Arnold’s character in “Total Recall” isn’t the only one having an identity crisis lately. Two recent news stories with preposterous protagonists prompt a more serious discussion of identity. I can already hear my conservative friends throwing up their hands bemoaning another shallow story made deep by navel gazing liberals. Still I thought I’d take a stab at analyzing gender and racial confusion.
When is a Man a Man?
My earliest “exposure” to the transgender issue was as a kid reading MAD Magazine. In the letters to the editor was a picture of a horse accompanied by a letter from a reader claiming to be a horse born in a human’s body.
I may be wrong but I think I can dispense with this one pretty easily. Unlike race, gender has some reasonably objective markers that apply in all but the rarest of cases. There are babies who are born with ambiguous genitalia or chromosomal anomalies where a well-intentioned medical community may assign the wrong gender to the child. The potential for emotional trouble later in life is understandable and biologically explainable.
The recent case of former Olympic champ and recent reality show spectacle Bruce Jenner is NOT in that explainable category. His urge to transform himself into Caitlyn has, to my knowledge, no biological basis. So what are we to make of it? Normally, I would say it is none of our business. But since Caitlyn decided to pose for Vanity Fair and do interviews about her journey, it’s fair game for assessment. To my shock, the most honest and accurate assessment so far has come from that conservative lightening rod Ann Coulter.
If it’s real, it is a mental illness and I don’t think we should be celebrating and laughing about it.
Mental illness in our society is a bigger taboo than artificially growing breasts and calling yourself a woman. For all I know, the proper treatment for Bruce Jenner’s psychiatric problem may very well be “gender reassignment”. Should Jenner be mocked for his decision? Of course not. But the reason we don’t mock him is not because he is now a woman. It is because it is wrong to mock the mentally ill. And just because Jenner has found a treatment that helps him get on with his life does not mean we must join him in his delusion. We respectfully call him by his new chosen name, Caitlyn just as we call Vincent Furnier, Alice Cooper, and we wish him the best of luck in this new chapter of his life. If we want to watch him on TV or read about him, we can do that too. However, he is a man. He was born a man and he will die a man and for us to say otherwise makes us mentally ill too.
What Does it Mean to be Black?
Unlike gender, race is a bit trickier proposition to tackle. The primary reason is that race does not exist in the physical world. There is no blood test that identifies you as a black man or a white man. Race is a social construct used to place people within a caste. It would be easier to define race if we could just go by skin color. Pick a hue as a dividing line and say, everybody darker is black and everybody lighter is white. But it doesn’t work that way. Race is defined by a person’s history and by their associations.
Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP is as mentally unstable as Bruce Jenner. She is a white woman who has embraced “black culture” (whatever that is) so completely that she has convinced herself she is black. I frankly don’t understand why any black would be angry with her about it. I don’t think she is mean-spirited. I think she is whack. Yet, as I said at the beginning of this essay, her preposterous case brings to the fore an interesting conversation about “blackness”.
I am a light-skinned black man. I am light enough to pass and quite frankly I inadvertently do so in my daily life. My mom, too dark to pass, used to tell me that I needed to tell everyone with whom I had anything beyond a simple acquaintance, that I was black. I used to joke with her “what do you want me to do, wear a button ‘Hi, I’m Rutherford and I’m black'”? My friends all know I am black. Many blacks “spot me” as black because they are more attuned to light-skinned blacks and they look for other physical features beyond skin color. The cashier at the grocery store probably doesn’t know I’m black.
But what does it mean for me to be black? It clearly isn’t skin color. We’ve already hit that. Is it culture? James Brown records were not allowed in my home growing up because my parents considered him an ignorant fool. I grew up listening to the Partridge Family and later Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper (yeah, him again). My current favorites are R.E.M., Green Day and the Cars. Some of the folks who frequent The Bar and Grill joke with me, “are you SURE you are black?” I can count on one hand the number of times my mother cooked “soul food”.
So is it about culture? I’m not sure it is. For me being black simply meant that my parents “qualified” as black in our society. My mother was the descendant of slaves. My father was the descendant of West Indians. Somewhere in my family tree are white folks which lends me my skin color. My mother used to say to me “why don’t you stop thinking about it and just tell everybody you’re white?” But to do that meant passing my mother off as the maid or caretaker or denying my relationship with my dad. That simply wouldn’t do. Music, food or TV preferences is not what made me black. In short what made me black was seeing a politician come to our front door looking for votes. He saw my mother and asked to see “the lady of the house”. Really? I was black because my family, and therefore I, did not “belong” in that neighborhood according to this horses ass of a vote-seeker. White families were not treated that way. THAT is the defining difference about being black in America. It isn’t culture. It isn’t even skin color (although that is a “marker”). It is caste and knowing where you are in that caste system.
Which gets us back to Rachel Dolezal. Rachel grew up with adopted black siblings. I have no doubt that influenced her view of race. I used to chuckle that my able-bodied mother, raising me as a disabled son, took on disability herself. She was sensitive to sudden downgrades or upgrades in a sidewalk or bumps in a walking path over which I might trip. “Watch out here Rutherford, it gets a bit steep here,” she would say. In her own way she was as physically disabled as I was. She saw the world through my eyes. This intense identification with me did not make her, in fact, disabled. But the empathy was strong. So, I could not fault Rachel Dolezal embracing “blackness” because her life experiences gave her strong empathy. It is her belief that she is in fact black that makes her a candidate for the rubber room.
And one more thing before I conclude this amble down the race/gender road. Could we please dispose of that silly stupid euphemism “African-American”? African-American is not a substitute for “black”. My dad was black. He was not African in any way, American or otherwise. And to hammer home the point, he used to be preoccupied with a perception (his at least) that West Indians thought themselves “better” than their black counterparts with African roots. This is why he literally forbade me from telling anyone that his parents were from Barbados. He didn’t want to be viewed as “putting on airs” or trying to separate himself from other blacks. As a young man, interested in acting, he showed up for a casting call and was referred to by the casting director as “the black guy”. His lack of African heritage didn’t keep him from getting labeled “the black guy”. And while we’re at it, why is Guido called an Italian-American and Vaclav called a Polish-American, with references to the country their ancestors hailed from but blacks get called African-American? Africa is not a country. We can’t do better than that? How about Kenyan-American? How about Ethiopian-American? Maybe Nigerian-American? It’s not gonna happen because that is not what being black is about in this country. It’s about being associated, however tangentially, with folks who were brought here from the African CONTINENT and enslaved. No further granulation is necessary. So folks, let’s stop the African-American foolishness and embrace our BLACKNESS, like Rachel Dolezal!
What do you think? The bar is open.