This past Friday I got a text from my sister that simply asked, “Thoughts on this NAACP leader?” Of course she was referring to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who assumed a black identity and advocated for civil rights on behalf of the NAACP.
“If Bruce Jenner can be a woman … she can be black,” I replied.
“Oh, okay… let me go get an Iggy Azalea album, too,” she responded sarcastically.
I could tell she didn’t like my answer, but the truth is I don’t know exactly how I feel about the Dolezal “scandal,” or if I should feel anything at all.
When Bruce Jenner “stopped the world” by posing as a scantily clad woman on the cover of Vanity Fair last month, it seemed to meet with approval by society at large.
“Brave” and “hero” were just a couple of the words used to describe Jenner. To utter anything about the spiritual, mental and physical disturbances of the transformation was to risk being labeled a “bigot,” or adhering to an outdated philosophy.
In modern American society, everybody is generally free to be whoever they really want to be, as opposed to who they were born as.
My own refusal to refer to Jenner with a feminine pronoun or by his new first name may come under fire. One person even suggested that referring to Bruce Jenner as “a man” or “he” amounted to “an act of violence,” a notion I found so utterly ridiculous that I didn’t respond.
To me, there are few things more precious than good ol’ societal hypocrisy. Less than a month after Jenner’s trailblazing coming out, Dolezal, the now-former president of eastern Washington state’s NAACP, was publicly exposed and ridiculed for lying about her race.
Dolezal, the daughter of two indisputably white parents, had been posing as a light-skinned black woman. I first heard about the story while I was on the road, so I wasn’t aware of the nationwide outcry. My initial reaction was that that it didn’t sound so outlandish, not in this day and age.
“Everybody is free to be who they really are,” I thought. “Wrong” would be an understatement to describe my initial assumption.
A quick surf of the web the next morning made one thing clear: Rachel Dolezal was the new “it” story and everyone seemed to have an opinion. Most of them were negative.
My first thought of the whole ordeal was somewhat related to the Jenner transformation: “Damn, we sure do get distracted easily.”
But regardless of its wildcard nature, I’m starting to believe I’m witnessing social engineering take place right before my eyes. Black people are trained to react emotionally toward any headline about race, similar to the way white people often react to headlines about gender. Knowing this, the mainstream media push stories involving race or gender, milk them for all they are worth and follow up with more, equally sensational stories without providing any context regarding the real issues.
Inconsequential stories like Dolezal’s distract from consequential situations in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, which are all but distant memories in the microwave generation of information. Dolezal’s resignation or Jenner’s transformation only serve as setbacks to the recent “no justice, no peace” civil rights narrative. Even the aggressive pool-party fiasco in McKinney, Texas — which some claim was racially motivated — has taken a back seat to the new “it” race story found in Rachel Dolezal. The trend has become bothersome.
My second thought on the situation wasn’t much of a thought at all. I guess I’ve arrived at the point where I don’t let things shake what’s real.
The fact is, Dolezal’s understanding of what it is to be black is as shallow as Jenner’s understanding of what it is to be a woman. The victimized caricature of the black woman she portrays only serves as evidence to her lack of understanding of African-American culture.
Just as Bruce Jenner will never be able to experience childbirth or menstruation or menopause, Dolezal will never be able to speak of hearing the beats of her ancestors in almost every form of popular music. She will never be able to speak of the spiritual joys and pains of having such a storied and tragic modern history. She will never know the beauty in it all, just as Jenner will never know the beauty of breastfeeding.
Basically what we have in both stories are two people who, fascinated over ideal identities that aren’t their own, severely undermine and disrespect the realities of people born into those identities. Jenner and Dolezal represent the end game of decades of social appropriation and sexual misidentification.
What bothers me is that collectively, we tend to celebrate one and crucify the other.
There’s no need to get too wrapped in these stories, though. In a month or less, there will be something else to distract us. I will chuckle, thoroughly amused and slightly disgusted about how well this cycle works on our attention spans.
Clyde Foster is a writer and artist in Mobile.