Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Racial Identity Transition

When Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner, there was a lot of talk about the genetic and biological origins of gender (all the way down to the chromosomes) and yet . . .  and yet, the brain still has the power to give someone a different gender identity. 

As those debates (because a lot of people disagreed with this position), I spent a lot of time thinking about my own identities. I have never had any gender uncertainty.  I am certainly not an alpha male by any stretch, but never doubted the basic category.  But I have other identities too and those have much less genetic and biological roots.

My strongest identity could be Jewish. That has ethnic, cultural, and religious components.  But the evidence is clearly that people change all three of these identities all the time.  So whereas my Jewish identity has been strong since as long ago as I can remember, it is not surprising that others transition.

Another identity I have is of being Caucasian (although I dislike the term).  But even this has been shown to have no genetic basis.  And if you send your DNA to one of those genealogy testing labs, they will most likely tell you that you are 12% this group, 10% that group, 15% another group . . . .  It is not black and white (literally and figuratively).  We all have some of each, as well as red, yellow, blue and green.  Some people show one side more than another (very pale or very dark skinned etc).  But if you look at history, there were rules like “one drop of black blood” or “even one Jewish great grandparent” that locked you into one particular identity as far as the law was concerned.  Mixed race children were often defined first by the color of their skin, as interpreted by the people around them as they grew up.  Not be personal preference.

So that gets me (finally) to my point. Can you change your racial identity like Caitlyn Jenner changed her gender identity?  If you are born to white parents (who probably both have x% African-origin DNA) and your skin color is white, can you feel black the way Bruce Jenner felt female?  Or vice versa?  Based on the biology, this should be more likely than with gender.

It is unfortunate that one of the first examples in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition is Rachel Dolezal (http://www.seattlepi.com/news/us/article/Rachel-Dolezal-s-world-crumbles-after-racial-6329347.phpv).  She claimed to be white for a long time as seems to have “transitioned” more based on deception and the desire to further her civil rights career than for any real feelings of racial identity.  If this turns out to be wrong, I apologize for doubting her. But based on the descriptions of her past behavior, it certainly seems that way.

But putting her case aside, I suspect that this is more common than we realize. In part because most people would react the way they did with Ms. Dolezal, even if an individual has a legitimately different feeling of racial identity than their parents would provide genetically or socially at home.