Marilyn Katz :
Whose race, and gender, is it anyway?

Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal trigger an important conversation about identity and society.

caitlyn jenner vanity fair 2

Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair.

By Marilyn Katz | The Rag Blog | June 27, 2015

CHICAGO — Gender and race are not static but socially-created identities that can and should be questioned.

So much has been said in recent weeks about Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal and the porous boundaries of gender and race. But neither the questions nor answers are definitive.

As most everyone who is digitally aware knows, Jenner says she is a woman. Former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal says she “identif[ies] as black.”

However, while Jenner’s self-identification as a woman is being widely praised, Dolezal’s self-identification as black is being widely condemned.

Dolezal, who has lived as a black woman for many years, has been denounced as a fraud.
Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal / Twitter.

Dolezal who has lived as a black woman for many years — with two black sons — has been denounced as a fraud. Jenner, who says that she felt like a fraud while living as a man, is now lauded for finding her true voice as a woman.

Still, their choices open up a long overdue conversation concerning race and gender: are these categories natural occurrences or just useful ways of seeing and understanding who people are? We look to history for answers.

Chicago’s own Lerone Bennett argues, in his book Before the Mayflower, that when this country was founded there was no category of race, only free men and indentured servants — who might be either black or white, by today’s racial categories. Once freed from indenture, they were simply free men. It was only when the landed gentry of the New World began to worry about black and white servants revolting together, that blacks were separated out, in what Bennett and historian Noel Ignatiev term the creation of the “white class.”

Esteemed sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says Europeans solidified the idea of race to justify the treatment of those they colonized. He writes, “when race emerged in human history, it formed a social structure (a racial social system) that awarded systemic privileges to Europeans (‘whites’) over non-Europeans (‘non-whites’). Racialized social systems, or white supremacy for short, became global and affected all societies where Europeans extended their reach.”

Womanhood, too, has been written about, particularly by the feminists of the mid-twentieth century, as a social construction that turned the gender identity into an inferior social status. “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” writes Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. “Social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature.”

Sojourner Truth believed that definitions of race and gender were tools to keep slavery alive.

But perhaps the most famous questioning of the socially-created category of woman was that of Sojourner Truth, who believed that definitions of race and gender were simply tools to keep slavery, like every other power system, alive:

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! … I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! … I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman.

There has been much condemnation of Dolezal for trying to “pass,” but ironically, she reifies rather than challenges the use of race or gender characteristics to create economic and cultural barriers and norms. If both race and femaleness are social constructs created by those in power to maintain their control of society and resources, the condemnation of Dolezal and the praise of Jenner is more than a little ironic.

Yes, Dolezal may have lied, although it is just as likely that she — a former Africana Studies professor — is familiar with the arguments around the construction of race and gender and may believe that her appropriation of black identity is justified. And while her apparent lies have caused her to resign from her role in the NAACP, they do not erase her commitment to ending the depredations and degradations of racism.

Gender and race are not static but socially-created identities that can and should be questioned. These are not new ideas and in fact they were the propelling concepts behind much of the activism of both African-Americans and women during the ’60s.

It was as much the hope of the woman’s movement as it was the hope of Dr. King that we would forge a society where one was not judged by the color of their skin, their genitalia, or with whom they chose to have sex. Like Dr. King, we sought to be judged by the “content of [our] character” — nothing more, nothing less.

If the current events spark debate and action that get us anywhere closer to that goal, then all the confusion, ink, and hype may be worth it.

This article was first published at In These Times and was cross-posted by the author to The Rag Blog.

[Long-time activist Marilyn Katz has founded and led groups like the Chicago Women’s Union, Reproductive Rights National Network, and Chicago Women Organized for Reproductive Choice in the 1960s and 1970s, and Chicagoans Against War in Iraq in 2002. The founder and president of Chicago-based MK Communications, Katz is also a partner in Democracy Partners and a founder and co-chair of the newly formed Chicago Women Take Action. She can be contacted at mkatz@mkcpr.com. Read more articles by Marilyn Katz on The Rag Blog.]

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7 Responses to Marilyn Katz :
Whose race, and gender, is it anyway?

  1. karen renee may aka john hewlett russell says:

    Their are people on both sides of both issues…..

    • karen renee may/john hewlett russell says:

      furthermore….i was visiting a san fransisco hospital in the 70s in a pink dress when i walked thru the lobby there was a panther chained up wearing an orange jump suit standing with a policeman. couple of yards away we looked at each other. i guess he was brought there for a check up. that afternoon at my apt on geary street,the tv news said he had escaped and the friends in prison were laughing saying i was jesus in a dress.

  2. Beverly Baker Moore says:

    I don’t understand why self-identification is not sufficient. The next challenge is understanding that gender is a continuum too.

    • karen may says:

      while i was traveling in the 70s, 2 or 3 psychs advised using heroin. that was out of the question due to no cash and inability to earn money, plus no one wants a hard drug habit paid for by crime. psychosis and the real pain that goes with it will damage your gender. back then there was no similar drug proscription available as there is now. the pain pill dose are hard to regulate and some can cause cancer. so i was stuck with being an ssi ward of the state sex change. there was a big need for highschools upgrading their curriculum in places like wichita falls, tx.

  3. M.G. Piety says:

    Gender stereotypes (which, it is important to note, are not the same thing as gender discrimination) are actually more oppressive to men than to women (see: http://mgpiety.org/2012/11/08/two-archetypes/ ). Women are allowed greater leeway in dress and mannerisms and even affections than men are. My guess is that one of the reasons men sometimes elect to undergo the agony of gender reassignment, or whatever you want to call it, is simply to get this freedom. That men have to go to such extremes to obtain the freedom that women enjoy as a matter of course, is a sad statement on the purported progress we have made on gender issues.

  4. Steve Russell says:

    Gender is a continuum, as is sexual orientation. Sex is not. That people use sex to play power games does not make it the product of power games and claiming so violates so much of everyone’s sense of reality as to marginalize everything else asserted beside the sex argument.

    Race, being an empty vessel, gets all kinds of things poured into it. Most commonly, color. Historically, though, nationality was more important.

    You give the economic explanation of the origins of European race theory but that is, pardon the expression, Eurocentric in the extreme.

    There is Chinese race theory older than the U.S.

    Japanese and Korean race theories are both legendary and at odds with each other.

    It is hard to see the economic roots of race theory generally holding up cross-culturally. Japan, particularly, is suffering from demographic problems the U.S. has historically addressed by immigration, but Japan will not do the same because of the need to protect their imagined race.

    The economic explanation for the origins of race theory is one among many and not likely the one with the most heuristic value.

  5. Pat Cuney says:

    It’s an interesting discussion, and I feel sure we are just at the beginning. I have anticipated the turn into the polymorphic erotic society as we entered the Age of Aquarius, and even though I am stunned to see what is coming forth, find it very interesting.

    As a radical feminist, happy to periodically be a separatist also (and, yes, I will take the label), I often feel that I am once again being told by men and the legal institutions that uphold the patriarchy about what I am to think to avoid being attacked as somehow intransigent in my (this time, antique) views…and yet, watching women being threatened with physical assault and other forms of violence historically perpetuated by men against women does not make me wonder if I err.

    I noted with interest Steve Russell’s thinking that sex is not on a continuum, and I basically agree. But, I think we are accustomed to looking at male and female and concluding that that is an end to that. However, I would have said that there are at least four sexes I can count, being male, female, hermaphrodite, and undefined and that that undefined category is going to grow as we dump more and more toxins into our environment, affecting humans eventually as much as it does some of our wildlife now, that are born without any sex organs at all. And, while I am not feeling “continuum” fully addresses the options, I think that we have been operating with such a narrow definition for so many thousands of years that we are really having a problem moving beyond sex and into gender.

    And then there is the question of whether gender is limited to how one self-identifies, or is there the other component of how one is viewed externally, by the others around one…which is not limited to only one construct as one is around many others often.

    Personally, I am still reeling from being informed that a very high percentage of men who self-identify as women are sexually attracted to women and label lesbians who don’t want to have self with them and their unaltered bodies as transphobic or anti-trans.

    Then there is this move into race. Personally whenever I am asked about my race, I say, “Well, I enjoy white skin privilege (because I look “white”) and we probably all would think I was white, but every one knows we all started in Africa, so I think, if we go back far enough we are all African Americans. And then I go on to explain that the color of one’s skin is based in our biochemistry and has simply provided a handy way for some of us to explain why we are better than others of us and should have more privileges.” However, I have to say that I doubt that even I would have the nerve to take up telling people who had spent their lives without white skin privilege how to take care of their socio-political business. And I find it crazy making that men are now running NOW, and bunch of other men are trying to tell women that they are women, too, when they really have no experience of being a woman in this culture.

    To me, it is that privilege thing. While I may choose to say, “I’m black,” I haven’t spent even a second walking in those shoes in this lifetime, and so I don’t try to run organizations developed for the purpose of directing the energies of people who live in those shoes, telling them what to do or how to think and I am more than a little disgusted with the Professor who one would have thought knew better. And, I do not care to be told what women must think and do by men who think that because they say they are, they are, or the women who support them. They are not. But I will agree they are not men either. I don’t know what the folks are who are choosing to announce their self-identifications these days, but I do deeply resent being told that I have to buy into it. I suspect we are just seeing the beginnings of the polymorphic continuum’s launch, and so it seems a little early for anyone to be deciding on who’s who and what’s what.

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