When an individual … makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect. – Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
Issues of personal identity—who we are and how we present ourselves to others—are foundational to the field of online community design. So it is with no small amount of amusement that I have been watching the controversy about Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who passed as black for a decade. The coincidence of this hitting the media shortly after Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine has led many people to draw comparisons. As Goffman says, claiming to be a particular identity is a moral demand to be treated in a particular way. Under what circumstances is it OK for someone to ask to be treated as a particular race or gender? Why is Rachel’s demand being demonized while Caitlyn’s is lauded as heroic? What does it mean to “be” a particular race or gender?
Some time in the late 1990s, Brenda Laurel and colleagues designed a virtual reality art installation focusing on themes of embodiment. Aiming to make users feel embodied, the simulation changed if you took on the body of the snake, coyote or eagle. Brenda and collaborators used elements of Native American stories and images in the design. When they showed the work, some members of the local intelligentsia criticized the work for “appropriating First Nation’s art.” (You can imagine that symbols of sacred importance to Native Americans often get used by outsiders in haphazard ways that feel disrespectful.) Brenda went to meet with the critics, to try to communicate how much her art was meant to show respect. In the course of the conversation, Brenda mentioned that she is one-sixteenth Cherokee. In response to that, she says, “Suddenly the tone changed, and it was OK for us to have done what we did.”
What does it mean to be Cherokee? Does having one great-great grandparent who was a member of a group make you a member? Brenda didn’t exactly grow up on a reservation. She never even met her Cherokee ancestor. Would you feel any differently about Rachel Dolezal if she were one sixteenth of African descent? One thirty-second? Evolutionary biologists tell us that everyone is likely of African descent if you go back far enough. Genetics seems like a weak heuristic for identity.
No one has one identity. We all are different selves in different parts of our lives. Amy the professor and Amy the mom are different, and I switch between those roles fluidly. And some of those roles are more comfortable than others. Even though Amy the professor is at ease in front of a large audience, Amy the bride was terrified to appear in that fancy dress in front of family and friends. Our many selves complement one another, and over time we may cultivate some more than others. Caitlyn and Rachel both made decisions that a very different sort of self, at odds with their genetics, would be more comfortable for them.
The rhetoric that Bruce found her “true self” in becoming Caitlyn is nonsense. There is no such thing as a “true self.” We should say, rather, that the personal identity that Caitlyn chose to embrace is so much more comfortable for her that she was willing to go to great lengths to embody it.
Why does Rachel’s situation seem so much more problematic? Racial “passing” is by no means new—it just usually goes in the other direction. Part of the problem is a question of honesty—she lied. Lindsey Van Gelder’s epic 1985 Ms. Magazine article “The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover” tells the story of a male psychiatrist, “Alex,” who pretended to be a disabled woman, “Joan,” to get closer to women on an early CompuServe bulletin board. Joan refused to meet her online friends in person, but did tell a few about this great guy she knows, Alex. Alex went on to have romantic relationships with some of Joan’s online friends. While some people believe that BBS members were angry at Alex for gender swapping, many have a simpler explanation: they were angry at Alex for being a manipulative liar. As people were angry at Alex for lying, are people angry with Rachel for lying? That’s certainly part of the picture. But returning to the question of the comparison to Caitlyn, are people just beginning to transition to a new gender “lying”? While they may choose to be honest with family and friends about the beginnings of their transition, they certainly can’t give a full explanation to every retail clerk and waiter they encounter day by day. Are transitioning people “lying”?
Another part of the consternation about Rachel is that she assumed an identity that has been traditionally oppressed and consequently under some circumstances is entitled to special treatment. If she took any financial benefit by pretending to be African American, then that constitutes fraud. Is that true of Caitlyn as well? If Caitlyn Jenner now accepted a scholarship for women, would that be OK? Can you medically become another race in the same sense that we recognize that someone may medically become another gender? If Rachel could have permanent skin darkening treatments, would it be ethical for her to accept a scholarship for minorities? The complexities are dizzying.
Most of the time, the right answer is “Who cares?” You can present yourself however you like. The absurdity of trying to determine what race a particular person belongs to is poked fun at in a Dave Chappell video on the “racial draft.” Like a sports draft, African Americans take Tiger Woods (who is half Thai) with the first pick; Jews take Lenny Kravitz (half Jewish) with the second. The question whether someone “really” belongs to a particular group is absurd.
However, there are special situations—like scholarships for minorities—where eligibility is restricted to certain groups. Sometimes you have to decide. In her 1998 book Cyberville, Stacy Horn tells the story of having to decide whether to let a transitioning person, online nickname “Embraceable Ewe,” into the women-only forum (“WIT”) on her Echo bulletin board system. Stacy wonders, “If I let her into WIT, will it feel like there is a man in the room, or a woman?” It’s impossible to answer the question of whether Embraceable Ewe should be allowed into WIT without exploring two underlying questions: what is a woman, and what is the real purpose of single-gender space? Although initially Stacy declares that Embraceable can join WIT when her transition is complete, later she relents. She concludes, “It’s not up to me to tell anyone who they are. I am not the one to decide anyone’s gender.” Ultimately for Stacy, accepting people for who they say they are is simply good manners.
As Goffman points out, assuming a particular identity is making a moral demand to be treated in a particular way. If we all simply treat everyone with respect all the time, maybe some of the need to pin down who-is-what will fade.
Thanks to Josh Berman, Oliver Haimson, Stacy Horn, Brenda Laurel, and Pete Weimann for their help with this post. (Edited with comments from Stacy and Oliver–further comments appreciated!)