On Race, gender, choice, and Compassion

Watching the Rachel Dolezal saga unfold is a bizarre juxtaposition to the recent emergence of Caitlyn Jenner. While I’m sure some on the conservative side of the debate are frothing at the mouth over this news, I can’t make myself believe Dlolezal is in the same boat as someone who is transgender. At the same time, I can’t quite laugh at or pity her. But that’s a road I’m not prepared or equipped to take, so I’ll leave you with this.

I am largely disturbed by the fraudulent nature of Dolezal’s activities. Listening to an interview with her on NBC News revealed to me either a dogged liar or someone in serious denial, bordering on mental illness. The news about her art career is equally troubling. I agree that it seems she is identifying as a race as a matter of convenience. People of other races can advocate for other races already. (Bill Clinton was the “first black president.”)

There do exist those whose racial I identities can be somewhat plastic, and those people are of mixed races – like myself. Though I have a Hispanic name and Hispanic heritage, I often find myself to be racially neutral. I guess I’m somewhat “white,” and usually slip under the radar as caucasian, but find myself more defined by my impoverished childhood than anything. I’ve drawn the ire of Hispanics for not being able to speak Spanish or being “Hispanic enough,” and I find myself as a mild outsider among white people. While I can declare myself as Hispanic at my convenience, I find it to be different than when Dolezal declares herself to be African-American. At least I AM Hispanic.

But what do I know? I honestly don’t fully grasp the Caitlyn Jenner case. I am too much of a “make the most of what you have” person to understand how going through an expensive and lengthy operation to change my physical self is the right solution. But here’s the difference (I say) between how I feel and being a bigot: I don’t hate Caitlyn Jenner. I don’t think she’s necessarily wrong. I don’t think I’m an expert. I understand that there are things I don’t understand. If that truly makes her happy, then that’s wonderful. Then that’s what she and all people in her situation need to do. Anyone’s understanding should not be the prerequisite for the happiness and freedom of others, especially when that freedom doesn’t hurt anyone else.

While Dolezal’s case may not be like Jenner’s, one thing remains the same: It is not our job to judge her or belittle her. She should not be the latest in a parade of people publicly shamed so everyone else can distract from personal shortcomings.  It is most likely Dolezal has a mental illness, and mental illness is something our country is good at horrifically mishandling. She deserves patience, understanding and what seems like a lot of help.