A while back there was some discussion about whether people could claim that they were members of a race/ethnicity other than the one they were born into. The paradigmatic example was Rachel Dolezal, a white woman in Spokane, Washington who claimed to be black, and altered her appearance to match her claims. She worked her way up to the presidency of the local NAACP before she was outed by her family and the press. She was thereby fired from the NAACP, and hugely demonized for pretending she was black. It became clear that “transracialism” was not something one could do, in huge contrast with claiming one is transgender, which is not only largely accepted but lauded.
My first reaction was to believe Dolezal’s claim that she did feel she was black, and so why was she demonized in contrast to a natal woman who claims that she really is a man trapped in a woman’s body? There doesn’t seem to be a fundamental philosophical or moral difference between transracialism and transgenderism so long as the claimant expresses honest feelings. Sure, you can make up reasons why slight differences would render the former unacceptable, but they’re just made-up reasons to somehow defend the sanctity of race. To see the lengths people will go to demonize transracialism, read some of the arguments in the NBC News article below.
The philosophical similarity of transgenderism and transracialism was thoroughly discussed by philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in the journal Hypatia in a 2017 article called “In Defense of Transracialism,” (see my take here), and Tuvel was instantly demonized, with the journal’s editor apologizing on Facebook and petitions circulating calling for the article’s retraction. This is all because, in a philosophical analysis, Tuvel didn’t find a substantive difference between transsexualism and transracialism. Here’s her abstract and a footnote:
(Note Tuvel’s footnote when you read the critiques of transracialism in the article below.)
And yes, I agree with Tuvel. If society deems it okay to assume the trappings of a sex other than your natal sex, then they should also accept one who assumes the trappings of a race different from their natal race, so long as the transracial persona comes from honest motivations. After all, both gender and race are said to be social constructs (they aren’t, but it’s irrelevant)(, so why is it okay to change gender but not change race? The only reason I see is that “race” is seen as somehow sacrosanct, even though, like sex, it’s something you’re born with (both natal sex and race actually have biological realities). Race is such a touchy and divisive topic these days that it’s apparently regarded as something that an individual cannot change, even if, like Dolezal, you’re transitioning from a “privileged” race to a “minoritized one.” And this is often the direction in which it goes.
This controversy is the subject of this NBC News article. Click to read:
The upshot is that many people are now trying to assume a new race—most of them young women, and most of them trying to become East Asian. This is often done by some numinous method called “subliminals,” whereby you can change your appearance by listening to audio files. That’s hokum, of course, but let’s ignore that and look at the arguments against people who feel they’re Asian and want others to accept them as such. Or against those who want to change their natal race to anything at all. NBC News doesn’t quote a single person in the article who says that this change is okay. Quotes from the article are indented:
Practitioners of what they call “race change to another,” or RCTA, purport to be able to manifest physical changes in their appearance and even their genetics to become a different race. They tune in to subliminal videos that claim can give them an “East Asian appearance” or “Korean DNA.”
But experts underscore that it is simply impossible to change your race.
“It’s just belief,” said Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of cultural and media studies at Queens College, City University of New York. “It doesn’t ever really work, because it’s not doing anything, but they have convinced themselves that it works because there’s other people who have convinced themselves, as well.”
Well, maybe you’re not changing your genetics to correspond with the ethnic groups we call “races”, but neither are transgender (sometimes called “transsexual”) people changing their gametes. It’s changing your persona, and you can do that with race as easily as you can with gender. Cohen’s argument is simply incoherent, because both transgenderism and transsexualism are “just belief”!
Here’s another argument:
Experts agree race is not genetic. But they contend that even though race is a cultural construct, it is impossible to change your race because of the systemic inequalities inherent to being born into a certain race.
David Freund, a historian of race and politics and an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, corroborates the idea that a “biological race” does not exist. What we know today as “race” is a combination of inherited characteristics and cultural traditions passed down through generations, he said.
In addition, Freund said, the modern concept of race is inseparable from the systemic racial hierarchy hundreds of years in the making. Simply put, changing races is not possible, because “biological races” themselves are not real.
Freund added that the idea of changing one’s race operates differently depending on a person’s racial background and that white people who seek to “transition” to other races can often sidestep the harms of racism.
First of all, as Luana and I show in our Skeptical Inquirer article, race (even in its crudest classification) does have a polygenic basis: races and ethnicities conform very well to cluster analysis based on many genes. And of course sex devolves to a activated genes that set off a pathway resulting in whether you have the equipment to make sperm or eggs. Biology is key in forming both one’s natal ethnicity and natal sex. So if you can change one because you’re uncomfortable, why can’t you change the other? (By “change”, of course, I mean “change the claim of what you are”, not change the reality of your biological sex and race.)
So Freund is wrong about that. But what about the sex hierarchy of women’s inferiority that was also hundreds of years in the making? Again, though, I don’t see the relevance of a “hierarchy” argument, especially because most people who want to change their race are going from white to a “person of color”—the direction of accruing more bigotry. (Apparently black people “passing for white” because of their light skin is not so bad, except in the Jim Crow South that adhered to the “one drop” rule.)
Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at City University of New York, said: “There is a privilege in being able to change your race or to say that you’re changing your race. There are many people who would be unable to ever change their race. Particularly, Black people in this country would be unable to say all of a sudden ‘I’m white’ and be treated with the same privileges that white people have.”
Again the argument doesn’t make sense. People who want to change their race, like Dolezal, meet with huge opposition. While there are indeed transphobes, the general tenor of liberal thought is to accept someone’s claim that their self-identified gender differs from their natal gender. Again, why does race differ? Sure, it’s hard for a black person to claim that they’re white if their pigmentation and other traits are obviously black, but that’s also the case for many natal men who claim that their identity is that of a women but still look like men. In both cases one can accept the change of persona while still recognizing the natal origins of someone. (To be polite, though, one should address someone as they wish to be addressed and identified—except in cases like sports and prisons, where natal sex should be recognized.)
Tiq Milan, a Black transgender activist and writer, said it is a disservice to transgender people to compare the two. Race historically emerged as a social construct to establish a racial hierarchy with the white race at the top, whereas variances in gender identity have existed for thousands of years, he said.
“When it comes to who we are as racialized people, it is how we present to the world, but it’s also how people treat you,” Milan said. “It’s not just putting on the hair and the makeup and talking and walking [in] a kind of way. That is fetishizing, and it’s objectifying, and it reduces the beautiful and complicated cultures of people of color.”
First, I don’t think race was “constructed” to establish a hierarchy; as far as I know, race wasn’t used by the ancient Romans or Egyptians to rank ethnicities, and at any rate Egyptians aren’t white. Of course recognition of different types of both ethnicity and gender have existed for thousands of years. But that seems irrelevant too, as does the “beautiful and complicated cultures of people of color” (is this an implication that people of no color have inferior cultures?). All that matters to me is that people can claim either a gender or an ethnicity different from their natal condition, and if there are good reasons for this, and it’s not a hoax but a real feeling, why should race and sex differ?
It goes on, but not one person was asked to defend transracialism. (Why didn’t they call Rebecca Tuvel?)
In the end, my view is that if you’re going to go along with people’s claims that they’re of a different natal gender than their natal sex, then there’s no reason not to do the same with race or ethnicity. It may be harder for race if natal race is obvious, but it’s often hard for transgender people too, like accepting the claim of a natal man with a mustache and penis that he’s of female gender.
Now in neither case do we have to accept the reality of claims like “I’m a woman” from a natal man or “I’m an East Asian” from a natal white person. But I think it’s entirely possible to identify with a race other than your natal race, and we should treat those who do so the same as we do transgender folks.
The only difference I can see is that there are racial set-asides, as in affirmative action, and it seems unfair to say you’re black when you were born white just to take advantage of these. But such set-asides are disappearing, and really shouldn’t exist at all. And remember that there are female set-asides as well, and those also seem unfair. Most of us think that a transgender woman should not be able to compete on female athletic teams.
Perhaps the readers can find a relevant philosophical difference for treating transracialism different from transsexualism. I don’t fully understand why they’re treated differently, nor do the explanations above clarify things for me. It seems to pivot on the centrality of race in public discourse, but even that isn’t very helpful since biological sex and trangenderism are also hot topics these days.
For a sarcastic take on the NBC article, read the Not The Bee piece below (click to read, h/t Luana):