While every journalist and blogger is happy to put his or her own political slant on the motives behind Rachel Dolezal’s chronic, pathological lying, few seem to consider that Dolezal may in fact be lying to cover up an even more frowned upon secret; Rachel Dolezal, who is racially European-American, might actually identify as ethnically Black, and thus is likely suffering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). If so, Dolezal is certainly not alone. BDD affects as much as 2.4% of the population. Extreme examples of this mental illness result in a social phenomenon known as “Otherkin,” where people identify as animals, or even inanimate objects, such as Pad Gardner, who identifies as a menstrual pad.
While certainly sensational, Dolezal’s condition isn’t particularly different from that of men who wholly embrace traditional gender roles, or white people who legitimately believe in white supremacy–the main difference being that people with BDD erroneously believe that there is something inherently wrong with their bodies, whereas male chauvinists and white supremacists mistakenly believe that there is something intrinsically right with themselves, a condition that is arguably more dangerous to humanity.
Giving Dolezal the benefit of the doubt about her ethnic identity, however, does not absolve her of unethical behavior. Aside from public deception, fudging forms, and possibly committing hate crimes against her own family, Dolezal repeatedly engages in a sort of ethnocentrism that is all too common, including among social justice warriors. When asked to respond to her critics, Dolezal claims that “it’s more important for me to clarify that with the Black community… than… to a community that… [doesn’t] really understand the definitions of race and ethnicity,” as though the Black community has monopolized understanding race and ethnicity. This same ethnocentricity is on display among the countless bloggers who are now claiming definitively that trans-racialing and trans-ethnicing are not real, even though they readily admit that transgendering is, including Rafi D’Angelo, whose trending piece on Dolezal starts off by claiming that the only opinions that really matter are those of Black Trans people, before elucidating his apparently invalid opinion.
Taking to its logical conclusion this ethnocentric attitude that only those with certain intersectional traits have the intellectual capacity to comprehend and discuss certain phenomena, and that it is up to the gatekeepers of the social justice movement to inspect people’s demographic credentials, we come to one of Dolezal’s greatest crimes. While teaching a course on race and culture at Eastern Washington University, Dolezal censored a Hispanic student who had volunteered to speak about her experiences of racial discrimination, on the grounds that the student did not look Hispanic enough. Like so many others, Dolezal used her social capital as a newly accepted member of a group to immediately begin excluding others.
This exclusionary attitude repeats itself during an interview with Pad Gardner, the aspiring human menstrual pad. Shock jock Chris Wilder asks Pad if he has the world’s largest collection of menstrual pads, to which Gardner benignly responds that he believes so, but that that honor might go to the founder of the Museum of Menstruation (MoM). This prompts Wilder to defensively ask Gardner if he views the host of the MoM, one of the only people in the world who shares Pad’s enthusiasm for feminine hygiene products, as a “Johnny-come-lately.” Pad Gardner doesn’t even engage with this provocation of jealousy, proving that suffering from mental illness and being a terrible person are two very different things.
Similar proprietary attitudes prevailed at Occupy Wall Street, where participants I engaged with were regularly openly hostile to those with opposing political affiliations, but typically justified their hatred with claims of having “occupied” for longer. In one particularly insidious incident, a liberal coworker of mine from Rhode Island, thrilled that the movement had spread to his home town, watched the livestream of Occupy Providence, joyously pointing out that he knew almost all of the 10 or so occupiers. Suddenly, he became upset, claiming that a certain woman among them should not be allowed to participate. It turned out that her offense had been dating his friend and procuring an abortion without his permission.
Intersectionality and social justice, at their best, suggest that while there are quantitative and qualitative differences in experiences of oppression, everybody faces oppression in a unique manner at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, too many social justice warriors treat intersectionality like a luge-to-the-bottom at the Oppression Olympics. And as in any competition, the best way to prove one’s authenticity is not through citation, but through challenging the authenticity of one’s opponent, much the way that the best strategy for deflecting an accusation of being a witch is to be first in line to accuse and burn other witches. This ethnocentric attitude likely has nothing to do with Rachel Dolezal’s racial identity, but certainly seems to have governed quite a few of her social interactions.