When the story of Rachel Dolezal broke last week, the internet immediately exploded with much thinkpiecery and gnashing of teeth. In case you've been living under a rock, Dolezal, the head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, apparently misrepresented her life history in order to pass herself off as African-American.
An immediate point of comparison was with Caitlyn Jenner, who recently came out as a transgender woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. If Jenner can change from male to female because she insists that gender is a construct, then why can't someone switch from white to black, or vice versa?
There are some, such as Sean Davis at The Federalist, who bring up this question in utter bad faith, solely to justify a preexisting bigotry against trans people as mentally disturbed. However, there are others who raise the question honestly, and I think it's worth straightforwardly addressing why the analogy doesn't hold.
Moreover, I think the question is more difficult than many people are making out. Simply asserting that gender and race are not 100 percent identical is a non sequitur. And it is simply untrue, as shall be shown, that there is no such thing as "transracial identity," as others argued.
So why are Jenner and Dolezal not the same sort of phenomenon? It has to do with history, solidarity, and the different mechanics of race and gender.
(A few necessary disclaimers: As a cis white man, I bring little personal experience to the subject. This is mostly a restatement of others' arguments, not an original General Theory of Race and Gender. What's more, nothing below is meant to impugn the legitimacy of gender transition, only to explore the difference between gender and race.)
Gender and race are social constructs to a great degree, but not equally so. In particular, gender is more deeply rooted in one's own mind, while race is more forcibly imposed by the surrounding society. Of course, that's not a hard and fast distinction, since gender norms are also imposed from outside, and racial identity surely becomes part of one's internal self-presentation. Nevertheless, it's fair to say there is a difference in weighting.
As a cis man, I feel myself to be inherently male, and I am attracted to women — both of which can appear in other combinations regardless of biological facts. But there is no equivalent kind of inherent identity and preference markers when it comes to race. Thus, it makes less sense for someone to argue that they are really one race or another based solely on internal feelings, particularly in a pretty racist society like the United States. For people with dark skin, the whole point of the race system is that race is a choice one does not get to make. This, I think, is the most important difference between Donezal and Jenner.
Two years ago Radiolab produced a fantastic podcast about an Ohio family riven by transracial questions. It concerns the town of Waverly, which was settled before the Civil War as a whites-only community, and a neighboring town, East Jackson, which was the product of intermarriage between blacks, Indians, immigrants, and whites. Following the rules of white supremacy, everyone in East Jackson was swept into the black category, even though many of them had barely any African ancestry at all.
The story focuses on a woman called Clarice and her two daughters, Carlotta and Ally. Clarice is only 1/16th African descent — yet nevertheless was labeled as "Negro" on her birth certificate, and faced vile discrimination when the schools in Waverly were integrated in the 1980s. In the face of such abuse, she decided to own the label, and proudly identifies as black.
Her two daughters chose divergent paths. In the face of rampant racist harassment in high school in the late 90s, Carlotta simply bore the abuse and continued to live as black, while Ally changed her racial presentation, insisting that she was really white. Though she appears fully white, it was necessary to cut many of her ties with her family, who still carried the black taint. She made friends with older kids, who didn't know where she came from, lied about her parents' identity, stopped associating with Carlotta at school — and even taunted and abused her. To escape racism, it was necessary to become racist.
It's not surprising that the American race system might pressure some to eject out of a black identity. And yet, her mother and sister, who were similarly traumatized, refuse to legitimize their oppression by changing their racial identity, even though they probably could have if they moved somewhere else.
That is one example of history's tremendous influence over race. Someone who appears completely white can have a claim to blackness if that is how they have been treated by the racial system, even if they have no African ancestry at all. Someone who was raised white — and thus likely escaped the material deprivation and oppression of being raised black — has not "earned" black identity by a shared experience of inescapable oppression. As Jamelle Bouie points out, it seems Dolezal could not have been so treated until after she changed her appearance — and might have been able to escape it at any time.
Of course, some argue that trans women are illegitimately appropriating female identity in a similar way. But this is less convincing given the massive and transgender-specific discrimination trans people face. Undergoing a gender transition has enormous negative consequences, completely distinct from the everyday negative consequences of merely being a woman.
At any rate, while transracial identity does not exist in the way that transgender identity does, it is not true to say it doesn't exist at all. Edge cases where racial identity is not superficially obvious is one area where it might exist — I, for one, would not presume to tell either Ally or her mother which race they "really" belong to. More commonly, consider when a couple adopts a baby with a different race from their own (there are apparently many studies on this). Such a person can have an experience not dissimilar from the experience of gender transition: a feeling of not belonging, exploring a new and unfamiliar sociocultural space, and eventually changing their identity presentation.
Ultimately all questions of personal identity hinge on personal testimony, and the level of respect and legitimacy with which that testimony is greeted. That, in turn, depends heavily on the sociopolitical context, and the fact that Dolezal felt the need to disguise her true origins suggests she was implicitly aware of the problem: that she did not have a right to the identity she claimed.