It’s been a wild week for women in the media, which would be exciting if the issues in question weren’t so frustrating. First, Elinor Burkett’s New York Times op-ed, What Makes a Woman?, prompted a wave of responses from women across the feminist spectrum. Following closely on its heels came the bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Washington, NAACP president whose family revealed that she is, in fact, a white woman. Over the last week, these two news items have been compared, often incorrectly, so I’d like to clarify some points.
Image courtesy of Janet Mock.
What Makes a Woman?
My first worry (of many) Burkett’s article is that she takes Caitlyn Jenner and uses her as the face of all trans women while she tears her down. In a conversation with Diane Sawyer, Jenner, speaking of her own experience, said that her brain is much more female than it is male because she is, indeed, a woman. What woman, who was gendered a woman at birth and lives as a woman, doesn’t have an innate pocket of her brain that tells her this?
In this case, the difference is that women who are born women and who society deems “look” like women don’t have to wrestle with the dysphoria that occurs when the appearance of the body doesn’t match that pocket of the brain. When Burkett goes off about how “their truth is not my truth,” she implies that one form of oppression is more egregious than another. Yet trans people constantly face verbal discrimination and physical violence just by living as themselves. This societal hatred takes a damaging psychological toll as well, resulting in gender dysphoria and sometimes depression. Apparently, these indignities aren’t the “certain” ones Burkett believes all women endure.
Collage by Shani Nottingham.
This lack of awareness that oppression is oppression frustrates the hell out of me. For decades, white women have silenced the stories of women of color, tabling their concerns indefinitely because white women simply do not have to deal with racial discrimination in addition to misogyny. The whole purpose of intersectional feminism is to realize that women come from a whole swath of different backgrounds and experience different types of oppression as a result. If you’re an ally in a fight that doesn’t directly impact you, it’s totally okay (and often encouraged) to speak to people in that group and gain a better understanding. Listening to one celebrity’s thoughts on a news program isn’t enough.
Ultimately, I feel like my job as a feminist is to fight people’s right to live their truths. And yes, part of that is supporting women that want to vamp it up, to embrace the aesthetic of the pinup girl, and to wear whatever she wants. The key in that statement is “what she wants,” because it is possible for a woman to dress for herself and gain power from heels, makeup, and other clothing deemed “tool of the patriarchy.” In 2015, we should know better than to think that there’s a one-size-fits-all definition of how a woman should be. Should she stay at home? Should she go to work? Should she have kids? Should she not? Should she glam it up? Should she go all natural? At the end of the day, I fight for her to choose what’s best for her so she can live her truth.
Living Your Truth vs. Living The Truth
The issue of truth lies at the eye of the Rachel Dolezal media storm that broke last week. After Dolezal reported a piece of hate crime-mail in the NAACP mailbox, some media outlets contacted her parents. Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal, a white couple from Troy, Montana, then told reporters that Dolezal was white and had presented herself as black for over a decade. In subsequent interviews, Dolezal insisted that her racial identity was “complex” and that she identified as black.
Since the story broke, trolls have had a field day comparing Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner, trivializing the black and trans communities simultaneously. Let’s get one thing abundantly clear: the defining facet is honesty and authenticity. When Jenner presents herself as a woman, it’s not an identity she can wash off. Transitioning is a life-changing process, not a costume, and trans people inherit the change in privilege that society bestows on different genders. Jenner’s backstory is also her own; she doesn’t pull elements from Kris Jenner and her daughters to embellish her own experience. While Jenner transitioned in her 60s, her presentation up until that point was more about safety and survival than her own personal choice; there is no denial or secret about the gender she was born with not matching how she feels. As she so poignantly explained to Vanity Fair, Jenner said, “I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live.”
Image courtesy of The Hotness
Dolezal, on the other hand, constructed her personal narrative from experiences that she did not, in fact, live. She was not born in a teepee; her alleged black son, Isaiah, is actually her adopted brother; she did not live in South Africa nor did her parents punish her and her siblings “by skin complexion” with a baboon whip; and while she reported harassing phone calls and hate crimes on many occasions, the particulars of the investigations remained murky. As a student, Dolezal applied to Howard University and later sued for discrimination for being white.
In this context, it feels like Dolezal’s “blackness” appears only when it benefits her, a notion that is unbelievable at best and offensive at worst. As a white woman, Dolezal could still have fought for racial justice and made great strides for the black Spokane community. But instead of doing the work of accepting her own privilege and place as an ally, it seems as though Dolezal took the easy way out and shirked this responsibility. Regardless of her intentions or identification, this trail of lies following Dolezal brings anger and pain to the very community she claimed to represent. By owning her personal history, she could saved herself and the black and trans communities significant grief.
Points of Reference
Ultimately, the issues we’re talking about are complex and there are many different ways to approach them. I’d like to close with links to articles by trans women and black women about these respective issues; they offer some amazing insights. Give them a read and let us know: what do you think?
Brynn Tannehill: Who Decides What Makes a Woman?
Leela Ginelle: Trans Women Are Women. Why Do We Have to Keep Saying This?
Mey Valdivia Rude: What We’re Going to Say About Caitlyn Jenner
Kirsten West Savali: Let’s Not Question Blackness Because a White Woman Says So
Ijeoma Oluo: How Rachel Dolezal’s Lies Hurt Black People