By Victor D. Infante
We start with an image that’s almost surreal: Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. For some, it’s mere pop culture iconography, but if you were a child of the ’70s, back when Caitlyn was Bruce, it’s hard not to see through the Annie Leibovitz photograph to the cover of a box of Wheaties, where she was deemed a “Wheaties champion,” and held up as a role model. She had earned this odd pastiche of pop culture celebrity and commerce by winning the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Previously, the Soviet Union had dominated that sport, so Jenner’s victory was a Cold War triumph. Remember, Jenner has always been embedded in the American culture, she has always been a political symbol, and she has always capitalized on it. Even her tenure on Keeping Up With the Kardashians couldn’t dampen that.
There is a level where we are forced to take people at their word on the contents of their heart. We cannot see through their eyes, nor they through ours, but at the end of the day, we all compile lists in our head of the things that define us: I am an American. I am mostly of Irish and Italian descent, with a smattering of other European roots. I am Christian from a largely Catholic family, although I’ve long parted ways with churches. I am heterosexual and married, with no interest in having children. I am a writer, with little interest in doing anything else professionally. I am a cisgender white male, but I really want a better term because “cisgender” is an ugly word. I don’t actually have a better term handy, though. I’m an ardent liberal who identified as an anarcho-socialist when he was younger, but who has developed some sympathy for political moderates, or at least developed some antipathy for rigid ideology. One or the other. I suffer from mild clinical depression, or what they now call “depressive disorder.” In any case, all of there are things you will have to take on faith about my background and beliefs.
I have known enough persons who are homosexual and transgender to understand that their journeys are not mere intellectual abstractions, that there is a real emotional drive behind them, an absolutely undeniable sense of identity and self. It is an article of faith, of course, but I give it freely, because I can sense the truths of their sexuality and gender identity when they speak.
After Caitlyn Jenner entered the cultural discussion in full-force, I wrote an article interviewing transgender and non-gender-conforming artists about the cultural fallout. Most of the reactions were positive, but one of the participants took me to task for using one cisgender teacher to illustrate a point I needed to buttress other parts of the discussion. I can easily justify that decision, but the fact of the matter is, they were correct. My attempt to create a space for those voices was imperfect, and I felt like I failed. Which is probably unfair to myself, but there you are. As progressive as I believe myself to be, I am still constantly on a learning curve. I never feel I get things quite right, or at least, I don’t believe I get them perfect. There are always flaws I’m working to overcome. Perhaps this is why I sometimes, perhaps uncharitably, think some people try nowhere-near hard enough to come to a place of understanding with the people who surround them that aren’t like themselves. As well-intentioned as I like to think I am, I’m certain that at least part of that urge is vanity, a desire to see myself as superior to people whom I feel lack empathy or compassion. I’m not comfortable with that thought at all.
The sudden cultural fixation on Rachel Dolezal was even more surreal than Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair splash – at the very least, people knew who Jenner was. Suddenly, the entire country cared very deeply that the head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP was a white woman who had pretended to be black for some time. For many, this was the only factoid regarding Spokane that most Americans knew, and yet it was a dominant cultural discussion for days.
Personally, I found the situation absurd, mostly because of something that happened nearly 20 years ago, when I was discussing the possibility of a full-time or regular freelance role with the features editor of a mainstream daily newspaper. We were really running out of avenues that matched my specialties, so it wasn’t looking good. Then, he suggested in all seriousness that I could write the paper’s Latino Culture column. And I’ll admit, I stopped for a moment. It was tempting. I was really broke back then.
Now, I grew up in close proximity to Latinos, and am fairly conversant in Mexican food. I have dark features and when I tan, my skin is very dark. I speak a little Spanish, although I’ve lost most of it. Moreover, I have a surname that’s common in Spanish-speaking countries. Finally, though, I had to shake my head and tell him the job should probably go to someone who’s actually Latino. To which he replied, “Oh, that doesn’t matter.” And I said, “Yeah. It does.” And we were done.
Ultimately, I couldn’t face the idea of being a fraud like that, and of profiting off that sort of cultural appropriation. I’d been presuming that Dolezal, when offered that choice, went the other way. And there is some of that. She’s been making money off of a fraudulent African-American experience for YEARS, writing articles, teaching workshops. That is unethical in the highest order, and I really have nothing but contempt. BUT, after much reading, I’m beginning to understand that there may be more at work here, and I found Ali Michaels’ article, “Rachel Dolezal Syndrome,” to be particularly illuminating.
Writes Michaels: “Many White people also feel like we don’t have culture, and this isn’t a coincidence. Throughout the 20th century, countless immigrant groups abandoned the artifacts of cultures that racialized them as immigrants (language, religion, food, styles of speaking, gesticulations, family structures, traditions, etc.) in order to become White. And this was not just a matter of fitting in; it was about accessing rights that were reserved for White people: citizenship, land ownership, police protection, legal rights, etc.. The more one could cast off the markers of otherness, the more likely it was that one could become White. And so while the desire to become White is really the opposite of what Rachel Dolezal had, the process of becoming White that her ancestors undoubtedly went through in the great American star-off machine, may be connected to her desire to un-become White, to lose that feeling of being cultureless, of being part of an unidentified group, and to leave behind that identity that has no positive way to be. And lots of White people—myself included—do this in thousands of tiny ways as we appropriate the cultures of others (from Africa, India, Compton, Guatemala, Harlem, Mexico…) to fill in the blanks in our own.”
Dolezal’s situation, as presented in the press, has proven even more complex: She has four adopted black brothers, a child with an African-American father and legal custody over her black nephew. There is a conflict with her parents and family members regarding a sexual abuse allegation at her brother. There is a serious break between her and her Christian conservative parents. There is every reason for her to have an affinity for the African-American experience, but does she have a right to identify as African-American? My instinct is no, that it doesn’t work like that, but I’ll fully admit that perspective is at least partially an article of faith. I can only guess at what’s in her heart.
Almost immediately, one of the major media talking points was the question: Why is it OK for Caitlyn Jenner to identify as a woman but not for Rachel Dolezal to identify as African-American? In an ill-advised move, I posted a quip on Facebook that the comparison was less Dolezal and Jenner then it was Dolezal and Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies – appropriating one group’s identity for personal gain without having to relinquish privilege. That ultimately, as Hanks’ character on that sit-com was masquerading as a woman to score cheap rent in a women-only apartment, Dolezal was masquerading as black to score jobs, articles, etc., fundamentally depriving actual black women of those opportunities. It struck me as an expression of privilege, and an identity she could drop at a a moment’s notice if need be. Perhaps, as the fallout over her “outing” has revealed, that last part at least was never true. There are some decisions you can’t walk away from.
Giving her the benefit of the doubt for a moment, perhaps if she had spent her career openly writing as a white woman who identified as black, there would be more understanding for her position. She would have been controversial, undoubtedly, but in the end, honest. But this is what I keep clawing at with regards to her: I have no context to understand her by, as I have with transgender or homosexual persons. In a life where I have gotten to know many, many people, I have never met anyone who had a similar differential between their racial identity and their inherited identity. I know many persons who are biracial and experienced related identity conflict, and some who have been adopted across racial lines (which is what the term “transracial” usually refers to), which has its own set of issues. But Dolezal is fundamentally different. Indeed, much of the discussion in her favor has centered on the notion that she has the right to identify any way she chooses, which is a line of argument I’m uncomfortable with, because it implies that homosexuality and gender transitions are choices, and not, as I believe to be true, something more primal than that.
So rather than there being two possibilities regarding the truth of her racial identity, there are actually three: Is it an intellectual construct, an emotional truth or a complete fraud?
Damned if I know. I took the Facebook post down, though, because it offended someone. The imperfections glare brightly. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see anything else.
It’s difficult to not connect the Dolezal discussion to the uproar over the recent Cameron Crowe movie Aloha, and the casting of Emma Stone as a character named Allison Ng, who was supposed to be a quarter Chinese, a quarter Hawaiian and half of European descent. The idea was that she was frustrated by having no visible reflection of her heritage. As I said earlier, I know people for whom this is actually true, so while I understand the accusations of “whitewashing” that the film has faced, I have to concede that I see what Crowe was getting at. Indeed, although I far more identify as Irish (my mother’s side) than Italian (my father’s), with my appearance and surname, I’ve always found it difficult to express the Irish side of my heritage without being faced with uncomfortable questions, having to unveil more personal and family history than I may be strictly comfortable with at that moment. So, yeah. I get that identity is messy, and I can see why Crowe would want to explore that. But I still haven’t seen the movie, because frankly, it looks terrible.
We play out issues of identity in art and entertainment because it’s a safer space than in the wake of actual injustice and tragedy, especially today, when the maelstrom of social media and the 24-hour news cycle makes everything move at an inhuman pace. People feel they need to have firm, fully-formed opinions on events they’ve barely seen headlines on, and they feel the need to share them instantly. This results in a lot noise and online nonsense, and more often than not, their opinions supersedes any facts in the matter. It was mere instants between the horrific murder of nine people – in a Charleston church by a self-admitted white supremacist who unequivocally stated he wanted to kill black people – and the spin by Fox News and Republican politicians trying to portray it as a “war on Christianity” or, really, anything except what it was: A hate crime and an act of terrorism.
It is difficult to grasp that anyone would try to deny this, but really, admitting it is, for them, admitting that the United States is still riddled with racism, and that there is a problem with the proliferation of guns. Even when the face of that particular evil is self-evident.
Writes Arthur Chu: “Even when violence stems purely from delusion in the mind of someone who’s genuinely totally detached from reality–which is extremely rare–that violence seems to have a way of finding its way to culturally approved targets. Yeah, most white supremacists aren’t ‘crazy’ enough to go on a shooting spree, most misogynists aren’t ‘crazy’ enough to murder women who turn them down, most anti-government zealots aren’t ‘crazy’ enough to shoot up or blow up government buildings. But the ‘crazy’ ones always seem to have a respectable counterpart who makes a respectable living pumping out the rhetoric that ends up in the ‘crazy’ one’s manifesto–drawing crosshairs on liberals and calling abortion doctors mass murderers–who, once an atrocity happens, then immediately throws the ‘crazy’ person under the bus for taking their words too seriously, too literally.”
They hide from the issue behind fatuous straw men and scapegoats, just like they hid from Trayvon Martin’s death, or Eric Garner’s, or Michael Brown’s, or Freddie Gray’s, or Tamir Rice’s. Like they hid from a bizarre case of police brutality in McKinney, Texas, that had a white police officer draw a weapon on unarmed black teenagers, wrestle a bikini-clad teenage girl to the ground and engage in unnecessary parkour moves like it were an episode of Arrow. And yet, the parade of apologists ramble forward, saying it was all the victims’ faults, that police work is dangerous, that they were “no angels.”
Eric Garner was strangled to death by a police officer for selling loose cigarettes, but Charleston murderer Dylann Roof was taken unharmed. As were about 170 biker gang members in Texas involved in the shooting deaths of nine people. Fox News personalities tried to undersell that, too, but anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American biker gangs knows their incidents of violence and involvement with the drug trade rivals any other type of gang, regardless of racial makeup.
Gun violence, police brutality and racial prejudice are not new problems. They weren’t new in 1999 when Amadou Diallo – an unarmed man who had been approached by police officers in a case of mistaken identity – was shot 41 times. The only difference between now and then is that now word travels almost instantly through social media, and often the events are captured on video thanks to the proliferation of smart phones. What looks to many white people like a sudden rash of racially motivated violence is actually one that has been basically unbroken for decades, nigh-unchanged since the Civil Rights Era.
That anyone has been unaware of this pattern is mind-boggling, but then again, I live in a city where the single black voice in major text-based media is constantly berated for being a “racist” by white people upset that he tries to point out that all of this is happening. These are people that make me deeply, deeply ashamed to be of European descent, which I find ironic considering how hard I have to fight to claim the Irish side of my heritage.
Perhaps, in that much at least, I can understand Rachel Dolezal a little better.
Today’s bit of geek news was that Miles Morales, the black Hispanic “Ultimate” Spider-Man, will take the place of Peter Parker in Marvel Comics’ main continuity. It’s only a story, of course, but people place a lot of themselves in stories. It’s important, particularly for young people, to look into the media abyss and see themselves reflected in positive ways. There is also a black Captain America now, and a female Thor. In the new Fantastic Four movie, Michael B. Jordan – who was excellent in The Wire – will be playing the Human Torch, and Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie have joined the Avengers at the end of Age of Ultron. All of these, of course, are likely temporary changes – mainstream comic books inevitably ebb back to their core source material – but that doesn’t mean some good might not come of the moment.
I wish it were so easy in the real world. I believe there are heroes out there, but their work is largely invisible. The villains are easy to see – the murderers, the terrorists, the violent beasts who shield themselves behind a corrupt system, and the political and media voices who protect them. And the victims are easy to identify. Indeed, their names are seemingly legion, so many now that they become an ocean in which we drown. These are who media tells us we are: either predator or prey. The only heroes we can see are fictional.
But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I know there are activists, writers, teachers and even police officers out there who do manage to mitigate the whirlwind of hate and fear that batters our culture in small ways. And maybe those actions amount to something, and maybe they’re entirely fruitless, but I’m glad they’re out there.
Caitlyn Jenner, when she was Bruce, was a hero because she pushed the limits of what the body can do and won a symbolic victory for the United States at a time of great political tension. And she’s a hero now because she had the courage to reveal a truth about herself that could very easily have destroyed her. That she was a rich, white Republican helped, certainly, but still: She ran a real risk of losing everything. I call that a sort of bravery. Some days, I think any act of honesty or kindness is an act of bravery, they’re in such short supply.
I always feel like I’m getting it wrong, that I’m not brave or honest or kind enough at times when I really should be. Jenner’s actions have probably proved inspiring to some teenager somewhere who is struggling with their gender identity, and at the very least is probably giving a goodly number of older Americans who could never name a transgender person before a touchstone to relate to. Those are not insignificant things. And if she’s cashing in on that bravery with a reality TV show, then, well … It’s always been in her nature. It’s Wheaties all over again. The crass commercial streak is one of those staggeringly human flaws that reveals her to be not significantly different from anyone. It’s the bit in her that we can sort of recognize in ourselves.
I have trouble understanding why anyone would find her or her nature threatening, but then, I also have trouble understanding why so many police officers would find unarmed black men threatening, or why so many politicians and media figures would contort themselves to deny that racism exists and is prevalent in society. I have trouble understanding how their sense of selves could be so fragile that they let that fear consume them and guide their actions on a regular basis. The end result of giving in to that fear is always violence, either directly or by contributing to a system that enables it. And if left unchecked, that system, that violence, that fear will consume us all.
It never feels like we get it right. But we try, and we try, and maybe someday we’ll look back and see that everything has changed, or at least some of it has changed. As the Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m not optimistic, no. I’m quite different. I’m hopeful. I am a prisoner of hope.”