The identity crises of Rachel Dolezal and Bruce Jenner

Race Issues
by Jarvis J. Williams

Posted on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, at 2:58 pm

The response to the two controversial identity crises in the news—Rachel Dolezal’s racial transformation and Bruce Jenner’s gender transformation—shows how confused many Americans are about the issue of identity in general and racial identity in particular. Jenner has undergone some medical procedures and changed his name to “Caitlyn” in an effort to transform his appearance from male to female. In similar fashion, Dolezal has tried to transform her white identity into an African-American one, making certain cultural accommodations as part of her desired transformation. Many have cheered Jenner for his bravery and inspiration, while some of the same people have accused Dolezal of deception.

Dolezal, who on Monday resigned her position as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP, identifies as an African-American, but most everyone now contests her claim. But few questioned the 37-year-old college professor’s racial identity until her Caucasian parents—with their German, Czech, Swedish and Native American heritage—provided the media with childhood photos and a birth certificate showing their daughter was born white. But what is racial identity?

Social scientists suggest that the modern category of race was socially constructed as a fixed biological reality, characterizing groups as inferior or superior to one another. This construct was also resulted from the fictive, scientific racism that emerged in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to racist applications of Darwin’s theories of evolution. America’s founders later adopted this racist construct, and since then, Americans have wrongly accepted this fictional theory of race by connecting one’s racial identity to biology. And the various vitriolic responses to Dolezal prove this point. But her controversial negotiation of her so-called biological racial identity would not have been all that controversial in the New Testament world.

Race in New Testament times was complex—yet, it wasn’t based upon scientific racism and was negotiable. A person could simultaneously have membership within Jewish, Roman, geographic, human, and Christian races/groups regardless of physiological characteristics, while overplaying or underplaying one aspect of their identity over and against another in a specific context. The Apostle Paul emphasized his Roman citizen identity over his Jewish identity when he appealed to Caesar (Acts 22:25-29; 23:27; 25:11-12; 26:32; 28:19). He later downplayed his Jewish identity—while taking on certain aspects of Gentile identity—as a means of reaching Gentiles with the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Galatians 2:14).

These attempted transformations—whether the cultural response to them are negative (Dolezal) or positive (Jenner)—should remind Christians to look only to Jesus Christ for our identity, instead of finding it in the wisdom of the so-called “enlightened” modern world.

Jarvis J. Williams

Jarvis is associate professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a former WORLD contributor.

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