Notes on: Tuvel, R. (2017) in Defence of Transracialism. Hypatia, 32 (2) : 263 – 76.

Dave Harris

This addresses the controversy around the case of Rachel Dolezal, who was head of the NAACP in Washington but she had been presenting as a Black woman and her parents are White. She has been called a deceiver and cultural appropriator although in the same month Caitlyn Jenner was celebrated as an example of transgender identity. Rather than addressing the specifics of the case including the motives and whether she lied about receiving hate mail, there is an argument about transracialism and parallels with transgenderism and how identity functions. Transgenderism can be used to support transracialism if individuals 'genuinely feel like or identify as a member of a race other than the one assigned to them at birth' (264.)

Generally people are allowed to assume the personal identity they wish to assume, for example Jewish identity, although much depends on whether a group is willing to recognise a felt sense of identity and grant membership. Transgenderism is [currently] to depend on a psychiatric diagnosis and surgical transformation, although there is an uneven reception, sometimes lack of recognition. A growing sense of justice means respecting self identification.

Does this apply to race? Can you feel as if you belong to a different race? It may sound odd, but so did feeling like you belong to another sex. Experiences like growing up in a Black family or marrying a Black partner might well increase a sense of identification as in Dolezal's case. It seems no different than feeling like a member of another sex. After all there are more biological anchors for sex, even though transgender women may have genetic variations. Racial identity offers no biological basis for identity, and there are risks in holding transgenderism 'hostage to a biological account' (265), because it does not apply to all women and there are dangers of determinism of what is a political matter. Further, individual experiences of what it is like to be a woman 'are extremely varied' and there is 'no core kernel of experience' (266) [but don't Black feminists deny that?]. Sex does not determine gender. Biological characteristics vary as well.

There might be other differences. We can change hormones, genitalia and other bodily features if we want to change sex, but there is no equivalent for changing race [skin colour and hair type?]. We would have to change 'one's genetic ancestry' (266) and in that sense it's impossible to change race. However racial groups are arbitrary in genetic terms and 'more genetic variation exists within any one racial group in between racial groups', so there is 'no essential genetic "Black" core that Dolezal violates' (267). Race is a social definition not fully predicted even by ancestry. There are other categories including '"self awareness ancestry, public awareness ancestry, culture, experience, and self identification"' [citing Mills 1998]. These factors might vary, for example ancestry is less important in Brazil, so these features vary according to how relevant they are seen, and practices can change [and have changed].

What ethical reasons are there to reject decisions to change race? It may be unacceptable to claim a Black identity unless you grow up with the Black experience; there may be social limits on legitimate claims to change race; identifying as a member of another race is an insult or offers harm; it is a wrongful exercise of White privilege.

Dolezal did not suffer from rejection and isolation, the one thing that binds Black people – but does it, and should past experience be required for present status? If she is racialised as Black currently, presumably she is treated the same as any 'light-skinned Black woman' and she has described humiliation and police harassment. How long you have to be subject to racism? The same argument applies to trans women. If we have strongly agreed that ancestry is relevant, individual's right to decide may be irrelevant, unlike changing gender, bodies are seen as individual property and changing them is acceptable — but this is conservative, and liberty did not always apply to bodies, and does not in some other countries, nor does it give any guidance as to what should operate. Is it harmful to Black communities, as harmful as say blackface? Dolezal's own adopted Black brother said so as did lots of other people, but this might apply to malicious imitation rather than genuine identification, pretence in order to ridicule and reinforce stereotypes, not trying to genuinely live as a Black person, and again the implication follows for transgender men and women: transition might even be 'viewed in a positive light' (270), a positive choice to be Black. It is White privilege if it is demonstration that White people can choose, and if it is not equally acceptable for Black people to become White, but again thinking of  transgenderism raises problems because transgender people can detransition but this is seen as 'of minor relevance to the ethics' (271). This is an abstract matter of choice anyway, and we do not ban differences in choice on ethical grounds, such as exercises of male privilege and other forms of gender inequality, merely try to improve them as an independent problem — why not increase the possibilities of changing race? Further, there are examples of transracial crossings from Black to White, and the phenomenon of 'colourism', where darker skinned individuals lighten their skin, and this might be seen as more insulting to Black people. Overall, it might be important to distinguish between those who change skin colour in order to gain privilege, and those who have other reasons. Further, it is a strange form of White privilege to give up Whiteness. It's more like a renunciation of White privilege, refusing to benefit from it, and Dolezal actually argued that.

The cases of transgenderism and transracialism both offer strong cases for accepting self identification rather than accepting 'an identity thrust upon them at birth' (272), and the justification is basically based on JS Mill, the argument that we should not interfere with people's liberty 'unless doing so would prevent harm to others'. This seems to be no case that harm will be an obvious consequence in either case. Transracialism might be a slippery slope, however, and lead to other identifications, for example '"otherkin" who self identify as nonhuman'. However these are still have to pass the test of successful self-identity and successful acceptance, and these cases would offer ' too little commonality to make the group designation meaningful' and would offer at best 'allyship not identification'.

This has been argued 'in the case of "trans-abled" people' who apparently believe that '"their body ought to be disabled"', including those who believe that their limbs are not necessarily part of their body and sometimes want to adjust their body accordingly. However, one writer, Barnes, proposes a '"moderate social constructionism"' in these cases (273) which points to suitable relevant social treatment based on the presumption of something like a biological role for an ancestral link, rather than try to specify abstract common factors or features — one implication is that individuals will not count as real members of a particular category if they aren't suitably oppressed as members, if they are able to pass fully and are never subordinated. This prevents all forms of self identification, and focuses on oppression as the key element.

There might still be reasons to 'prefer an account of race based on ancestry', because ancestral ties are important. Yet they still [over]include many people such as adopted children, and it risks invoking the 'historically racist "one drop rule" Black racial membership' (274). It does not allow people to feel disconnected from their ancestors.

Overall, instead of worrying what race or gender really are we should concern ourselves how members should be treated justly if they feel a strong sense of identification. We have allowed self identification to play a greater role with gender and we should allow it to play a greater role with racial self identification as well.