As I noted in my linguistics blog on Saturday night, there have been several comparisons between Rachel Doležal’s claiming of a black identity and transgender identity claims, and lots of articles condemning any such comparison. Most of those have been faith-based, along the lines of “Their god can’t be the true god, because it says in our holy book that our God is the true one.” But I study transgender phenomena from a skeptical point of view, and I’ve noticed some important commonalities. Of course race and gender are not the same thing, but we deal with them in similar enough ways that one can be a mirror to the other.
On Saturday I noted the contrast between the absence of African American English features in Doležal’s speech and the numerous African American features in her appearance, most strikingly of course her hair. I compared it to the many transgender people I know who have spent long hours and serious cash on their visual appearance with no thought given to how they sound. Now, for a non-linguistic angle, I’m going to talk about being sexy.
Maybe I’m reading the wrong blogs (or the right ones), but after three days I haven’t come across anyone talking about how sexy Doležal is. This is funny, because most women in the public eye (and most who aren’t) are subject to constant commentary about their attractiveness – or lack thereof. Here I am looking at her cleavage-baring blouses, her tight pants and tailored jackets, and her curve-accentuating heels, and everyone’s sticking to the script: skin tone and hair. It’s surreal.
When I went looking tonight, I did find two insightful comments that articulated what I was also thinking. An anonymous commenter on the “Toddler” section of the YouBeMom forum, of all places, wrote, “Rachel Dolezal was an awkward looking white woman and is now attractive as a light skinned black woman. Say what you will about her lies but her new skin and hair suit her.” Writer Calaya Reid had a much longer take which is worth reading in full, but here’s the key part, invoking Jessica Care Moore: “Maybe she’s trying to tap into her Black girl juice. Maybe she’s admitting what everyone knows and what everyone seems to want you to forget — that there’s a power to this thing of being a Black woman. That there’s some wizardry, some cosmic brilliance to this skin you’re in. There really is Black girl juice.”
I should note that I’ve only seen five or six pictures of “white” Doležal, and she was pretty young in most of them. “Awkward” wasn’t the word that came to mind, but I was definitely thinking “demure.” The publicity photo she used right after she graduated Howard in 2002 was a bit more sophisticated, but really didn’t do much to counter the impression of being a well-brought up Christian girl from Montana.
I’m not sure I need to say this, but it is definitely possible to be sexy as a white woman with straight blonde hair. You may have seen a few on television. Superficially it seems like it would be easier for her to go with her natural assets, but Doležal chose to dye and perm her hair to be a sexy black woman with utterly unnatural “natural hair.” Why?
I get the impression Doležal is her own hairdresser, so only she knows for sure. But here’s where her actions feel familiar to me as a transgender person, and as a transvestite in particular. Because I only feel like I know how to be sexy as a woman. I know what clothes flatter my body, and what makeup and hairstyle go with the clothes to make a sexy look. As a guy, I only go with what people tell me, but I never know if I’m doing it right. I constantly feel like I’m fumbling in the dark.
I could be totally off-base with this, but I get the feeling that Doležal feels like she only knows how to be sexy as a black woman. She knows not just the hair and the clothes, but the jewelry and the eyebrows. And when she’s tried to make it work as a blonde woman, she never knows if she’s doing it right.
The irony here is that if I achieve any actual sexiness as a woman, it’s superficial and it never attracts anyone that I actually want to attract. Sometimes it looks good in still photos, but I’ve been told by people whose opinion I trust that in person it feels false and disconnected from my true self, not necessarily because of gender. Meanwhile, I have on some occasions managed to be sexy as a guy, usually just by being able to relax, to be myself and to own my true sexuality. Of course, nobody can tell you how to act natural.
Again, I feel the same way when I watch videos of Rachel Doležal. The moment she moves, the moment she opens her mouth, the sexy black professor disappears and I see a scared white girl hiding inside. A profoundly unsexy scared white girl. But I hope that for her sake, she has also managed at times to relax, and to be as truly sexy as I have been. It’s a beautiful feeling.