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.