Should We Be Able to Choose Our Sex, Racial Identity?

21 June, 2015

Do we have a right to choose our racial identity or sex? For example, if a person's biological parents are white, can that person say he or she is black? If someone is born male, can he demand to be known as a woman?

American Bruce Jenner recently completed a series of treatments to become a woman. Many people supported the former Olympic star's decision to change sexes. But people reacted differently to a rights activist who said she was black. She was forced to resign from her job when her mother and father admitted they are white.

Many question Dolezal's race identity

Until this week, Rachel Dolezal led the Spokane, Washington office of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Ms. Dolezal resigned because she made others believe she is a black woman. Yet she is biologically white. She told NBC News that she has identified as a black person ever since she was a child.

"I would say about five years old, I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and the black curly hair, you know, that was how I was portraying myself."

Ms. Dolezal's parents legally adopted black children. She was raised with them. Ms. Dolezal married a black man and has two sons from the marriage. She teaches classes about African-American culture at a college in Washington State. And she has changed her appearance to make herself look more like an African-American.

Bruce Jenner (L), now known as Caitlyn Jenner, and Rachel Dolezal. (AP Photos)
Bruce Jenner (L), now known as Caitlyn Jenner, and Rachel Dolezal. (AP Photos)

The discovery that she is biologically white has angered many people. They believe she has unfairly received help because she led others to believe she is black.

Greg Carr is the chairman of Afro-American studies at Howard University in Washington, DC.

"Ms. Dolezal -- to use some of the parlance of scholars here in the United States -- seems to have acquired everything from blackness but the burden. The story is that now -- now -- her whiteness threatens the authenticity that she may have constructed in her own life."

More acceptance for Jenner's change of sex

Bruce Jenner was a star of the 1976 Olympics. He has been married three times and has six children. Earlier this year, he completed his physical transformation from a man to a woman. Jenner now identifies as a woman. Her new name is Caitlyn Jenner. Most people have supported this change of identity.

Anne Morning is a professor of sociology at New York University. She says both Ms. Jenner and Ms. Dolezal will face criticism.

"They both have to deal with people who run right into conflict with our long-held beliefs about what natural real categories are when it comes to race or when it comes to gender."

Ms. Dolezal told NBC News she believes people should have the right to choose their identity.

"The discussion is really about what it is to be human and I hope that can really drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and ultimately empowerment."

Ms. Jenner's case seems to be a sign of growing acceptance in the United States that people should be permitted to change their gender. But the case of Rachel Dolezal seems to show that not as many people believe we should be able to choose our racial identity.

I'm Jim Tedder.

VOA's Zlatica Hoke reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

self-portrait – n. a painting or drawing of the artist

crayon – n. a stick of colored wax that can be used for making pictures

portray – v. to describe (someone or something)

adopt – v. to legally take someone else's child as your own child

parlance – n. language used by a particular group of people

acquire – v. to come to have (something)

burden – n. someone or something that is very difficult to accept, do or deal with

authenticity – n. something that is true

construct – v. to make or create by organizing ideas and words

transformation – n. a complete or major change in someone's or something's appearance

category – n. a group of people or things that are similar in some way

core – n. center; the most important part of something

ultimately – adv. at the end of a process or period of time

Do you believe people should be able to choose their racial and gender identity? We want to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments section.