Identity becoming ever more confusing

“it does not matter what you identify yourself as, so long as you work on behalf of the human rights of others”, writes Breda O’Brien

The politics of identity are getting more complicated by the minute. In the United States, a woman named Rachel Dolezal has presented herself as black for a number of years, but is of European ancestry, with perhaps some Native American.

Dolezal was president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. You may remember the actor Benedict Cumberbatch being excoriated for using the word coloured?  As I said, it is complicated. She has since resigned.

But Dolezal identifies as black. The obvious and immediate comparison is to Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, who now identifies as a woman. Unless you have been hibernating, you will have seen the glamorous woman formerly known as Bruce on the cover of Vanity Fair.

Rachel Dolezal has been both defended and excoriated. She has been called everything from a con artist to a deceptive manipulator. 

Others have said that it does not matter what you identify yourself as, so long as you work on behalf of the human rights of others.

I found the commentary fascinating. Take this extract from The Guardian, from a piece by Meredith Talusan, who is a trans-woman who looks white, but is actually from the Philippines and has partial albinism.


She says: “as a person of colour who is, by and large, perceived by strangers as white, I’m keenly aware of the differences between how I ‘pass’ as a white person and how I ‘am’ a woman.

“Race is a social construction originally designed to separate and justify the subjugation of darker peoples for the purposes of European supremacy, so when strangers – even fellow Filipinos – refuse to believe me when I tell them that I’m Asian, that I have partial albinism and I’m an immigrant to the United States, I realise that they’re inviting me to pass, and to take advantage of the privileges of a racial construct that would normally subjugate people like me.”

Loosely translated, I believe that Talusan is saying that race is constructed, that it is formed by societal convention, and in this case, in order to oppress people of colour. However, gender, as experienced by the person, is the essence of a person even if it is in no way matched by the person’s body.

Yet we have been hearing for years that gender is a construct, and that there are no essential differences between men and women when it comes to parenting or anything else.

This contradicts completely the transgender assertion that there is something essential about being a woman, so essential that you are a woman regardless of your body, whereas someone identifying as black is simply ‘passing’ as black.

I have some sympathy with the idea of race as a construct.  President Obama is hailed as the first black president, but comedian Wanda Sykes warned him in 2009, that she would be proud of the first black President, until he did something wrong, and then it would be, “what’s up with the half-white guy?”

Another commentator, Khadijah White, has an odder comment.

“In America, Irish, Jewish and Italian people became white over time, a process that subordinated their prior identities, loyalties, and cultural traditions.”

It puts me in mind of Jimmy Rabbitte from The Commitments saying, “Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”

A real life Jimmy Rabbitte today would probably be attacked for daring to making such a comparison.

But hey, do we even know what it means to be Irish? Is there an Irish race?

But gender is surely more fundamental. As Meredith Talusan says, it is not our race or colour that is announced when we are born, but ‘It’s a girl!’ or ‘It’s a boy!’

I don’t know enough about transgenderism to have formulated an adequate response, but it does seem to me to be very dualist – as if the self is disembodied, floating somewhere  far away from the bodily reality.

There has been some research showing that the brains of transgender people more resemble the sex with which they identify, but that runs immediately afoul of the ‘gender is a construct’ activists, particularly some strands of feminism.

They would be profoundly unhappy with the idea of a female brain, even one contained in a male body, believing that male and female gender differences are just created by human thought and convention.

Meanwhile, most elite commentary declares Dolezal to be entirely wrong to identify as black, but Caitlyn Jenner to be entirely brave to identify as a woman.

And given the INTO/GLEN backed proposal to teach four year olds the definition of transgenderism, it will only become ever more confusing for our young people.