The debate over identity and who determines it was thrown a curve by Rachel Dolezal, former NAACP leader in Spokane, who was born white but self-identified as black. Defenders of radical autonomy initially fumbled their response, however many soon cozied up to the idea idea that people can and should be able to determine their own race. After all, if the biggest celebrity for the revolutionary trans identity movement—Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, can identify as a woman, why can’t Dolezal identify as black?
Camille Gear Rich, a black law professor at USC, agrees. Her opinion piece at CNN entitled Rachel Dolezal has a right to be black says it all. “Like it or not, we have entered into an era of elective race — a time when people expect that one has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice,” Rich said. Dolezal’s biggest transgression, according to Rich, was deception about her past. Somehow lying about being raised in a teepee by a black father and white mother is worse than claiming to be another race. Jenner, we are led to believe, was at least honest with his identity transition.
Dolezal said she identified with Jenner and cried after reading his interview with Vanity Fair. She told Today host Matt Lauer “I identify as black,” and objected that she deceived others over her race. ”I do take exception to that, because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of, ‘Are you black or white?’’
This is an important story, not because of race-faking or the deceit—we’ve seen worse, but because Dolezal’s claim enters the conversation over identity at a level on par with Jenner’s attempt to change reality. It’s not just pine tar on the bat or throwing a spitball in order to gain advantage. It’s about fiddling with objective truth and requiring everyone to agree to someone’s subjective reality.
When Vanity Fair featured Bruce/Caitlyn on its front cover, the idea that gender was interchangeable and self-determined received much fanfare, however uncritical it was. Yet criticism came fast and furious for those questioning the idea that a man could really change into a woman; that a biological male raised as such and reaching Olympian prowess, could really identify with and understand the feminine experience. Such questions are heresy in some circles.
Is a person who really believes one thing about themselves, despite the evidence, entitled to believe it? More importantly, should the rest of society be forced to accommodate that belief? Now is the time to ask these questions before debate is completely shut down.
At the heart of this is whether once unquestionable elements of personal identity are objective anymore. Gender is biologically determined and differentiated genetically. So is race. To pretend otherwise denies reality and ends up marginalizing those who believe in objective truth. The subjectivity movement, fueled by an intellectual hubris and goaded by a radically dangerous personal autonomy, ultimately ends up hurting people, their flourishing and the common good.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the main character— Winston is called a slow learner because he refuses to accept that which is not true.”How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.” His torturer responds, “Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
It’s important for Kentuckians to understand what is at stake in this debate over identity since eight cities and at least one public high school have laws or policies that protect gender identity as a kind of civil right. The implications stretch to school policy over locker rooms and sports teams, public accommodations such as fitness centers, the expectations of employers and landlords, religious organizations, personal convictions and speech. When we are told two plus two is five, that white is black, or that a biological male can really become a female, its time to rebel—even if that means dissenters are considered insane.