggests that the binary labels of male and female are oversimplistic. And so they are: I’m pretty comfortable with my identity as a male, but as a male in the U.S., I’m supposed to be obsessed with football. In fact I don’t just despise the game; I am repelled by most expressions of athleticism. I have no fantasy of myself as a big strong man; despite being a vegan, I’m pretty flabby. And it’s pretty much always been this way: C. J. Pascoe reminds me of my own experience growing up when she describes the epithet ‘fag’ less as referring to sexual orientation and more as being a means to enforce social compliance with gender norms (which include heterosexuality).[4] I simply couldn’t comply, got called a ‘fag’ a lot (despite being ‘straight’), and between this, my father, and other problems, my childhood consisted mostly of a series of physical and emotional traumas, which have since been compounded by economic trauma, the sum of which I am unlikely to ever recover from.

But even having suffered for my identity, I couldn’t tell you what it is to “feel like a man,” even if culturally we might often reduce that experience to that of sexually penetrating a woman’s body and validating it through her bearing a child (being child-free, I fail on this last part as well).

So here is where Rachel Dolezal goes wrong: She claims that she “feels” Black. To say such a thing is to mark any identity she possesses, whether socially constructed or the product of her experience, as inauthentic. She has a problem there and deserves sympathy for it. But in my earlier posting, I pointed to some Black expressions of Black experience (by way of David Love[5]) and wrote that “[r]ace may be a social construction, but it carries with it an entire legacy of slavery, segregation, lynchings, and discrimination that the label social construction diminishes through abstraction.”[6] Now I would lay heavy emphasis on the part of the definition of social constructionism that refers to “cultural biases and historical conditions.”[7]

I subsequently wrote that “[m]y assumption is that transgender and transracial people lack the legacies of people whose identities they are taking on. That assumption seems to lie behind much of the backlash to Dolezal[8] and my feeling is that it applies equally to transgender people. In both cases, therefore, I am questioning the authenticity of these adopted identities.[9][10] I also noted a Facebook friend’s experience of menstruation as integral to women’s experience and concluded,

Many on the left will accept Jenner’s adopted identity without challenge. But women, such as my Facebook friend, who in one way or another sense that being a woman carries a real cost that is unique to biological women will be less enthusiastic. To them, Jenner and others like her may be ‘cutting in line’ or taking a ‘short-cut’ or otherwise failing to ‘pay their dues.’ And I understand Blacks upset about Dolezal to feel much the same way. As David Love puts it, “Blackness is not something that one can put on like a fashion accessory, and then simply take off when you get tired and want to move on to something else. Black folks are in this for the long haul, but are you, Rachel?”[11]

It’s true that transgender people pay a much higher price for their transitions than Dolezal has and, unlike Jenner, many face considerable risks in undergoing the process. They are most certainly in it ‘for the long haul.’ But transgender women do not pay the same price that other women do. And the metaphor of price fails when we assume that all the prices in question fall on some sort of linear scale that can be compared with each other. So the question I cannot answer on my own is, what price is sufficient for a social construction?[12]

In my conversation yesterday as well, I suggested that “there are dues to be paid” for a claimed or appropriated identity. The woman I was having coffee was nodded emphatically.

Look, I’m in favor of letting people use the bathroom. I don’t know what to do about people’s fears that men will abuse transgender rights to harass or attack women in women’s restrooms. But there is a simple reality that when you gotta go, you gotta go, and we’re already making public restrooms much too hard to find.

I think more generally that transgender folks are deserving of some support. Jenner’s example notwithstanding, these transitions can’t be easy and whatever we may think of the psychology, genetics, or physiology involved, social stigma and proselytizing can only harm.

But I think just maybe that in appropriating a gender or a race, people may take on the superficial aspects of social constructions at the expense of legacies and experiences. For subaltern groups who have accumulated these legacies with a lot of suffering, this can be a very high price to pay and I’m not sure it’s even possible to compensate them for it.

David Love allowed as to how it was possible for Donezal to be a good ally by “advocat[ing] for black people, but know[ing] how to stay in her lane, versus someone who appropriates the very blackness she is supposedly supporting, runs with it and exploits it with reckless abandon.”[13] I think perhaps that Caitlyn Jenner has, in effect, appropriated two subaltern identities from a starting point as a wealthy white male. First, Bruce Jenner took on the identity of a woman, named Caitlyn, even as s/he remains politically conservative and therefore supports, in one way or another, wealthy white patriarchy. But second, in doing so from a position of considerable privilege, s/he appropriated the identity of transgender folks, most of whom tread much more treacherous paths through their transitions. Bruce shouldn’t have done that.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Jenner, Dolezal, and the reality behind social constructions,” Not Housebroken, June 14, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7716; David Benfell, “More on transgenderism and transracialism,” June 15, 2015, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2015/06/15/more-transgenderism-and-transracialism
  2. [2]Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997).
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Constructivism’s Unreality,” Not Housebroken, December 24, 2010, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=1995
  4. [4]C. J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California, 2007).
  5. [5]David A. Love, “Can Rachel Dolezal redeem herself as an ally?” Grio, June 14, 2015, http://thegrio.com/2015/06/14/can-rachel-dolezal-redeem-herself-as-an-ally/
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Jenner, Dolezal, and the reality behind social constructions,” Not Housebroken, June 14, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7716
  7. [7]Chris Rohmann, A World of Ideas: A Dictionary of Important Theories, Concepts, Beliefs, and Thinkers (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 363.
  8. [8]David A. Love, “Can Rachel Dolezal redeem herself as an ally?” Grio, June 14, 2015, http://thegrio.com/2015/06/14/can-rachel-dolezal-redeem-herself-as-an-ally/
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Jenner, Dolezal, and the reality behind social constructions,” Not Housebroken, June 14, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7716
  10. [10]David Benfell, “More on transgenderism and transracialism,” June 15, 2015, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2015/06/15/more-transgenderism-and-transracialism
  11. [11]David A. Love, “Can Rachel Dolezal redeem herself as an ally?” Grio, June 14, 2015, http://thegrio.com/2015/06/14/can-rachel-dolezal-redeem-herself-as-an-ally/
  12. [12]David Benfell, “More on transgenderism and transracialism,” June 15, 2015, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2015/06/15/more-transgenderism-and-transracialism
  13. [13]David A. Love, “Can Rachel Dolezal redeem herself as an ally?” Grio, June 14, 2015, http://thegrio.com/2015/06/14/can-rachel-dolezal-redeem-herself-as-an-ally/

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