The Rachel Dolezal story has the denizens of the internets scratching their heads. I'll let Jon Stewart explain:
In the wake of this story breaking, pundits and bloggers of all political stripes have compared this story to Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as trans. The term "transracial" has been floated about. After all, if gender can be fluid, what does that say about cultural identity? Perhaps there is a point to be made here. There are those who, for one reason or another, live across or in between racial or ethnic identities. White children are raised in black families and vice versa.
Trevor Noah is the first person who springs to mind. He was born of a black mother and white father in South Africa during Apartheid. He had to cut across cultures, because according to society, someone like him wasn't even supposed to exist. If ever an argument is to be made for ethnic fluidity, he would be a good test case.
Ms. Dolezal never claimed to be trans-anything, nor did she acknowledge crossing racial divides. She claimed to be black. She posted pictures in which she posed with an older Black man, who she identified as her father. If Rachel was transparent about her heritage, if she self-identified as "transracial", this would be a very different conversation. But she didn't. She lied, and in so doing, betrayed the people for whom she claimed to advocate. Wrapping herself in someone else's trauma, Rachel exploited her adopted minority status for social and professional gain. She even had the chutzpah to fabricate narratives of lived racial profiling, discrimination and oppression. Were there grains of truth to her stories? The world may never know.
Caitlyn's public transformation was about physically manifesting her authentic self. Rachel's transformation was about subterfuge.
This is not the same as someone publicly outing themselves as trans. Not even a little. Caitlyn's identity shift would have been similar to Rachel's had she disappeared from the public eye, quietly gone through hormone replacement therapy and surgery, and then reemerged as Bruce's long lost sister.
Imagine the media coverage. It probably would have been glorious! The newly minted Caitlyn would regale the pundits with her harrowing story about her estrangement and reunification with Bruce. She'd spin a heart wrenching yarn about Bruce being torn apart by sharks or dying while trying to save orphans from a burning building. Reporters would eat up her tearful account of her brother's untimely demise and the guilt she harbors for not being able to save him. Pictures of smiling children would flash across 24 hour news networks that were supposedly of Caitlyn and Bruce playing together as children. She would lament on MSNBC about how oppressed she felt growing up as a woman. Which she totally did. Because she's a woman. And isn't the patriarchy terrible?
Caitlyn never lied about her choices or process. In her interviews to date, I have yet to see her deny her privilege or invent stories of experienced oppression. Caitlyn's public transformation was about physically manifesting her authentic self. Rachel's transformation was about subterfuge.
If anything, Rachel Dolezal's story bears a closer resemblance to Tania Head's deception, which was chronicled in The Woman Who Wasn't There (I think you can stream the documentary on Hulu or Netflix. It's fascinating.) Like Dolezal, Tania got super involved in activism, became a public face for advocacy, and fabricated her past. For all the good that she did for 9/11 survivors, her deception proved devastating for those who trusted her. Both women, as far as we know, also come from rather tragic circumstances. While this may explain, at least to some extent, the logic behind their choices, it does not necessarily forgive the very harm that was done. It is possible to empathize with another person's suffering without abdicating them of accountability for their actions. Was some sort of mental illness also at play? Who knows? Perhaps there is something appealing to certain personality types about adopting a persecuted status.
Nevertheless, to compare someone like Rachel or Tania to a person who comes out publicly as trans is both ludicrous and insulting.