When feelings battle biology

It’s a stranger-than-fiction-story. One very, very white American woman is making headlines across the globe for pretending to be a black person. For years.

The shock reverberated through social media, the cries of disgust came from almost all quarters, and the only person who seemed to think nothing was wrong was Rachel Dolezal herself.

The former NAACP branch president and part-time African studies instructor is now in a tangle with the Spokane Ethics Committee for having possibly lied about race on her application when she was added to a police oversight board.

It’s the sort of story you couldn’t make up. The truth came gushing out when the crack in her fictional dam just couldn’t hold anymore. Her rather confused parents decided to publicly state (after several questioning phone calls) that their daughter was indeed white, and they were unsure why she was pretending otherwise.

Here’s Dolezal’s response.

“I identify as black,” she said. “Challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness.”

That’s right. Dolezal is claiming to be “transracial”.

Surely she settled the matter with that one little word:  “identify”? Obviously, for Dolezal, biological reality has nothing to do with identity – something the transgender community has been arguing for years – and she therefore believes feelings overrule facts.

This all makes perfect “trans” sense, of course. Her argument is entirely sound. If a man can identify as a woman, or a woman as a man, why on earth can’t a white person identify as black, or (like Michael Jackson), why can’t a black person identify as white? In fact, why can’t a human identify as a cow? Dolezal wasn’t lying to anyone, as far as she was concerned. She was simply being who she really was.

It didn’t matter how offensive this was to her real parents, or the community she claims to belong to. Neither did it matter whether or not she really did understand what it was like to be one of them, or whether being “pretend black” is different to being “biological black”. All that mattered were her feelings.

But, despite the clear “trans” logic Rachel Dolezal employed, which we might as well apply to age, weight, height and any other biological fact as we do to gender or race, she’s getting slammed.

Her fellow NAACP activist Kitara Johnson says she lied. Johnson, and many others, are offended, and say there are “truly some psychological issues at play”. How can choosing your identity be “lying” when it comes to race, but “expressing your true self” when it comes to gender? How can “psychological issues” be at play when a white woman pretends to be black, but not when a grown man pretends to be a woman?

It all reminds me of what the wonderful G.K. Chesterton wrote more than 100 years ago; “Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.”

Indeed, in Dolezal’s mind, the fiction all made perfect sense:  there’s nothing strange about being a black woman. It only started to look a little strange, it only started to hurt those around her, when the truth got in the way.

This article was originally published on Stuff.co.nz

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