Transracialism: The people who identify as another race

Transracialism: The people who identify as another race

When it comes to identity politics, there are some truths that we simply take as gospel - ideas about the way in which we explore issues of gender, sexuality and race which are simply unquestioned. However, this means that our beliefs remain unchallenged. It’s only when academics and political thinkers interrogate concepts through rigorous debate that we can justify our opinions. Yet, it’s apparent that any author who raises difficult subjects or questions the status quo is quickly ostracised: dismissed as insensitive, racist, homophobic or transphobic, and shamed for thoughtcrime. Think I’m exaggerating? Think again. Just look at the controversy surrounding philosophy professor Rebecca Tuvel and all things transracial.

The term "transracial" originally referred to those people who had been adopted and raised by parents of a different race. But the new meaning of the term was popularised this year, in an article published in feminist journal "Hypatia", entitled In Defense of Transracialism. Transracialism, in this case, refers to the idea that people could experience a profound sense of race dysphoria in the same way that transgender people experience gender dysphoria: a disconnect between their perceived identity and the one they have been assigned.

Rachel Dolezal holding her son. Credit: Getty

In her paper, Tuvel cites civil rights activist Rachel Dozeal as an example. Dolezal, a prominent campaigner for minority rights in America, was formerly president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, before she was outed as a white woman, despite her claims to black ancestry. Dolezal alleged that she'd been a victim of hate crimes; a claim which her parents, who are ethnically white Europeans, were quick to dispute.

Dolezal’s critics argued that she was guilty of cultural appropriation by attempting to wrongfully engage with another culture for the sake of selfish or ulterior motives. Dolezal contends that her minority status is still justified, as she identifies as a black woman, and since she identifies personally as black, her status cannot be questioned. Furthermore, her acceptance of this identity meant that she was also subject to all the harassment and prejudice that a minority status provides.

In a February interview with The Guardian newspaper, Dolezal argued that race, as much as gender, is a purely social construct, claiming that her assumption of a black identity was "a political statement." She continues: "It was me saying: ‘I am renouncing the propaganda standards of European beauty being superior.’ It was almost like cultural disobedience, going the other way, to say, ‘You know, this is actually beautiful to me.’”

She added: “I feel like the idea of being trans-black would be much more accurate than ‘I’m white’. Because you know, I’m not white. There is a black side and a white side on all kinds of issues, whether it’s political, social, cultural. There’s a perspective, there’s a mentality, there’s a culture. To say that I’m black is to say, this is how I see the world, this is the philosophy, the history, this is what I love and what I honour. Calling myself black feels more accurate than saying I’m white.”

Have people welcomed Dolezal’s decision to change race? Has her choice been applauded as a step forward for identity politics? Absolutely not. On the contrary, Dolezal has been fired from her position as president of the NAACP, and is now living on food stamps. The uproar over Dolezal being outed as white has been vitriolic. Many expressed dismay that Dolezal had potentially robbed a "real" black person of a faculty job. Gender studies scholar Samantha Allen claimed: "Dolezal seems determined to appropriate not just blackness but the rhetoric of transgender identity as well. Even more troubling: she’s getting away with it."

Is Dolezal sincere? Is race a case of nurture over nature? Or is she fraudulently appropriating victim status to take advantage of positive discrimination? Is Dolezal actually devaluing what it means to be black or trans? Tuvel argues that it’s hypocritical for us to ostracise someone like Dolezal for being two-faced regarding their racial identity, and yet champion and applaud the bravery of trans people like Caitlynn Jenner. She states: "If some individuals genuinely feel like or identify as a member of a race other than the one assigned to them at birth - so strongly to the point of seeking a transition to the other race - we should accept their decision to change races."

Trans woman Caitlyn Jenner. Credit: Getty

In support of this statement, Tuvel contends that social recognition in conjunction with a physician's diagnosis gives one the authority to assume a transgender identity, and thus to transition from one gender to another if necessary. Tuvel points out that previously, inherent societal transphobia would have made matching a person’s inner self with their external physiology unthinkable, yet now we are capable of augmenting our bodies to suit our personal preferences regarding gender. Tuvel argues that it is arbitrary for society to affirm a personal stance on gender and yet deny one on race.

One argument against transracialism is that, to exchange one race for another, we would be required to change personal features that are external to our physiology, such as our genetic ancestry and the cultural environment in which we were raised. Yet Tuvel argues that "racial groupings of people are arbitrary from a genetic point of view … they are no more genetically similar than random groupings of racially diverse individuals." So genetically, there is no essential state of black or white when it comes to human peoples: merely a number of genetic traits common to some groups. Tuvel argues that it's easier to presume that each individual is responsible for their own identity.

The response to Tuvel’s article, which I took to be well-researched, thorough, articulate and sensitive, was every bit as divisive as Dolezal’s original statement. For the record, Tuvel isn't trying to defend Dolezal explicitly: she's merely attempting to draw a comparison between our moral justifications for changing gender with that of race. Tuvel was swiftly accused of racism, transphobia and triggering. Nora Berenstain, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, stated that the paper contained "egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive trans-misogynistic violence". An open letter calling for the article’s retraction garnered more than 500 signatures. In response to the backlash, Hypatia’s editors issued a formal apology on Facebook.


Tuvel herself eventually responded with the following statement: “I wrote this piece from a place of support for those with non-normative identities, and frustration about the ways individuals who inhabit them are so often excoriated, body-shamed, and silenced. When the case of Rachel Dolezal surfaced, I perceived a transphobic logic that lay at the heart of the constant attacks against her. My article is an effort to extend our thinking alongside transgender theories to other non-normative possibilities.”

Concepts of gender have become more fluid and less binary in order to accommodate our changing ideas. Why can the same not happen with race? As Tuvel herself notes: we simply cannot know whether Dolezal’s wish to be black is genuine or not - but what harm does a frank and open discussion of the issue do?

Furthermore, Tuvel’s critics don’t seem to have levelled any arguments against her paper which address her conclusions directly. Instead, her detractors seem content to dismiss her as a privileged, heteronormative aggressor and call it a day, without engaging with the issues she raises.

If Western society is ever able to gain any kind of true racial equality, then it seems inevitable that the often arbitrary distinctions between black and white will become blurred over time, just as intersectional feminism worked in accordance with the LGBT movement to make our notion of gender less binary.

Or perhaps the idea will always be a flash in the pan. It’s always impossible to anticipate social trajectory, but I do find it hard to justify a lack of engagement with our ideas around gender, particularly from those scholars who purport to be experts. I find it even more dismaying that so many internet-users were content to slate Tuvel’s article without actually reading it first, especially when Tuvel makes clear that she is very much a supporter of trans rights.

Despite having drawn a comparison between trans people and trans racial people, Dolezal does not presume that their experiences are identical. Only that arguments that support transgenderism also support transracialism. In my opinion, the determination of social justice activists to establish dogma and mudsling at the expense of critical thinking is ultimately far more damaging to minorities and trans people than any philosophy paper could ever hope to be.

Featured illustration by Egarcigu