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Not a Real Jew Not a Real Black Person Not a Real Woman: The Cases of Rachel Dolezal and Catelyn Jenner

Two recent news stories — the story of Catelyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal —  have drawn attention to an interesting interaction between anti-essentialism in philosophy and politics. One was about an activist for African American rights who identified herself as black despite, seemingly, not having any recent African ancestors — not more than every human being has dating back to Olduvai Gorge.  The other was about a famous athlete and reality television star who identified as a woman despite being born a man.

Both cases provide interesting test cases for a philosophy of anti-essentialism.  In essence, this philosophy says that for certain important categories reality does not provide us with hard and fixed rules for deciding what belongs to the category and what doesn’t.  So for example a chair.  Is a bench a chair?  A tree stump?  Three people’s interlocked arms?  The anti-essentialist (and Wittgenstein in the Anglo-American world gets a lot of the credit here) argues that these questions do not really have answers.  There are many unambiguous cases of chairs which have a family resemblance to each other.  Whether or not a difficult case — the tree stump for example — is a chair or isn’t one is up to us.

But who exactly is us?  If us is each of us individually then there is no question that the black woman without black ancestors is black and the post-operative trans-woman is a woman.  This is adverted too in Dolezal’s claim to “identify” as black, which implies the essence of belonging to a category is a willingness to perform the speech act “I hereby identify as a member of that category” — perhaps with the attendant responsibilities of behavior and comportment.

But not all categories function this way. If I identify as Bill Gates and try to withdraw money from his account, he will try to prevent me.

In this case the issue of the response to others to an individual’s act of self-identification has raised questions.  What about other black people who don’t want to be represented by the possibly black possibly not black activist?  What about the men who don’t want to sleep with the trans woman or the women who don’t want to view her as a sister in a political struggle?

A comparative case (one that has a family resemblance) is member of the Jewish religion.  To some Jews a Jew who has a non-Jewish father and has not converted is not a Jew.  To some Jews a Jew with two Jewish parents who thinks Jesus Christ was the Messiah is not a Jew.  To some Jews a Jew who does not follow the rules of kashruth and family purity and does not intend to is not a member of the Jewish religion, although he or she may be ethnically or metaphysically a Jew.  (To some Orthodox Jews by the way I fall into this category).

The solution may be that we replace the question “Is he black” “Is she a woman” to “Is she black to whom?” “Is she a woman to whom?”  Just as Judaism splits into communities based in part upon how they identify and police identity, gender and race could split similarly.  One could imagine blacks for whom descent from slaves is important.  For them Barack Obama would not be black.

Given social media we could each keep quite accurate tabs upon who is what to whom, and perhaps to what extent.  Upon meeting someone I would have the option (perhaps for a fee service) to learn whether that person is black to every other person who subscribes to that service, or perhaps to every other person on Earth.   Black to Somporn Pranatchibol in Thailand but white to George Hopegood in Kenya perhaps.  And since race is not a binary this could actually let me know to what degree each person is black to every other person on Earth.  I could learn that Flip Wilson is 99% black to Stokely Carmichael but only 45% black to Louis CK perhaps.

And the same with gender.

This need not preclude the possibility of experts.  Just as I may defer to the judgment of Harold Bloom on the question of whether Henry VIII is a real Shakespeare I could defer to the judgment of Charlie Sheen on the issue of whether or not Catelyn Jenner is a woman.

Of course that leaves open the question of why I, or anyone, should care.

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10 thoughts on “Not a Real Jew Not a Real Black Person Not a Real Woman: The Cases of Rachel Dolezal and Catelyn Jenner

  1. Stuart says:

    “But Mr Speaker, on the matter of whether, after all aspects are considered, is Catelyn Jenner indeed, a woman, I defer to my learned colleague Charlie Sheen”
    Winston Churchill, address to Commons, June 3rd, 1941

  2. One possible reason for caring is the notion that ones race implicates one in a history, and with that history comes responsibility, whether one likes it or not. After seeing many discussions on this topic, and also being in various debates myself about it and drawing fire from all sides, I made a Facebook post, that I would like to share here. It is by no means exhaustive but at this time I am inclined to think it outlines something important about this. Whether or not the opinions I express in it actually hold philosophically is another matter. My ideas on it were born out of two prior commitment that I have had. 1.- to argue not only that all white people in America have benefited from white privelege and racism, but that white people have a responsibility to “own” that. 2. – to defend trans people against the hatred that stems from ignorance. Since there are trans people close to me, I was compelled to speak out. Here it is as I posted it on FB:

    Everyone has been talking about Racehel Dolezal, and I have found myself in several debates, some heated, about the situation, so I decided to sound off here publicly about it. Many people have compared Dolezal’s racial identity to transgender identity

    I have not seen her interview yet.

    I had some initial “knee jerk” reactions to this. For one thing, I take being an LGBTQUIA ally very seriously. There are people very close to me who I am quick to defend and stand up for, and people within the trans community who I love and admire, so this is near and dear to my heart. However, I realize after more careful thought and also speaking with more folks in the trans community that not everyone agrees with my sort of hard line stance on this, and not all trans people are offended by these comparisons, though some are. Likewise, some black people are offended by Dolezal, some aren’t. I have come to the conclusion that, at the very least, I may have been too quick to judge Ms Dolezal and that, perhaps I can come to empathize with her more. I understand gender performativity (relatively well), and I understand the parallels with race. However, I think there are some important differences. With regards to gender, the way I and my friends in the trans community view it, and the way every trans advocate that I know of views it, is that gender isn’t associated with biological sex in any way other than that, at birth, the Doctor or parents will look at sex, and assign gender. But sex and gender are two separate things, and one’s gender isn’t dependent upon their sex in any way. A person of any sex can be any gender. Also, a persons gender isn’t dependent upon their parents gender. Everyone’s parents are of the same sex- but can be any combination of genders. For instance a transgender woman can impregnate a cisgender woman, and two women, in that instance, can be the parents of a child. Gender isn’t hereditary in the way race is. This points to the big aspect I want to claim about race— that it implicates you in a very specific history. To illustrate how I mean this I will speak personally about my own view of myself within society. I am white in America. I believe firmly that it is impossible to grow up white in America without benefitting from white privelege and institutionalized racism. One need not ask for it, one doesn’t cause it, but simply by virtue of being white in America, by no fault of one’s own, one benefits from the institutionalized racism that pervades our society. To me, then, AUTHENTICITY requires OWNING UP TO THE FACT that one has so benefitted– recognizing ones place within a system of institutions, not as a cause or even an advocate, but as a member of society from the start. Race implicates one in a history, whether one likes it or not, and living authentically requires one acknowledging and also taking some level of responsibility for that history and one’s place in it. This is why I believe Dolezal is, at the very least, inauthentic, not genuine— and that race, while including some performtative aspects, isn’t on a par with gender in terms of its production.

    • if we did some DNA research and found out Ms. Dolezal had the proverbial “one drop of black blood” cause her great great great great grandma had an affair with a black guy from Brazil would her identifying as black be ok? That seems weird because it seems to suggest that biology is the only thing that can dictate whether we are “involved” in history. That’s not true. Suppose that Ms. Dolezal was 100% genetically “white” (whatever that means) but she was adopted and raised by black parents from infancy, talked black, viewed herself as black, and felt pain whenever she heard anyone use an anti-black slur. In that case she would be part of the story of black history surely, perhaps more so than a light-skinned black person with some black ancestry raised by a white family. Moral: I think we should be skeptical about using biology to prop up philosophical essentialism.

  3. >>>“I hereby identify as a member of that category”<<>>But not all categories function this way. If I identify as Bill Gates and try to withdraw money from his account, he will try to prevent me.<<<

    Bill Gates is not a "category", he is an instance of class "human" and belongs to the group (you may say "category") – "greatest people". More consistently in my opinion, would be: one pretended to be identified to belong to the group "greatest people" to use rights assigned to the group to gain some benefits.

    Bill Gates, as I see it, has normally no relation to the kind of misidentification, unless he also is a member of group "gods" (or, some woulg say "administrators") to sort the things out.

  4. Interestingly, a set of properties (or some would say rights) unique to the instance of the class, named after the instance. Why not, indeed… being A bill g. It even could make sense. Lot of people try to develop max subset of properties of this or that great person,

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