Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner and questions of identity: Is it wrong to talk about the two together?

The complainant, Kate Owen-King, thought a column by CBC reporter Neil Macdonald talking about Rachel Dolezal’s right to live as an African American inappropriately made a comparison to Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender person. She thought it set back the understanding and dialogue around the issues of transgender people. Her comments raise some great questions about identity and how we talk about it.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to say you were “disappointed” by a column by Neil Macdonald published June 17, 2015, on the CBCNews.ca website. It was entitled “Why can’t Rachel Dolezal be as black as she wants to be?” Mr. Macdonald was writing about a story much in the news at the time about a woman whose biological family was white, but who chose to live and identify herself as an African American. In fact she was the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, a prominent U.S. civil rights group, and had been a part-time African studies instructor at a local university.

Around the same time, there was a great deal of media attention around the appearance of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Ms. Jenner was publicly revealing her new identity. She is a transgender person, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, an American Olympian and latterly famous because of his association with the ubiquitous Kardashians. Questions of identity were very much part of the public discourse.

Your criticism of Mr. Macdonald’s article was that he linked the two women and talked of their experience in a way that made them seem equivalent. You pointed out that they are not, and that by using the language he did, he “set back the dialogue about transgender issues”:

Although Caitlyn Jenner may have made a choice about coming out in a very public way, the fact that she is transgender is not about “wanting” to be a woman. I am surprised that the CBC style guide does not discourage language which implies that gender identity issues involves choice or “decisions” to be a woman. This is not a liberal vs. conservative issue, this is a human rights issue... Rachel Dolezal should not be compared to trans people. Trans people have existed throughout history and across cultures. The comparison minimizes the struggle faced by trans people (countless of whom have killed themselves because of the failure of society to accept them), and encourages prejudice. Although I understand that Mr. Macdonald is trying to make a point along the lines of “live and let live”, being trans is not about “claiming to be whomever or whatever they want to be”.

You thought it was wrong to compare Ms. Dolezal and Ms. Jenner because it implies they both have a choice about their identities:

The piece is entitled “Why Can’t Rachel Dolezal be as Black as she Wants to be?”. By then making comparisons with Caitlyn Jenner, Mr. Macdonald effectively invites the question “why can’t Caitlyn Jenner be as female as she wants to be?”, which implies that there is a choice involved with both.

You also said that there should have been much more care about the language used. You took exception with the use of the sentence “I don’t care what Jenner wants to be.” You added:

A truly respectful discussion about Jenner’s decision to come out would involve reference to who she is (not “what” she is), or a discussion about what she has chosen to do. Using the phrase “what she wants to be” is problematic in itself, given that Mr. Macdonald is referring to a member of a community often spitefully described as “things” and “its”. More care should have been used in the choice of this language. Mr. Macdonald may have had no malicious intention, but using the word “what” encourages a negative view that dehumanizes trans people.

You reject any comparison between the two women, stating that “there are no similarities between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal:

People are still confused about “what” transgender people are; Mr. Macdonald’s article does not help... I understand that Mr. Macdonald may have had no conscious malicious intent with his article, but he has not made trans lives easier. He has dragged trans people into a “stupid, sarcastic argument”, and left them there, without more clearly explaining just how stupid the argument is and why.

I appreciate that it is not the CBC’s job to advocate on behalf of trans people, but I do think it is important that the CBC does not add to negative dialogue. Trans people are here, they are struggling, and they are worthy of respect and dignity. Rachel Dolezal of course deserves dignity as all humans do, but please do not encourage foolish comparisons which ignore medicine, science and history.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Lianne Elliott, the acting Executive Producer for CBCNews.ca replied to your concerns. She told you that in his analysis piece, Mr. Macdonald in no way meant to “suggest gender identity is a matter of choice.” What he was referring to, she explained, is that Jenner had decided to finally “align her gender expression with her gender identity. In other words, that she decided to identify publicly as a woman.”

She also addressed your concern that comparing Ms. Jenner’s and Ms. Dolezal’s experiences minimizes the struggle of transgender people and could encourage prejudice:

I understand your concerns here, and the distinction you are making. But Macdonald’s intention was not to minimize the struggle faced by trans people or for that matter by the Rachel Dolezal’s of the world struggling against a racial identity they feel was imposed on them. Comparisons of course are intended to underline similarities between two things usually to make a point, not to suggest that they are identical.

She added that Mr. Macdonald wrote his column in the context of the public discourse about these two women. She explained he was addressing the comparisons made by advocates with different perspectives, using the difficult struggles they both faced for political ends:

Macdonald’s focus is on the continuing left-right “culture wars” debate in which prominent American figures, mostly politicians, are taunting each other over the issue of self-identity and selectively using Jenner and Dolezal as their examples. That’s their examples, examples that may be as imprecise as they are commonly cited – a frequent phenomenon in those culture wars.

In the long run, Macdonald’s column might be seen as comforting to anyone struggling with such profound and troubling issues. Of Dolezal, the focus of the column, he concludes, “racially she’s human, culturally, she’s black”. She should be allowed to be what she is. In the end, he says, the whole thing is just the “subject of a stupid, sarcastic argument”.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy dealing with stereotyping and the use of language. While both are useful guides, they can’t be so precise as to cover the nuances you raise here. Journalists have a duty to be clear, precise and accurate. They have a duty to be respectful and careful when working with or talking about vulnerable people. CBC policy, as I believe Ms. Elliott explained to you, is to use the language that a subject in a story prefers by way of descriptors. CBC language attempts to be appropriate and gender neutral, where applicable. The relevant part of the policy on language is this:

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

Your point in referring to Ms. Jenner as “what” she is, as opposed to “who” she is, is well taken. It is that kind of attention to detail that matters. And you objected to the reference in the piece where Mr. Macdonald refers to what Ms. Jenner “wants to be.” This is what Mr. Macdonald wrote:

In any event, what is the harm, exactly, in people claiming to be whomever or whatever they want to be?

Personally, I don’t care what Jenner wants to be; I actually don’t care about Jenner at all. But I can only respect the work Rachel Dolezal has done, whatever her motivation.

As she says, racially she’s human, culturally she’s black.

Personally, I tend toward the view of Richard Rodriguez, the Pulitzer-nominated California intellectual who has for decades argued that race distinction is becoming pointless.

He says a “browning of America” has been under way for years and is accelerating, and that it cannot be ignored or wished away.

When it’s complete, there’ll be one less subject for stupid, sarcastic argument.

Although you think this implies Jenner had a choice about identifying as a woman, in context, it is as logical to read it as the choice to live fully and publicly as a woman. I think the point that this was about what happens when you publicly claim an identity is an important distinction, although it seems that you don’t. Ms. Jenner and transgender people may have a biological root to their gender dysphoria. From her public statements, it would seem that Ms. Dolezal had a driving need, from a very young age, to identify as a black person. Whether a biological imperative or a deep seated psychological one, the two stories raise issues of identity and belonging. I don’t think it is an automatic inference that asking why Ms. Dolezal can’t be as black as she wants to be, as the title of the piece does, leads to wondering about how female Ms. Jenner wants to be. The questions raised go beyond the experience of these two women. And that is some of what Mr. Macdonald was probing – how these questions of identity were playing out within the American political landscape.

He also uses the example of the United States’ first black president, Barack Obama, who is in fact mixed race, and how that has played out in identity and race politics. Many people who wrote in response to Ms. Dolezal’s story were mixed race, and their eloquent and anguished descriptions of what it is like to fight for acceptance in two worlds were also part of the discourse.

In the context of this whole piece, there is no sense that Ms. Jenner’s struggle is being minimized or that there is an implication the situation she lived with is identical to that of Ms. Dolezal. It certainly is no violation of policy to discuss the two together. Consider the broader context of the piece. The two stories broke around the same time. The realities of the two women might be different, but the questions raised are similar. Who gets to determine identity, what motivates and drives people to claim a particular identity? The depth you read in to it is certainly valid, but this column’s focus and message is not about being transgender, it is about how these two personal dramas played out in the broader context of American society.

Mr. Macdonald, as he often does in his columns, raises the issue, as he sees it, of a certain amount of hypocrisy about the championing of Ms. Jenner’s coming out and the disapprobation of Ms. Dolezal for choosing a black identity. In this broad frame, I don’t believe there was a misrepresentation of Ms. Jenner or of being transgender.

I must say that your criticism of the piece made me think a great deal about the distinctions you raise, and how to understand the issues of identity. This column wasn’t about those deeper questions. It was about how two different struggles about identity were being played out in the political realm, with some thoughts about what that said about contemporary American life.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman