The Two Way Street of Identity

Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner and the Process of Identity
The Rachel Dolezal case is interesting in its consequences with regard to identity. One of the presumed defining features of our times is the seemingly flexible concept of personal identity. There was a time when identity was a fairly stable construct, but in what is referred to as a post-modern age, identity is something that we can mostly manipulate. We can be whoever we want to be online, for instance.

Identity, however, is a bit more complex than changing a Facebook Avatar. For instance, in a world in which information and identity is recorded and subject to surveillance and biometrics, the strictures on who we are become even more inflexible than ever. So exactly what are the functional components of identity in the contemporary world? How can Rachel Dolezal’s failed attempt at defining her identity as black, compared to Caitlyn Jenner’s successful evolution into a woman inform us on the construction of identity?

Recently, two interesting examples of individuals trying, with more or less success, to radically shape their identities have played out in the mainstream media. On the one hand, Caitlyn Jenner’s public gender transformation has been largely successful. Rachel Dolezal’s attempt to create for herself a racial identity, however, has been less so, at least in the public eye. What do these two stories tell us about the complexities of identity? How can Rachel Dolezal’s failed attempt at defining her identity as black, compared to Caitlyn Jenner’s successful evolution into a woman inform us on the construction of identity?

Let’s start with the premise that Rachel Dolezal is being honest when she claims that she “identifies as black.” This claim may be a cynical diversion or an outright lie, but it’s more interesting to look at the social context by assuming that she is being honest. The problem that she faces is that identity may be “constructed” but it is not necessarily “self-constructed” even in this age of the avatar. Identity construction is not a one-way process by which I define who I am and present that to the world. Identity is a two way street. Identity is an interaction between an actor and an audience. An individual can present himself however he wants, but his identity must be accepted by others. Without that acceptance, there is no identity.

Identity can be seen as the product of three components working in concert between interactants. Identity is constructed from Ascription, Achievement and Labeling. Ascription is that part of identity that is recognized in the individual based on unchosen characteristics, usually, but not exclusively, characteristics that one is born into. Race or gender may be obvious examples of ascription, however, recent trends suggest the complexity of these paradigms.

Achievement is based on the decisions, positive and negative, associated with the individual. Selecting the word “associated” was intentional. These do not have to be choices the individual actually made, but behaviors that suggest a choice. Such choices may include snorting cocaine or attending community college, getting married or divorced. Sociologists understand the importance of ascription and achievement in analyzing social status, but these terms are also useful in a more general understanding of identity.

The third component I am calling “Labeling,” but should not be confused with Labeling Theory. Yes, there is some overlap, but Labeling Theory is most typically associated with deviance. Here I’m using the term to refer to the influence of others on one’s identity. Acceptance of an identity construct can come informally by surrounding oneself with people who accept your identity, or being forced among those who reject one’s identity formation, forcing a conflict. Labeling can also be the result of formalized processes or rituals such as earning a degree, getting married, joining a club and holding an ID card.

All three of these constructs work together to greater or lesser extent to create a person’s identity. The individual has more or less control over his or her ascribed or achieved status, but still must present an identity that is acceptable to others. I can make the claim that I am sociologist because I have a Master’s Degree in sociology. an achieved status resulting from a formalized ritual. I can make the claim that I’m a liberal because I hold and express such positions consistent with political liberalism. No formal process is required. If I try to present myself as an economist I may run into some problems. It will require the performance of rituals to legitimate that claim. If I were to claim to be a vanguard social theorist…even if I am in my own mind…that may take some embellishment on my part since the totality of my oeuvre is my masters thesis and this blog. These represent achieved identities. As an ascribed male, however, I would have some difficulty passing myself off as a woman.

And this is the context of our comparison. Both Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner are making identity claims that contradict an ascribed component of their identities. Dolezal was, for a time, successful in presenting herself as black when, phylegenically speaking, she is white. After all, we all think we know what it means to be black, but oftentimes we are confronted with someone who doesn’t quite match our understanding, does not have quite the melanin content, but can still adequately satisfy the constructed requisites for being black, usually parentage. There was a time when this was formalized by law based on ancestry. Dolezal’s “cover” was blown, however, by her parents. It was revealed that she did not have the requisite genetic attributes to justify the black ascription.

On the other hand, Caitlyn Jenner is also without the genetic requirements to be a woman and, yet, is largely accepted as such. Why was Caitlyn Jenner’s changed ascription embraced while Rachel Dolezal’s was rejected? Could it be that race is more immutable in our society than is gender? Er. Maybe. Maybe not. Caitlyn Jenner, however, did go through an open process by which she constructed her identity as a woman, allowing her audience to accept that identity. This process included interviews, news stories and updates on her progress through the transition and, ultimately, a cover photo for Vanity Fair Magazine. Now few transgendered or transexual people go through such a public transition and Jenner has, quite rightly, been lauded for her courage in this high profile instance. Most people will still have to go through some smaller scale performance ritual for their particular audience or social set before satisfying the label requirements.

Rachel Donezal, however, did not go through such a process. She presented herself as black without any of the social requisites. When she was called out, her identity process was defined as a sham and was indefensible. Those who accepted her as black were now confronted with what they may fairly perceive as being a lie. This begs the question, however, is there a legitimizing process by which Ms. Dolezal could have changed her ascribed status as white to define herself as being black as there was with Caitlyn Jenner changing her ascribed gender identity? If she is telling the truth that she identifies as being black, is there a way by which she can be so labelled? I can’t think of one. Of course, the same would have been true for Caitlyn Jenner not long ago.

It could very well be that, as it stands, gender is less immutable than is race in our society. After all, Caitlyn Jenner built upon paradigms that were already in the public sphere. We have a language to describe cisgendered, transgendered, queer gendered identities. Such a language does not exist for racial transitions. But what is clear is that identity only begins with the self. To change elements of our identity requires the performance of rituals that may satisfy our audience. Without such rituals, our identities, regardless of how we feel about our”selves” may be delegitimized in the face of others.


Image resultUpdate July 31, 2017: Rachel Dolezal recently published a book about her experiences as a “transracial” individual (a term Dolezal herself rejects). Might the publication of this book serve as an adequate ritual performance? Time will tell. In the meantime, out of the spotlight, it is very possible that Dolezal has found an audience, a social circle, that accepts her identity as presented.

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