Is Rachel Dolezal “really” black? The question is reasonable, if a little bit over-hyped from all sides. Reading (and occasionally participating in) a number of discussions about it, I’ve been surprised at the answers people come up with. Here’s mine:
Who cares? Dolezal’s self-identification as an “African-American,” no matter how strange some may find it, only picks my pocket or breaks my leg (as Thomas Jefferson put it concerning other people’s religious beliefs) to the extent that political government either oppresses, or hands out privileges to, people based on their personal self-identification.
I don’t blame Dolezal for that oppression or those privileges, so I’m perfectly content to politely respect her racial/cultural identification. If she says she’s “African-American,” so do I.
That’s not to say that getting rid of government interference would instantly change everyone’s opinions … but as I’ve written before, libertarianism is the only political philosophy that allows everyone to answer “yes” to the question “can we all get along?”
Coming on the heels of Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out party,” the subject of Rachel Dolezal in particular and trans-racialism in general does shed needed light on the dangers of “born-this-wayism.”
During the long struggle against legal discrimination versus gay men and lesbians, much of the black civil rights community dismissed comparisons between that struggle and theirs. Race and sexual orientation, they said, just weren’t the same thing.
Ditto some “third wave” feminists versus trans-women. There’s still plenty of argument about whether feminist conferences should be open to trans-women; being transgender, some say, does not make one a woman.
And now some supporters of equal rights for trans people reject “transracial” Rachel Dolezal on the same grounds.
Tactically, the claim that one is “born this way,” rather than “choosing” to be, gay, transgender or transracial, has its benefits. And in the first two cases, while the science may not be completely settled, it does seem to at least tend toward agreement.
Strategically and morally, though, “born-this-wayism” is a dangerous trap. Each successful struggle for freedom, or even for basic equality before the law, is followed by a reactionary impulse. We’ve got ours, Jack (or Jackie) … and you aren’t us.
Part of that is due to the government interference I mention above. The “benefits,” like special anti-discrimination protections or even “affirmative action” set-asides, are treated like a fixed pie. If someone new horns in, everyone else’s slice gets smaller. Which, of course, is yet another good reason for getting government out of the matter.
Another part, though, seems to be the mistaken belief that freedom is a similarly fixed pie; that if I get more freedom, you get less. That isn’t so — more freedom for any of us means more freedom for all of us — but it’s a natural fear.
So, again: Is Rachel Dolezal “really” black?
If she says “yes,” why should anyone else have a problem with that? And why should it matter to anyone whether she was “born that way” or “chose” it?
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.
Also published on Medium.