Identity and Nature

rachel4The recent twitterstorm around Rachel Dolezal’s passing as a black woman has been quite interesting from the perspective of philosophy. It shows the perpetual tension between nature and culture, and shows how Platonic identities can be constructed entirely without input from nature.

One of the first controversies that arose had to do with people comparing her to Caitlyn Jenner’s gender reassignment and transgender identity. This is hugely unfair when we consider that Dolezal is a habitual liar and an attention-whore who eight times claimed falsely to be the victim of hate crimes. Jenner, on the other hand, was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and has struggled with her gender identity issues all her life, nearly making the transition three decades ago. She decided against it then for the sake of her children, whom she raised as a father.

Caitlyn gave up her happiness and the entirety of her productive years to give her family the sense of normalcy that society never afforded her as a transgender woman. She only made her transition as a retiree, so that she would die at peace with herself. Time and again with transgender people we see that their struggle is not imaginary, that something in their nature, in their psychological configuration, makes them identify with one gender and not with the other.

Ancestry is also not a matter of choice. Rachel Dolezal could not have chosen her ancestry. That was determined before she was born and is in her nature. In concrete terms, we are all branches of our ancestors, and this is our true identity as natural beings. It’s not an imaginary identity.

One observation must be included here: religious conversion has the power to confer a certain social and cultural identity. Rachel could convert to the Hare Krishna cult and wear a sari, as many white female devotees of Krishna do–and some male, like Boy George when he went through his Krishna phase. She could have also converted to the Sikh religion and wore a turban. No one would have questioned her cultural identity because it would not have necessarily been mis-aligned with her natural identity.

If Rachel had converted to Islam and chosen to cover her face and physically present as a Muslim woman, her chosen Muslim identity would have been fully recognized. Religion can be an acceptable chosen cultural identity. And if she had claimed victimization for it, then it would have been for her choice, not because Islam was in her nature. I don’t know if this may bear witness to some kind of religious privilege, but Rachel cannot really **choose** to be a person of African ancestry. She may identify with African American culture as a white woman, assume certain ethnic or cultural identities (European or otherwise) as her influence, but not change the facts of her ancestry.

One curious note is that Epicurus established in his last will the celebrations on the 20th of every month, in part, as festivals of ancestor reverence. Other naturalist philosophies like Taoism are also firmly founded on reverence for ancestors. Might ancestor reverence have therapeutic value? Might Rachel Dolezal benefit from converting to Native European folk religions like Asatru in order to come to terms with her true natural identity?

Should people attempt to explore religious experience within the bounds of their own ancestry, either ideally or as a temporary experiment, and might this contribute to a sense of ataraxia and to insights into our true natural identity as branches of our ancestors?

I don’t have answers to these complex questions, but am intrigued by them and will continue to explore them and to compare cultural identity versus natural identity, how both are constructed (or dismantled) differently, and by whom.

In particular, where it concerns ataraxia, it seems like identity might be of relevance insofar as it relates to territoriality, to the need to feel safe and comfortable among our friends and the things that are familiar to us. Almost every species exhibits some territorial instinct and needs to be able to identify a particular habitat to optimize its happiness.

What can be said with certainty is that we do have a real, tangible, provable natural identity in our DNA as members of a certain family, species, and genus. We really **are** varieties of humans descended from apes and from mammals down the evolutionary chain. There are concrete and real things that can be said about our biological identity as natural beings. Of these undeniable and irresistible facts we are certain.


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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