Race, Gender, and Authenticity: Reflections on Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner

The concept of authenticity has been receiving a lot of attention in the past few weeks due to two high profile cases. First, Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympic gold medallist and TV personality who was until recently known as “Bruce”, debuted her new name and identity in an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair. Second, it was reported that Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP president, was allegedly born a white woman, and has been deceptively representing herself as a black woman.

The latter case has sparked a great deal of controversy that I do not intend to fully address here. Furthermore, although some commentators have drawn all things considered likewise comparisons between the two cases, it seems clear that Dolezal’s case involves a range of separate issues, which make an all things considered likewise comparison inappropriate; again, I do not intend to make such a comparison here. Rather, in this post, I shall explore one particular theme that has emerged in many discussions of these cases, namely the language of authenticity.

Authenticity, or living in accordance with one’s ‘true self’ is a highly cherished value in Western society. However, it is not always clear what living authentically amounts to; partly this is due to the fact that there are different ways in which we can understand the concept of authenticity. Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which one can understand authenticity. Consider first what has been termed an ‘essentialist’ understanding of authenticity, according to which authenticity is a matter of self-discovery. To live authentically on this account is to live in accordance with one’s essence, or to discover the nature of one’s extant and mainly static self, and to live in accordance with it. In contrast, we can also conceive of an ‘existentialist’ understanding of authenticity, which suggests that authenticity can be a matter of self-creation; to be authentic on this account is to consciously shape one’s own characteristics within the constraints imposed by the self’s enmeshment with social and genetic factors.

The two understandings of authenticity can have different implications. For instance, in the human enhancement debate, those who invoke the essentialist understanding are often critical of the use of enhancement technologies to change aspects of oneself; the reason for this is that such technologies can be understood to lead us away from ‘who we really are’. For instance, invoking the essentialist understanding, Carl Elliot writes:

It would be worrying if Prozac altered my personality, even if it gave me a better personality, simply because it isn’t my personality. This kind of personality change seems to defy an ethics of authenticity.

In contrast, advocates of the existentialist approach to authenticity tend to be more supportive of the use of such technologies (at least with regards to the implications that such technologies might have for the recipient’s authenticity). For instance, an advocate of the existentialist view might argue that an individual who voluntarily chooses to take Prozac because she wants to become a more cheery person is, in fact, a paradigm case of someone living authentically.

Many commentators have claimed that Dolezal has been inauthentic by implicitly invoking the essentialist understanding of authenticity. For instance, Dolezal’s mother told the media:

‘Rachel has wanted to be somebody she’s not. She’s chosen not to just be herself, but to represent herself as an African American woman or a bi-racial person and that’s simply not true’

The thought implicit in these remarks seems to be that Rachel’s decision to make the changes she has made has amounted to an abandonment of her true self.

In contrast, many commentators have praised Caitlyn Jenner for living authentically. In view of the above discussion of the two understandings of authenticity, we might expect that these supporters are implicitly invoking the existentialist understanding of authenticity. Interestingly though, this is not the case; throughout her interview with Vanity Fair, Jenner herself makes a number of comments that suggest that her changing from ‘Bruce’ to ‘Caitlyn’ did not so much amount to the creation of a ‘new self’; rather it was a matter of self-discovery, of revealing and finally living as her true self, as it had always existed. The sort of language that Jenner uses in the interview thus seems to invoke the essentialist understanding of authenticity. Accordingly, Jenner’s case shows that the essentialist understanding of authenticity that has been invoked by critics of Dolezal need not be opposed to all sorts of change.

In view of the fact that both of these Jenner’s and Dolezal’s cases have been cashed out in terms of an essentialist understanding of authenticity, how are we to account for the different reactions to each case regarding the authenticity of the individual in question? I cannot offer a full analysis of this deeply complex question here. However, it seems possible to make a few pertinent remarks in view of the above discussion.

A few candidate explanations of the different reactions have been raised in media discussions (at least implicitly), but many seem off-target. For instance, some commentators have claimed that the seemingly deceptive nature of Dolezal’s actions renders them inauthentic in a way that Jenner’s is not – however, this seems implausible; after all, we would not believe that a trans-gender person’s choice to change themselves would have been rendered inauthentic if it was later revealed that they had undergone a change some years ago but had not disclosed the fact. We might believe (although we need not, depending on the circumstances) that there was something morally questionable about this sort of deception, but we would not, I take it, understand that deception to undermine the authenticity of the change to the individual herself. Alternatively, others have distinguished the two by making highly presumptuous claims about Dolezal’s probable state of mind, and her reasons for undergoing her changes in an attempt to establish their inauthenticity. In the absence of a statement from Dolezal herself, these claims are wholly unhelpful.

Indeed, the most interesting philosophical issue with regards to authenticity here is not what Rachel Dolezal’s motives in fact were, but rather, whether we can even conceive of Dolezal as living authentically in the way that many believe Jenner can, even if doing so rests on a contingent fact about Dolezal’s motivations. A great deal of the discussion concerning comparisons between Jenner’s and Dolezal’s cases has turned on whether there are differences between the extent to which self-identification can play a role in determining race and gender. These are deep and important questions that should play a role in our assessment of these cases; however, notice that these are questions that are primarily about the concepts of gender and race in themselves, rather than the concept of authenticity. This leaves us with the following puzzle; perhaps it might be true on some views of race and gender that Caitlyn Jenner can choose to be a woman in a way that a white person (such as Rachel Dolezal) cannot choose to be a black person. However, even if this is so, we might still cogently ask whether it is possible for Dolezal’s actions to have be authentic to her (contingent on her holding certain motives), even if it does not entail that she is truly a member of the group to which she might wish to identify? I lack the space to do anything other than raise this question here. For what its worth though, prima facie at least, I am tempted to believe that there is something to the claim that for an agent to to live authentically, there must be a sense in which she can be said to truly belong to the groups with which she has chosen to identify and which ground her life goals.

The value of authenticity is by no means the only value that has been appealed to in criticisms of Dolezal; nor is it the most important. However, the case raises a number of interesting issues about authenticity that are distinct from questions about the morality of what Dolezal has done, and questions of race and gender per se.

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