Why Did Richard Dawkins Tweet About Rachel Dolezal?
Some people did not recognize the reference. Here’s a quick refresher.
A tweet by the famous biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins on April 10, 2021 made headlines for its comparison between the identity claims of transgender people and those of Rachel Dolezal.
Because some people are not aware of the details of the 2015 scandal in which Dolezal was outed, specifically in the discourse that tried to make an analogy with transgender identity, I will revisit those details here as background information. Then, in my next article, I go on to discuss the controversy over Richard Dawkins’ comments.
The Dolezal Scandal in 2015
Rachel Dolezal is a white American woman who posed as Black. She attended Howard University, a historically Black institution, and sued the school in 2002, claiming it had discriminated against her for being white. Increasingly, she presented herself as Black, eventually becoming president of a local NAACP chapter. When she was outed by a journalist in 2015, she said: “I identify as Black.”
Dolezal’s choices were widely perceived by Black people as a betrayal and an exploitation. I’m not Black, so I’m not the best person to describe the feelings and reasons involved. Many Black people have written brilliantly and movingly on this topic, so please read their work if you’d like more information. You could see this and this and this and this and this (all here on Medium), or The Washington Post, or Slate, or head over to The Root and search “Rachel Dolezal”.
The Comparison to Transgender Identity
Within days of Dolezal’s outing, a Fox News pundit claimed Dolezal’s lies about her race were the consequence of cultural influences regarding the “transgender position…that a genetic reality is not reality.” (The pundit also suggested that he himself might provide a false age to sign up for government healthcare “if I believe in my soul I’m a 65-year-old.”)
The same complaint was explored, in greater depth, in The Economist:
Conservatives, for their part, wanted to know why we are now expected to accept, if not celebrate, those who choose their own gender identities, in defiance of hard chromosomal and anatomical facts, but are forbidden from extending an equally tolerant welcome to those who choose their own racial identities.
And, of course, that discourse rapidly found its way onto Twitter.
Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote for Salon that we might
consider for a minute that race and gender are actually two different things? That however you want to argue for the complexities of the constructions of both — and I’m with you there — those complexities are not the same?
If you want to generate some more precise ideas about exactly how a white woman misrepresenting herself as a Black woman is a situation distinct from transgender people’s lives, you might consult an article by Meredith Talusan in The Guardian shortly after the Dolezal story broke. In Talusan’s view: First, understanding oneself as a man or a woman isn’t just an “affinity.” One’s own gender identity isn’t something learned from exposure to others but rather is more fundamental to one’s personhood. Secondly, there is usually nothing to be gained, “politically or financially,” from transitioning genders. More frequently, there is great risk of loss. When you put those two things together, it’s clear that transgender people’s self-expression is authentic, not a “deception.”
Tuvel’s Paper (2017)
The media coverage died down, but, less than two years later, the controversy came back when the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published an article by Rebecca Tuvel in its Spring 2017 issue exploring the comparison. Tuvel, a white woman who is cisgender, concluded that “since we should accept transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races.”
Tuvel wrote that society should accept people’s gender transitions regardless of whether any biological basis for transgender identity can be found. Gender identity does not need to be biologically grounded; it can be political or personal, and that would be reason enough to accept such people. She then pointed out that “race is not biologically based” either and that “one’s ‘actual’ race is a matter of social definition.” Can’t we, then, accept people’s assertions about their own racial identities, including the decision to change race? Although she admitted “I do not know whether it is possible to feel like you belong to a different race,” she said it seemed “plausible” that you could. “It is at least theoretically possible to change races,” she stated — but is society willing to recognize such a change?
Well, no. Society is not willing. Society — here, I mean especially Black communities — doesn’t like this idea at all. Therein lies the barrier for any white person who wants to claim that they are Black. White people do not get to decide whether they can present themselves as Black. Many, many Black people have said they do not like this idea. Whether it is theoretically possible to change from Some Category A to Some Category B is not at issue here. We were supposed to be talking about whether it is actually a good thing to transition between specific categories. The categories Tuvel was considering are white and Black, man and woman. And those types of transition are, in fact, different. There is no reason to think they are the same. There is no reason to think that racial transition is even possible just because gender transition is possible.
The controversy over Tuvel’s article made the New York Times. The journal Hypatia apologized for its publication, saying, “Clearly, the article should not have been published,” while listing the specific types of harms that were caused. These included having the discussion in “dehistoricized and decontextualized ways,” especially failing to consider “the history of racial appropriation”; more or less ignoring critical race theory and the work of trans philosophers; making “harmful assumptions” about trans people; and inventing a moral equivalence between “the lived experience of trans people” and “a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity,” thereby “associating trans people with racial appropriation.” Also, for the win, using a trans person’s “deadname” (pre-transition name). This deadname was later removed from the published article.
I read the paper. It doesn’t seem necessary for me to pick it apart here.
Speaking generally, the problem was not in any individual sentence. It was more that these sentences, when strung together in the length of a book chapter, were collectively making an argument that should not have been made. As Hypatia admitted, it should not have been published. It did not advance knowledge. It did not help anyone practically or make anyone feel good. It did not need to exist.
The paper has one good thing going for it: It explores what it means to identify as, and to be accepted as a member of, a broad, nebulous category like “race” or “gender.” When there is no clear answer on what makes us belong to Category A in the first place, it is difficult to explain how we might ever manage to shift to Category B. That is a reasonable observation.
But my praise of the paper will stop there. For here is the problem: if we acknowledge that it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to define race and gender, then, in that moment, we are not yet capable of making specific claims such as whether white-to-Black racial passing is anything like gender transition. It simply has not been shown here that Rachel Dolezal’s experience is any kind of cousin to transgender experience. We cannot start with total ontological skepticism and end up with a very specific claim that viscerally offends the people who are in the affected communities — not in under 7,000 words, we can’t. We don’t have an excuse for leaping over our intuitive moral resistance and making the counterintuitive claim that A is entirely analogous to B while also admitting we can’t define A or B.
Why I Am Bringing This Up in 2021
On April 10, Richard Dawkins tweeted the old trope:
In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as.
If one did not recall that similar arguments had already been made years earlier, one might think that Dawkins came up with this analogy by himself. But even if he did believe that the idea had come to him on his own, if he’d bothered to do a quick online search, he would have found the history of the discourse. Conclusion: He did not put much effort into this tweet.
In this brief statement, he “missed every single point that people made in rebuttal to [Rachel Dolezal’s] behavior and subsequent defenses [over the last] 4–6 years,” Zoé Samudzi tweeted the next day.
Dawkins appeared to be speaking in “bad faith,” Samudzi continued, since “Rebecca Tuvel made the same point even more inelegantly in Hypatia 4 years ago” and it had already been unpacked by “trans people and sociologists of race.” Dawkins’ new tweet brought only “a double dose of anti-blackness AND transantagonism.”
He did face consequences for his tweet. The tweet was the final excuse for one organization to strip him of an award retroactively.
That is the subject of my next article.