The curious case of Rachel Dolezal: Is being transracial principally the same as being transgender?

Our topic today is Rachel Dolezal and the controversy over ‘transraciality’. There’s been a huge backlash over Dolezal’s actions and lot of people find what she’s doing to be unacceptable. Some of her defenders have cited Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, as an example, claiming that both their cases are the same. It’s got us thinking about whether this is valid argument. Is being ‘transsexual’ principally the same as being ‘transracial’? Should we accept changing race in the same way we accept changing gender? Siddh showed me this Youtube video as a starting point: https://youtube/gZEsCWWskbY, and if you’re interested, go and watch that first.

Siddh: Well first of all, lemme explain what I understand of Rachel Dolezal’s case so far. She is (or was, she’s resigned as of June 15th) the President of the NAACP branch in Spokane, Washington. The controversy around her, and the reason she has resigned, is that for about the last decide she’s been pretending to be of black heritage but it came out recently that she’s, in fact, not. She’s almost entirely of white heritage (German and Czech largely, with, as her parents describe it, “faint traces” of Native American ancestry) and certainly not ‘black’ as she claims to be. The case itself is very sketchy, and the more you look into her life the worse she sounds. For starters, she’s been preaching and lecturing about the experiences of the black woman without being one. And it seems that for the majority of this period, Dolezal has largely let tags be put upon her and not denied them when they suited her, such as letting Howard University think she was black to get a scholarship there.[1] Another tag that was put on her was the term ‘transracial’, one that she did not correct initially, but now states is not how she sees herself, despite still maintaining that she would “consider herself to be black”.[2] This identification with a race different to the one she was born into has lead people to compare her case to that of Caitlyn Jenner’s (whom if you don’t know about you’ve been living under a rock, go google it). The comparison kind of troubles me, but it also kind of makes sense, so I’m curious what you think about it Lulu.

Louise: Well, in the Youtube video you send me, Kat Blaque’s point about the use of the term ‘transracial’ is very interesting. She defines how its meaning today is used in conjunction with parents adopting children of a different race to their own. If you think about the word literally, and in the context of how we use similar terms, you’d assume it means ‘crossing racial boundaries’, but it doesn’t, because the concept of someone doing that is just not common. I mean, we don’t have a term to describe the idea of someone changing race in the same way that we do someone changing gender. Yet the term ‘transgender’ means someone whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex.

Siddh: Well right off the bat, the problem is that I think the case study of Rachel Dolezal is deplorable. What she did was just plain wrong and sketchy as hell, but I don’t think her case can be applied as a principal.

Louise: Well I agree that the particulars of her story were pretty outrageous, but putting aside what our opinion is of her, it’s interesting to compare the ideas of transgender and transracial – are they the same? If not, why not? In the video we both watched the speaker uses the argument that Rachel “decided” to be black, but trans people don’t decide to be trans. They just are trans and need to be true to themselves. I’m not convinced by that argument. Who are we to judge whether or not Dolezal actually feels black or whether she’s just using it to achieve something disingenuous? Do we really have the right to question the authenticity of that? How do we know she doesn’t genuinely feel she was born into the wrong race in the way someone is born into the wrong sex? And what is it that we don’t “believe” about her when she claims she’s a black woman in a white woman’s body but we believe Caitlyn Jenner when she says she was a woman born in a man’s body?

Siddh: Well if someone is transgender they are born, say, male and told for their early life that they are male. But they realise as they grow older that that’s just not who they are, that the gender society has assigned them is not correct, and that they need to be true to themselves. So why can’t in the same way Rachel be born white, grow up white, but then realise that that’s just not who she is and that she feels more affinity with “black” culture?

Louise: Yeah, exactly.

Siddh: I guess at the bottom of it we’ve gotta ask “What is culture?” I’d say culture is the accumulation of social things you’ve inherited. It’s the traditions and behaviours that have been passed down to you. We’ve reached a point where society (non-ignorant society) know that ‘race’, when referring to skin colour, doesn’t make people different in their capabilities, so ultimately what ‘race’ means now is interchangeable with a certain base level of experience and perception – both of your own and of others’ of you.

So for example – for me, I’m Indian because I was born in India, raised Hindu, taught Hindi, made to believe, for however long, in the same base values that Indians share and have certain behavioural traits. I was raised in the culture of Bollywood, Indian music, Indian sports (exclusively cricket) and taught Indian history. That’s my ancestry. I can be British by nationality, as I am now, but I can never be of British heritage. I’ll never be raised with the same experiences of Christmas, pubs and pudding…

Louise: *Laughs*

Siddh: …and though my values are now more aligned with ‘British’ or western values, I was still raised with Indian values and that’s my experience of race on an internal level. On an external level, part of my race is that people see my skin colour and attribute things to it, in the same way of course I do to others subconsciously. In an equal world that wouldn’t matter. But since we’re not in that world that means that I suffer from certain harmful systems that work against people who share my skin colour. So everybody of my skin colour can relate to that experience and that’s part of our external culture.

In Rachel Dolezal’s case she can (and successfully did, for several years) change her appearance to make it seem like she was of a “black” internal and external experience. The reality is obviously that she just got a tan and a ‘righteous’ hairdo. But if we lived in a world where changing your skin colour was as possible and easy as it is to change your gender then maybe someone like Rachel could claim to share the same external culture as a black person. But at the end of the day, even if she learns as much as she can about the culture, she still can’t have the same inherited aspect of culture, the internal experience – which at the bottom level is an indoctrination of certain values that we are given at birth.

Louise: All very true, but can we follow through the same idea with gender? If we did, then trans people wouldn’t have cultural childhood experiences of the gender they seek to be, only the gender they were born as. For instance, if you grow up as a girl, are taught how to function as a girl and imbued with the associations that gender holds, and you become a man because you felt that was your true gender, you can never have the ‘indoctrination of certain values’ that children are given at birth depending on what genitals they have. But does it matter? Don’t we just believe they were born in the wrong body and accept that?

Siddh: But there is still nothing ‘inherited’ about being a woman; there is with culture. When you’re born a woman you’re not passed down the experiences of your female relatives exclusively, you’re given the collective beliefs of your ancestors: and that’s what culture is. Culture is larger, gender is individual. Obviously people of the same gender share many of the same experiences but…

Louise: But many (including me) would argue that gender is also larger.

Siddh: But your gender isn’t passed down, therefore it’s changeable. Your culture isn’t changeable because it’s passed down.

Louise: But certain elements of gender are passed down – biological elements, such as hormone cycles, fertility, physical size of gender-specific body parts.

Siddh: But that’s not exclusive to gender – that’s inheritance. No matter who my child is they will have an Indian culture (at least half). Their gender, however, is entirely decided by them.

Louise: But why can’t you shake off your inherited racial traits and not the inherited traits of your random gender?

Siddh: I don’t know – I’m trying to counter what you’re saying but I’m not 100% convinced by the phrasing of it myself. I feel like there’s something there at the base level that differentiates race and gender it but I haven’t pinned a definitive definition of it. I’m not sold by my own words *laughs*. At the end of the day, this is me talking as someone who isn’t born into the wrong culture.

Louise: I’m still finding it hard to pinpoint too. Why isn’t race as changeable as gender, even if it’s based on generations of inheritance and gender is randomly-generated? How does that make race somehow sacred, and the gender you are assigned not sacred?

Siddh: Part of the reason everybody is so angry at Rachel Dolezal is because she’s a living embodiment of privilege. That an affluent white lady felt that “she was black” and decided to preach about the struggles of the black woman while continuing to gain the privilege of being white.

Louise: That’s true. Whatever motivation she felt, she acted in a way which was not to be properly aware of the cultural appropriations. But, I mean, no one is saying to Caitlyn Jenner, ‘You appropriated our gender and you think just with some physical changes you can say you are a woman and claim our suffering and our problems’. But Caitlyn Jenner isn’t claiming to stand for women or women’s issues, and isn’t going to lecture on women’s issues. Perhaps if Rachel Dolezal had stood up for racial appropriation and made THAT the focus of her career, and said ‘I feel black, even though I wasn’t born black. This is why, and what is wrong with that?’ people would have been more okay with it.

Siddh: Part of the black experience is the discrimination that comes with looking a certain way, and the constant cultural pressure of being told your appearance and your skin colour is evil. So she appropriated the nice cultural bits without having to face the bad discriminatory parts.

Louise: You’ve said the same before about Iggy Azalea. If you want part of a culture, you have to acknowledge it all, good and bad.

Siddh: Yeah, correct. But you also have to give back, and not just take. And I think that’s why people don’t have a problem with Caitlyn, because she has actually gone through a lot of struggle and hate just to become a woman. So there’s a sense that her persecution acts as proof of her more than appropriating.

Louise: I suppose so – but just because someone’s journey was harder doesn’t make it inherently better.

Siddh: Well it’s vindication that what they were doing came from a desire to be authentic and not just a desire to benefit. But you’re right, it doesn’t hold up as the thing which makes Rachel’s actions unacceptable and Caitlyn’s fine.

Louise: It obviously has nothing to do with conservatism, because people can see to allow gender swapping.

Siddh: Principally the argument that transracial and transgender are the same seems to hold up. But personally I feel uncomfortable with that idea.

Louise: Same.

Siddh: Basically what we’re saying is your race and culture is not something you can change, but your gender is – why is that? It’s weird because someone’s race/culture is so closely connected to their individual identity. But so is gender. So how is it that we can say that genders are swappable, but race isn’t?

Louise: But in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, do I feel offended that a white male, in a position of privilege, wants to become a woman, a group who historically have had a lot of social restrictions and unpleasant associations? No. Probably most women think if you want to join us, go ahead. It takes nothing away from us, a man wanting to become a woman. But becoming black offends, because it can be perceived as threatening blackness, as taking away something of what it is to be black. Let’s assume that for Rachel, inside, she felt black. But from the outside people see a white girl trying to be black and don’t see the desire to swap race as genuine, maybe because they don’t believe it’s possible? For Caitlyn, we see a woman who was trapped in a man’s body. We don’t blame her for wanting to be a woman, we believe nature messed up and gave her the wrong hormones which told her she was a man, and has finally managed to become who she felt she was all along, and we don’t challenge it. We accept that she genuinely wanted to be a woman, and wasn’t doing it to ‘benefit’ somehow. This is her truth. The whole of history has had transgender people, we know it’s biologically possible for people to be born with hormonal imbalances or to have some traits of one gender whilst being another. But we don’t have compassion for someone wanting to be another race because we don’t believe biologically you could be born into the wrong race, as somehow a misalignment of your race identity and your physical race characteristics. Everyone is born with the potential to be a man OR a woman. Not everyone is born with the potential to be black.

Siddh: I guess it’s a new concept, so it’s something that will take time to adapt to. Ages ago you would have barely known other races existed, and when they did you certainly didn’t want to be them because you believed they were evil or savage or generally inferior. So I guess now that cultures so regularly amalgamate with each other we’re going to start seeing people who feel they’re born into the wrong one. I think also, though, it seems like we see the mixing of genders as a good thing, largely. We’re rapidly, as a society, trying to promote guys doing girl things and vice versa, or anyone being able to have whatever gender traits they like and feel best represent them. Whereas we don’t like the idea of cultures taking stuff from one another because it somehow deteriorates them. That’s cultural appropriation.

Louise: Gender doesn’t have much to do with reproductive organs either, actually – a man with a penis can be asked to be called a woman, and we’ll accept his right to define himself as herself. But a white woman can’t asked to be called black because being black has EVERYTHING to do with skin colour.

Siddh: Well in an ideal world becoming black would only mean a change in skin colour, but in reality it means inheriting lots of things. Your influences, your preferences, your beliefs. Being black, or in my case being Indian, is a mindset and a certain experience. A lot comes from your racial heritage. But yes, maybe now gender isn’t being as strongly linked to physicality, but race still is? So is part of our apprehension simply because we don’t have the medical ability to change race like that?

Louise: Mm, I think people would still feel offence if the technology existed. I think somewhere we’re getting close to the crucial difference between race and gender, and it’s to do with how the physical is linked to the conceptual in society’s view. Race: “any of the (putative) major groupings of mankind, usually defined in terms of distinct physical features or shared ethnicity, and sometimes (more controversially) considered to encompass common biological or genetic characteristics”.[3] Gender: “The state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones; the collective attributes or traits associated with a particular sex, or determined as a result of one’s sex”.[4] Can we see something in these definitions? Race is about the physical or genetic, whereas gender is about supposed characteristics, despite our biologically binary genitals. Is gender then more fluid and conceptual? Gender is somehow easier to play with, where race isn’t, because it depends entirely on physical differentiation at all times – if the physical barrier of skin colour or inherited traits are ignored, race breaks down, and unique (good or bad) racial experiences are somehow threatened.

Siddh: Yeah I think that’s close, but I’m not sure about that final bit – on a couple of points. For one, I don’t think race is all entirely physical, there is definitely something cultural there too. Like, white Britons can be racist to Polish immigrants and they have the same skin colour.

Louise: True. In that case it’s to do with language or cultural background and perceived economic or cultural threat I suppose.

Siddh: It’s something to do with (a) the tribalism or race still inherent within us which maintains a ‘me vs. you’ mind set, and (b) people’s perceptions of other races. And for another thing, surely we would embrace transracial-ness if the only thing stopping us was appearance? You said “if the physical barrier is ignored, race breaks down, and unique (good or bad) racial experiences are somehow threatened”. That’s true, but isn’t that something you think we would encourage?

Louise: Of course. But cultural heritage is important to people. Racial difference may be the root of many forms of discrimination, but racial difference is also something people want to celebrate. People see becoming the same, even if that means becoming equal, as potentially losing unique cultural identities.

Siddh: So, the thing people are constantly worried about nowadays is a cultural clash – with a globalised world, cultures are having to live together and accommodate more and more with each other. Part of that accommodation means compromising their core values to fit another culture. In Britain the likes of UKIP are constantly trying to fear monger over how we’re losing what it means to be ‘English’. Combining one culture with another means taking things away from both of them and meeting in the middle, and that’s scary for people, because it means letting go of their heritages and their traditions. People value the uniqueness and individuality of their respective cultures.

Whereas with gender, no matter what happens, we’re secure in the knowledge that there will always be biological men and biological women. So we’re happy to allow experimentation and swapping because it doesn’t threaten the basic concept of gender and sex. Thus we are happy to allow people to be transgender because it doesn’t threaten the core concepts of gender, but being ‘transracial’ in the Rachel Dolezal sense sits uneasy with us because it threatens the core concept of cultures, threatening to make them accessible and appropriatable by everyone, thus destroying their uniqueness and individuality. If everyone can be black then being black becomes like a lifestyle choice and not a culture.

Louise: So it’s about threat – or perceived threat to your racial identity. Whereas transgender doesn’t pose a threat to your gender identity? Though lots of people feel it does – you only have to do a quick Google search to find out how much people hate the idea of being transgender or transsexual.

Siddh: True but I still think that’s probably the core of it. I think this is as close as we’re gonna get to an answer.

We both agree, then, that the Rachel Dolezal case is obviously deplorable but the concept of someone being born into the wrong race or culture is not?

Louise: I’m not sure where my thoughts lie, really. I’m not sure I do agree that being transracial (in the sense of feeling like you’re born into the wrong race) is, in terms of basic principle, the same as being transgender even though a lot of the same arguments can be applied for both. I disagree that we can dictate how someone else wants to frame their identity, whether that be in terms of gender, sex, or race, but I can still see how gender and race can’t be treated as the same.

Siddh: Yeah, this is a tough one to pin down. I agree; I share your unease with putting race and gender in the same bracket and at a base level it feels weird to me. But I also feel like transracialilty is something we will see more often and we’ll probably come to accept it.

Anyways, we’ve ruminated on this topic long enough. As a blog we try not to offer concrete opinions that we can present as fact, especially when we can’t pin one down ourselves. Complex issues don’t have simple answers. We found this topic fascinating and wanted to explore the whys and hows of it. But that also means we’re always curious to hear new perspectives. This is how we feel, but how do you feel? Is there something we’ve missed, or a conclusion we’ve made that doesn’t convince you? What IS the difference between being transracial and being transgender and should they be treated the same? Comment or email us and let us know.

*EDIT*

Siddh: After some more thinking about this topic and some very helpful responses to the blog (shout out to Shay Bacon, Robbie Venus-Evans and China Dethcrash) this is the final conclusion we’ve come to. The difference between being transgender and being transracial is that there is a biological basis to your gendered behaviour. Gender is so blanket that in most cultures certain tropes constantly pop up about how men are expected to behave and how women are expected to behave. Obviously these are then reinforced by society that tries to make them uniform and punish anyone who doesn’t fit those stereotypes, but somewhere there is a biological basis for certain ‘female’ behaviour and certain ‘male’ behaviour. Whereas with race, what’s maybe been making us uncomfortable with putting it in the same bracket as gender, is that biologically there’s no ‘white’ or ‘black’ way to act. However there is a culturally ‘black’ or ‘white’ way to act and it becomes hard to seperate the two because as a society we still stick to those rigid impressions of each other largely. So for example, when I was president of the hip hop society at my uni one of the most frequent conversations I had with people who didn’t listen to hip hop was “I’m too white to listen to hip hop”. It was clear that society had told those people that their skin colour meant that they shouldn’t listen to a certain type of music and thus dress or behave or talk in ways associated with that music. But that was cultural, not biological. So it’s important to draw a distinction between race and culture in the same way we differentiate between sex and gender. Your race, i.e. your biological skin and facial structure doesn’t change your behaviour, but the hormonal and chemical parts of gender (i.e. sex) can and does influence your behaviour. Thus we recognise the need to allow people who feel of the wrong gender to be able to change their sex because we recognise that it allows them to fully express themselves. Whereas with race we feel that there is no biological need to change race because it doesn’t affect your behaviour. You may be ‘transracial’ in the sense that you associate yourself with, say, ‘black culture’ but you’re associating yourself with the culture and not the race and that’s something you can do without changing your appearance. Therefore you’re not really transracial, you’re transcultural and that just means you feel an affinity with a culture that’s different to yours and there’s nothing stopping you from behaving appropriate to that culture other than the rigid pressure of society telling you you shouldn’t behave like that.

Louise: Hopefully that provides a more solid reasoning for why we feel being transracial and being transgender are not the same thing. Still, feel free to comment etc. if you have more to enlighten us with!

[1] http://rollingout.com/news/rachel-dolezals-brother-blames-howard-university-to-blame/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/12/rachel-dolezal-race-ethnicity-black-naacp-spokane-washington

[3] “race, n.6.” OED Online.

[4] “gender, n.” OED Online.

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