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On transracial and transgender identity

Somewhere, there’s a distinction between them that doesn’t beg the question. I’m still looking for it.

Some commentators have been quick to denounce comparisons between Rachel Dolezal’s “transracial” self-identity and Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender one. My intuition is that they probably are different, and I’ve been trying to understand why. But I don’t have any good answers, only more questions. To be clear, nothing in this post should be taken to mean I think transracial and transgender identities are actually analogous. I’m just struggling to find a satisfactory reason why they’re not. Here are a few of the arguments I’ve seen.

On Mic, Darnell Moore asserts that Ms Dolezal “falsely represented her identity” and thus “practiced cultural theft”. Trans people, on the other hand, “express their gender according to categories that reflect who they are.” This begs the question. Essentially, Mr Moore has told us that one identity claim is legitimate (transgender) and one is false (transracial). But which identities are legitimate and false was the whole question in the first place.

“Skin color is hereditary,” he then tells us, as does Lourdes Hunter. But some people also think that one’s chromosomes (and their biological consequences) determine their gender identity. Clearly, we could define gender identity by biological parts, but we expressly reject this idea. Instead, we posit a gender identity distinct from our bodies, innate and subjective to the individual. All Mr Moore and Ms Hunter do is assert that we should do this for gender and not race. It’s still unclear why we think there’s a distinction between them.

Similarly, Meredith Talusan argues at the Guardian that Ms Dolezal’s “decision to identify as black was an active one, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.” It seems odd at first to claim to read Ms Dolezal’s mind like this, but Ms Talusan explains: “her decision to occupy that identity is one that was forged through her exposure to black culture, not a fundamental attribute of her existence.” Thus, Ms Talusan provides one detail to Mr Moore’s assertion: the mechanism by which one gains the identity matters.

But it’s not really clear where we gained the right to claim Ms Dolezal’s identity is not “fundamental”. Imagine that the parents of a genderfluid or nonbinary person successfully persuaded their child that they were male, and they came to realize their identity only after exposure to a genderqueer community later in life. I like to think we wouldn’t deny them their identity, just because their upbringing didn’t allow them to experience it.

Some commentators, like Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart on Slate, take a more pragmatic approach. They point out (correctly) that transgender people are a marginalized group. Ms Dolezal, on the other hand, is a member of a privileged group, namely, white people, which makes it inappropriate to adopt someone else’s culture. Again, this begs the question. It assumes Ms Dolezal is not transracial (i.e., is white) in order to demonstrate that she is not transracial. The (valid) idea that someone in a privileged position should not appropriate an oppressed identity could be similarly, and similarly fallaciously, used by transgender critics: People assigned male at birth are also part of a privileged group. Genderqueer advocates generally reject that this means trans females are not actually female.

More to the point, though, a primary means of marginalization of transgender people is the denial of their identity: an insistence that they must fit not only into the gender binary, but into the side of the binary that we tell them. And the reason transracial people aren’t oppressed is because… well, we don’t really hear about transracial people. Prima facie, this is evidence of oppression, not the lack thereof: they can’t even out themselves as transracial because they’ll (presumably) be ostracized. But more directly, denying Ms Dolezal her claimed identity is precisely what her critics are now doing. Once again, we have come full circle. We might then say that this ostracization is justified because Ms Dolezal’s claimed identity is false, but then we’re question-begging again.

With this in mind, even citing a need to fight transphobia begs the question. This need, and the lack of a need to fight transraciophobia, rely on the premise that transgender people legitimately self-identify, and transracial people do not. But that premise is exactly our conclusion.

Now, even if transracial identity were a valid concept, this wouldn’t necessarily excuse Ms Dolezal. There are plenty of other reasons why we might criticize her. We might question her integrity or motives. Perhaps we would have rather that Ms Dolezal had been open about her background from the start, rather than had her (former) whiteness revealed only when she reached top NAACP leadership positions. Perhaps our real objection is that Ms Dolezal is claiming the same types of oppression as those faced by black people; transgender people, on the other hand, at least according to some commentators, face different sorts of oppression to ciswomen. Maybe we’ve just decided that Ms Dolezal is a horrible liar and we should listen to nothing she says. These are all appreciable sentiments, even if some are rather insulting. But none of them provide ground for the sort of sweeping statements that have filled the internet about the non-existence of transrace as a concept.

My intuition is that transracial people aren’t a thing, and that however much Ms Dolezal identifies with black culture, she’s not actually black. But I know better than to trust my intuitions: they’ve misguided me many times in the past, and will doubtless do so many times in the future. I would, therefore, like to understand why my intuitions run this way. I’m still thinking.

Some friends of mine offered some very useful thoughts as I was drafting this post. Thanks to all of them.

Addendum: After I wrote my first draft, I realized that Matt Bruenig’s already written a similar post.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I believe racism underlies most objections to Rachel Dolezal’s identification as African American. She has not claimed she is of direct African American descent, from my knowledge, but prefers to feel and look African American, for personal/cultural/political reasons. Whats the problem with that? If she is claiming to be of African American descent, to her pecuniary or social advantage, but in fact is not, then that would be misrepresenting her ‘self’ .
    When ‘race’ (an obsolete term for scholarly purposes) are deemed biological it causes all sorts of contradictions and errors, because ethnic origins and identities are often complex, fluid and made as a personal choice. However, our ethnic origins and descent are biologically determined – but these are different from our subjective ethnic identifications.

    I feel like I am from another planet sometimes, but I do not claim to be biologically alien, even though sometimes I like to wear Spock ears in public. Does that make me a crook, or just another kook?.

    21 June 2015

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