David Hoppe

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:: Caitlyn and Rachel

The new shape-shifters

by David Hoppe

Shape-shifting is becoming the new normal.

First it was Caitlyn Jenner. Then Rachel Dolezal.

Let us take a moment to consider just how malleable what we like to call “identity” is becoming.

As we all know, Caitlyn Jenner used to be called Bruce. Bruce was an Olympic athlete, whose championship image bedecked boxes of Wheaties breakfast cereal. Jenner parlayed his Gold Medal prowess into a lucrative media career, ultimately playing dad to the Kardashian gang on what is loosely known as reality TV.

The trouble for Bruce was that he always felt like a she. Inside Bruce was a woman living in a man’s body. Hence the unveiling of Caitlyn on a recent cover of the aptly titled Vanity Fair magazine.

Caitlyn’s story dominated the news for a week or so. For the most part, the public seemed to applaud her finally coming to terms with who she really was.

Rachel Dolezal’s story is even more improbable. Born blonde and fair-skinned to Caucasian parents, Rachel came to understand herself as being African-American. How this came to be, while arguably eccentric (and more than a little deceitful), is actually not as bizarre as it might at first look.

Rachel played big sister to four black infants her parents adopted. She went to college in Mississippi, where she lived with an African-American family who described her as a “surrogate daughter” and “a black girl in a white body.” She was accepted into grad school at Howard University, a traditionally black school. She married a black man.

Eventually, Rachel became director of the Spokane NAACP; she taught Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. As far as people she worked with were concerned, she was black — an impression it seems Rachel did little or nothing to contradict. In a recent interview she said, “Nothing about being white describes who I am.”

It used to be that if you were lucky enough to be the “right” gender or the “right” race, you could afford to pity those born otherwise. “No one would choose that life,” was a common refrain. Indeed, the liberalization of state marriage laws has been prompted, in part, by the popular contention that gay people are born that way.

But with the acceptance of difference comes a normalization that is as banal as it is welcome. As difference is accepted, a blurring begins between who we are, and who we choose to be.

Of course the Internet has been elasticizing our understanding of personal identity for some time. Assuming differing online personas — genders, races, you name it — is one way for some people to shed the skin they grew up thinking they were stuck with. This, perhaps, has made it easier for some of us to make the leap from one version of the self to another in three dimensions.

This could be a new kind of freedom. It could be a freak show. As Kurt Vonnegut observed: “"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."