Who am I?
Well, I’m a man, for starters, because I was born male, have all the requisite male equipment, and embrace a range of typically masculine behaviors, my interest in opera notwithstanding.
I’m white, having Caucasian parents, being light-skinned, and reflecting the range of white attitudes (see opera, above).
There’s more. I’m an American, Ohio born. And Jewish, both technically, coming from a Jewish mother, the standard definition, and in practice, holding Seders and such, and enjoying foodstuffs like gefilte fish, which you really have to be Jewish to consider putting in your mouth.
Some of these identities are mutable: I could renounce my U.S. citizenship and move to France, learn the language and become a French citizen. I could convert from Judaism to Christianity, like Bob Dylan. And based on the Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner path, now I can change gender. Society would tolerate these changes, in theory, though in practice not the French, nor Christians, nor women would welcome me with open arms. A convert carries an asterisk, the shadow of stigma.
But white, I’m stuck with, race being seen as an identity that cannot be changed, yet, not without calls of deception, as the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Rachel Dolezal, demonstrated this week. She thought she could simply declare herself black and be accepted. But while wearing a cross or carrying a baguette might be smiled at, straying into another race’s realm is an insult, as Sen. Mark Kirk learned with his “bro without a ho”remark.
Which raises the question: How come Bruce Jenner can take some hormones and claim he’s a woman, spouting the most cliched notions of femininity and the country — myself included — brushes away a tear at how far we’ve come in accepting the heretofore marginalized, but if Rachel Dolezal insists she’s black, that’s unacceptable dishonesty?
Biologically, it should be the other way around, since there is are huge chromosomal difference between men and women (XY for men, XX for women, if you are keeping score) while the genetic shift between races is far more subtle.
This is a matter not of biology but culture. The differences between genders and races both are mostly social construct. Nothing in human genes makes boys like trucks and blue and girls like dolls and pink. If race were only a matter of skin tone, then George Hamilton was black while Lena Horne was white. Like religion, there’s an entire cultural identity to race, one that you can’t just seize.
Why? Why can I embrace Jesus and become Christian, like Shia LaBeouf, but not Asian? I like Asian food. It’s complicated, but the short answer is: race is earned, in part. I can’t put on burnt cork and pretend to be black for the same reason I can’t slap a “Semper Fi” bumper sticker on my car and pretend to be a Marine. Both conditions require annealing in the furnace of experience. A real Marine joins the Corps and goes through basic training. Asians — or blacks, or whites for that matter — are raised in the cradle of their ethnicity. To simply claim membership is to seize what isn’t yours.
There’s a backstory to Rachel Dolezal that gets lost in the media roar. A boatload of pathology, and my hunch is she was allowed to be black by her immediate circle for the same reason that a 4-year-old with cancer is allowed to wear a police uniform. We feel pity for the sick child, and you’d be a jerk to complain. (“You can’t be a police officer, Timmy, you’re far too young and sick.”)
There’s no law that says society must limit its sympathy to sick children. I sparred with readers who had a sputtering, the-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes indignation at the newly-minted Miss Jenner. They insisted: Vanity Fair be damned, the guy has a penis, he’s a man.
I see where they’re coming from. But Jenner also underwent a personal catharsis, and society, to its credit, is now questioning the utility of oppressing such people. Whether Rachel Dolezal is an anomaly or a pioneer will depend on whether others start wanting to change their race. I have a hard time imagining that, but the future is always tough to imagine. We forget how unimaginable certain identities once were: a woman doctor; a black president; a gay public school teacher. Right now, the idea that people can just pick the race they identify with is crazy. But so was the idea of women wearing pants, once.
Follow Neil Steinberg on Twitter: @NeilSteinberg