When Critical-Cultural Theory Gets in the Wrong Hands: Rachel Dolezal & The Rachel Divide

Upon my friend Madge’s recommendation, I started watching the Rachel Dolezal documentary on Netflix. The movie raises a question that’s nagged me since the start of Dolezal’s controversy, which coincidentally unfolded during Kaitlyn Jenner’s trans self-disclosure: Is Dolezal’s claim to Blackness akin to a trans person’s gender identification?

The documentary includes a montage of talking-head segments where media personalities debate the analogy. The anti-Dolezal camp overwhelmingly argues that she can’t be Black because she was 1) born White and 2) lived her early life as a White person, exempting her from the racial prejudice experienced by people of color. My problem with those arguments is that they sound awfully similar to rationales that justify anti-trans mindsets on the right and trans-exclusionary radical feminism on the left. In other words, some people—both on the right and left—argue that trans people are little more than men and women pretending to be the “opposite” sex.

I’m a social constructivist, which is a fancy way of saying I believe gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity are culturally produced and disproportionately valued. Like any other theory, social constructivism has explanatory limits. Allow me to use its boundaries to 1) highlight why Dolezal and Jenner are not comparable, and 2) illustrate why cultural arguments regarding identity are not productive when trying to articulate the differences between the two cases.

I have taught Gender and Communication for 15 years. One of the first units in the class covers a range of gender theories, from biological and psychodynamic—which explain gender development in terms of physiology and psychology—to performativity and standpoint theory—which consider gender construction and maintenance through lenses of performance and inequity. I tell my students that each theory illuminates something different about gendered communication. Social constructivism, for example, explains why boys are so rigidly socialized into heterosexuality and masculinity but the theory sputters, sparks, and reveals its explanatory limits when accounting for sexual and gender variance. In other words, I am who I am today DESPITE overwhelming cultural and interpersonal pressure to be masculine and sexually procreate with a woman.

I knew I was gay ever since I was a kid. I even went through a phase where I identified more as a little girl than a little boy. I 100% understand that trans-gender identification is not merely a phase for people who identify as trans. Dolezal claims that she has identified as Black since she was a little girl. This, my friends, is where the trans-racial and transgender analogy comes off its proverbial rails. Cultural theory unfortunately is not very useful in explicating the difference—at least not in my eyes. Biological theory has demonstrated differences in the genetics and brain structure of trans people. A 2013 twin research study demonstrates that 1/3rd of identical twins in the sample were both transgender, while only 2.6% of non-identical twins were both trans. A 2008 project reveals that M2F tans people are significantly more likely to have an androgen receptor (NR3C4) that reduces effectiveness at binding testosterone. These studies are but two of hundreds that make a case for biological differences between cis-gender and transgender people.

Rachel Dolezal’s case is highly problematic because she is on an island. If trans-racial identity (rather than identification) were similar to transgender identity, Dolezal wouldn’t find herself so remarkably and uncomfortably alone. I doubt studies of Dolezal’s body chemistry would reveal significant phenotypic variations that explain why she so unreflexively conflates “I identify with” and “I identify as.” The irony, of course, is that biological determinism/essentialism has historically been cast as a foe to sexual and gender minorities. As I tell my students, each theory has limits but also helps make sense of phenomena with which other theories struggle.