The names Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal have been inexorably intertwined over the last couple weeks by the mainstream media and social pundits, including a debate as to whether these two individuals’ circumstances should even be intertwined because they represent entirely different discussions regarding social justice and identity.
As most know, Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, came out publicly as transgender and her transition has been a fairly high-profile affair. Other than negative reactions from a select faction of people, Jenner has received mainly overwhelming support. Not so for Dolezal, a former head of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP chapter when it was recently revealed she is actually Caucasian but claims to identify as black. Dolezal has received criticism from all-comers regardless of race, age, or political or social affiliation.
Certain anti-LGBT proponents have used the word “transracial” to conflate the situations between Dolezal and Jenner and create a comparison between the two. To some, to conflate the two is to deny scientific evidence that there is a biological origin for transgender identities and minimize the legitimacy of transgender issues. In addition, the true transracial community has responded that the term transracial is actually meant for adoptees raised in a family of a different race, not individuals who may identify as a race other than that given at birth. Therefore, to call Dolezal transracial is unfair to those who are truly transracial and openly addressing various social constructs in their lives as a result of this upbringing.
Others believe that Dolezal’s identification as black is offensive to African-Americans as a whole. As a minority myself, I can certainly understand that viewpoint. And for most people, one of the biggest issues with Dolezal is deception: the belief that she purposefully concealed her heritage and misrepresented various aspects of her life.
But what if someone was up-front about addressing issues with respect to their own racial identity and the reasons for them? Is this something that should summarily be dismissed as ridiculous or is there further social commentary and discussion to be had? I admit I don’t necessarily know the answer. What I do know is that every social issue deserves some sort of debate, so that every aspect of the argument can be understood from all angles.
Take transgender rights as an example. Not long ago, the concept of an individual identifying with a different sex was also misunderstood and summarily dismissed. Look around now. The “T” in LGBT is now just as much part of the conversation as the rights of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. Just last week, Entertainment Weekly had an LGBT issue, with the cover title of “America’s Transformation,” and which discussed the prevalence and importance of transgender characters and issues in mainstream pop culture.
If social change is slow, then legal reform is downright glacial. Only in recent history have laws begun to protect claims by transgender individuals. In 2012, the EEOC’s (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) decision in Macy v. Dep’t of Justice represented the agency’s position that discrimination against an individual because that person is transgender (also known as gender identity discrimination) is discrimination on the basis of sex. Subsequent EEOC decisions have echoed this sentiment, and the EEOC’s field memo issued in February 2015 reiterated that workers are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from employment discrimination based on gender identity, as well as sexual orientation. In addition, a number of state laws explicitly provide that their applicable discrimination statutes also cover discrimination against transgender individuals.
So is racial identity also deserving of debate? Or is it simply an incomprehensible concept? Whatever the answer is, there is no question that the circumstances surrounding Dolezal’s being revealed as Caucasian and the circumstances surrounding her purported deception probably do not make a good first impression for those delving into this topic for the first time. From a legal perspective, it is difficult to fathom how such a construct could be implemented, even if it were socially accepted. Frankly, one of the first prerequisites to a race discrimination claim is that you must be a member of that protected class—how would that square with an individual who is not a member of the protected class who identifies as a member of a protected class? Or even vice versa?
If there is good news, at least from an employer’s perspective, it’s that racial identity will have no bearing on the law anytime soon, if at all. For the time being, Dolezal’s situation, and the question of racial identity itself, is strictly for social debate, and that debate will likely create even more opinions on this issue in the coming weeks and months.
But remember, if you hear the winds of change blowing on racial identity or any other type of social issue, just be aware that legal change may be far behind, but it will catch up eventually.