You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drilled in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Oscar Hammerstein III, South Pacific

Over the course of human history, there has always been the concept of “Other.” It wasn’t always about skin color, or god concepts. Often it was language or dialect, or some small difference in the way a group did things. Sometimes, it was as simple as the “Other” living on the opposite side of a river or one group living in a valley while the “Other” lived in the highlands. Even gender differences can define “otherness,” as in the ancient Greek legends of the female warriors known as Amazons.

“Otherness” can be attractive as well as repellent.

There are many documented cases of people “going native.” They find themselves in a different culture, and before long, adopt that culture as their own, identifying themselves with those among whom they live. Historically, a good example is the Vikings. Between the 9th and 11th Centuries, these Scandinavians invaded and occupied many regions of Europe. Within a few generations however, they wound up culturally assimilated by the population they sought to conquer, losing their Scandinavian identity altogether. This happened in with Swedes in Russia, Norwegians in Ireland, Normandy and Sicily and Danes in England.

There have been times when adopting another culture and/or identity was less about attraction and more about survival. Even today, there are gays and lesbians who feel the need to marry someone of the opposite sex for cover (not an uncommon practice during much of the late 19th and 20th Centuries).

Another example was once known as “passing.” Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it was not unusual for an African-American with light skin to attempt “passing” him or herself off as white (for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with the history of those days). “Passing” wasn’t always about race. In 1989, when a jazz pianist named Billy Tipton died at age 74, the autopsy revealed that he was actually a woman who had been passing herself off as a man in order to pursue a musical career.

This entire issue – nearly as old as the human species itself – has been brought into the spotlight by two recent events. One is former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner’s transformation into the woman Caitlyn. The other is the case of Rachel Dolezal of Spokane, Washington, whose story has put a new twist on the old practice of “passing.”

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn-Jenner

This past April, Caitlin Jenner admitted to TV journalist Diane Sawyer that even as a young boy, she had suffered from “gender identity disorder” (GID). The modern medical profession “diagnoses” this “condition” as “dysphoria,” or an inability to accept the gender with which a person is born.  It is still considered a “disorder.”  In an article appearing in a 2002 issue of Behavior Genetics, the authors reported that GID had a largely genetic basis. Other research cites differences in brain structure (for example, men having brain structures normally found in women and vice-versa).

It is interesting to note that, in other times and places, Caitlin Jenner’s transition from male to female would have simply been taken in stride by those around her – and in some cases, might have earned her special status.  Among Native Americans and other hunting-gatherer societies, sex and gender roles could be fluid, having little or nothing to do with one’s genitalia. Among the Tsitsista (Cheyenne) People, if a man decided he was really a woman – or vice-versa – that person simply donned the clothing of the gender in question can began living as one. They were accepted without question, and no-one thought less of them. Among the Tsalagi (Cherokee), such individuals were thought to be both man and woman in one body. “Two-Spirits” were considered quite powerful and commanded great respect.

It all changed when Native American peoples were herded on to reservations and pressured to accept Christianity. When this author worked at a reservation school back at the turn of the present century, homophobia was rampant.

Things are beginning to change, thankfully. Over the past decade, First Nations have been rediscovering the places and roles that LGBT people occupied in traditional Indian society. These roles were as varied and diverse as Indian Nations themselves – but they were never outcasts or subject to scorn and persecution.

Like LGBT Native Americans throughout the late 19th, and virtually the entire 20th Century, Caitlin Jenner and those like her have felt compelled to suppress their true nature, hiding who they were from the rest of the world. Even today, there are rabid, outspoken, and hate-filled homophobic elements who attack Ms. Jenner and those like her (news flash: being transgendered and one’s preference of sexual partners are two different issues). But there are just as many who support Ms. Caitlin and praise her courage for making the change.

On a personal level, this author has a close male friend who was born female. He considers his friend a better man for having been a woman.

Rachel Dolezal

Dolezal

Changing gender is one thing – changing “race” (for what that term is worth) is another.

Skin color and facial features – the most apparent markers of “race” – were not the way humans categorized and labeled each other throughout most of history. For example, in ancient Rome, pale-skinned Germans as well as dark-skinned Nubians could officially become Romans by adopting the toga and the Latin tongue, acknowledging the Emperor’s divinity and meeting the qualifications of Roman citizenship. In contrast, U.S. law from the late 19th to the mid-20th Century prohibited immigrants from east Asia and, ironically, indigenous members of First Nations, from becoming citizens.

Modern racism originated as an economic construct. This is well-documented by late historian and author Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States. In the earliest years of North American settlement by the English, ca. 1600, wealthy plantation owners utilized the labor of both African slaves and Irish “indentured servants.” There was little distinction between the status of the two. At that time, Irish and Africans mixed freely, even intermarrying and having families. It was an alarming situation for the gentry who, while controlling the wealth, were greatly outnumbered.

Their solution: “divide and conquer.” The aristocracy began granting the Irish “special privileges” denied to Africans. The wealthy and powerful began spreading the Great Lie that laid the foundation for four hundred years of African-American enslavement and oppression: by virtue of their pale skin, the Irish were somehow “slightly better”!

Subsequent generations had this ingrained into their consciousness, and in many places, it became institutionalized and enshrined in law.

It didn’t always take. White Americans, while frequently repelled by blacks themselves, were also curiously drawn to African-American culture – at least as it was presented to them. “Minstrel Shows,” an inaccurate and cartoonish portrayal of blacks (normally performed by white actors in blackface), were nonetheless the first exposure to African-American culture for many 19th Century white Americans. Significantly, it was music that began breaching the racial divide; ragtime and jazz, rhythm and blues, bebop, soul music, funk, and most recently rap and hip-hop, are all African-American art forms that quickly made their way into the mainstream.

Rachel Dolezal’s attraction to African-American culture went far beyond music. Ultimately, she identified with that population so strongly that she claimed to be one of them – and indeed, may have actually thought of herself as such.

In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss the facts of Ms. Dolezal’s story and whether her actions warrant the attention and infamy she has drawn – or if it is, to quote the Bard of Avon, “much ado about nothing.”

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.