Bioethics Blogs

Race, Gender, and Authenticity: Reflections on Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner

The concept of authenticity has been receiving a lot of attention in the past few weeks due to two high profile cases. First, Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympic gold medallist and TV personality who was until recently known as “Bruce”, debuted her new name and identity in an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair. Second, it was reported that Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP president, was allegedly born a white woman, and has been deceptively representing herself as a black woman.

The latter case has sparked a great deal of controversy that I do not intend to fully address here. Furthermore, although some commentators have drawn all things considered likewise comparisons between the two cases, it seems clear that Dolezal’s case involves a range of separate issues, which make an all things considered likewise comparison inappropriate; again, I do not intend to make such a comparison here. Rather, in this post, I shall explore one particular theme that has emerged in many discussions of these cases, namely the language of authenticity.

Authenticity, or living in accordance with one’s ‘true self’ is a highly cherished value in Western society. However, it is not always clear what living authentically amounts to; partly this is due to the fact that there are different ways in which we can understand the concept of authenticity. Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which one can understand authenticity. Consider first what has been termed an ‘essentialist’ understanding of authenticity, according to which authenticity is a matter of self-discovery. To live authentically on this account is to live in accordance with one’s essence, or to discover the nature of one’s extant and mainly static self, and to live in accordance with it.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.