When it’s well documented, then I’ll believe it’s real

Rachel Dolezal has opened up a big old can of worms. Trans people are suddenly finding themselves caught in some rather transphobic crossfire, as people compare what she has done with what, say, Caitlyn Jenner has done.

I’m white, and therefore not well qualified to speak about race. My understanding of the word “transracial” is that it is a legitimate term, applicable to, for example, black children born or adopted into white families. So we can’t say “it isn’t a thing” but we can say it’s a questionable word to apply to Dolezal.

I don’t want to speculate as to what is going on for Dolezal, I don’t feel it’s my position to judge her but to follow the lead of the black community and accept their feelings about her. Her deceptions don’t sit well with me, but I cannot judge her situation because I am not connected to it. Were I involved in an organisation where something like this happened, I would be deeply concerned, and I would be consulting my black friends as to how to deal with her.

But I want to write about the comparisons being made to the trans community, because a lot has been said about it not being the same thing, but I think something has been missed as to why it isn’t the same thing.

Because the truth is, if Caitlyn Jenner was the first assigned-male person ever to show up claiming to be a woman, the world would rightly be suspicious. If there had not been a history, as long as the history of the human race, and across multiple cultures, of individuals who have similar experiences in relation to their gender, then cautious scepticism would be a fair response.

Maybe, scepticism would even be reasonable in the case of the first half dozen or so cases we encounter, maybe even the first hundred, but there comes a point where people have to adjust their world view and accept that something is a real thing. We are way past the point of this with trans people.

Transgender people exist – there are millions of us. We even have an inkling of how trans people exist, and an understanding that our hormones play a part in what turns out to be the very complex dance of gender. Our hormones influence our gender identity, and gender identity (for all the inadequacies of this term) is a real thing in and of itself, separate from both the socially constructed nature of gender and the biological facts of reproduction and chromosomes.

We have, as yet, no evidence that there is an equivalent phenomenon to this in terms of race. I am open minded, and if one is discovered, I will accept it as a real thing when the evidence is in. But there is no reason to assume that just because a particular phenomenon occurs in relation to gender, which is mediated by hormones as well as social construction, that it would therefore occur in relation to race, which arises from a very different set of historical and social conditions.

For instance, there is not a point, after conception, when an embryo has a chance to be born either black or white, depending on the hormonal journey it takes in the womb. There isn’t a hormone I can take that will switch on some biological coding to make me black, in the same way I can take testosterone and masculinise my body.

They are different things, and that’s all there is to it. And it doesn’t seem that Dolezal is claiming they are the same, but rather claiming a right to “choose” her race. This is where analogies with trans folk really get me steamed up – trans people do not “chose” their gender, the only choice, if choice it is, is how to negotiate their gender in a cissexist world.

The salient discussion is about how we experience gender as something over and above the historical and constructed, and more than just in connection with our reproductive systems. I’m not at all sure that race is experienced in the same way, or that there is evidence of a phenomenon related to race that fully matches what some call gender identity.

Meanwhile, this debate is distracting us all from the issues of racism that matter – the police profiling of trans women of colour, and their frighteningly high presence in statistics for victims of violence and murder; the extraordinary double standards applied in the reporting of crimes committed by and against black people and white people, horribly evidenced by the last week’s US and UK news; and the ongoing, casual white supremacy that every one of us white folks supports, often unconsciously, every day of our lives, just by being so easily distracted from what the real issues are regarding race.

Because making an issue that is entirely about race and racism all about trans issues also gets us off the hook from exploring our racism. It’s a neat distraction, but look how easily when racism comes up we skip off into something else entirely.

3 thoughts on “When it’s well documented, then I’ll believe it’s real

  1. Dexxy

    Very interesting post, it is a strange comparison being made in the media. I, like yourself, have little to say on transracial issues as I know nothing about it. I just wish that person luck with their journey and hope they find what they need. The debate will rage on and eventually some sense will be found. Maybe in hundreds of years labels and self identity we will be replaced with ‘i am a me’.

  2. Margo Schulter

    A point here is that ethnic transitions are found in various cultures, and often involve the creation of new ties of lineage or kinship: what European anthropolists have termed “fictive kinship,” as it it were somehow less real than the categories with which these anthropologists are familiar, but in fact is just as much a social reality.

    Thus both African slaves and European immigrants becoming naturalized members of the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations (often known as the Iroquoian Confederacy) under the Great Law of Peace, and Louis S. B. Leakey being initiated as a boy into the Kikuyu people of Kenya, are classic examples.

    It is the element of European racism, of course, that distorts this process, and makes artificial distinctions of skin color a supposedly “essential” element of identity in a wa that they simply have not been to the Haudenosaunee, for example.

    A paradox of European racism, and especially the “one drop rule” widely followed in the U.S.A. holding that anyone with demonstrable African ancestry is African-American or “Black,” is that it is known that all modern humans have African origins, and so meet this definition. It remains true, of course, that not all of us in the U.S.A. have recent ancestors who have been direct victims and descendants of the African/African-American Slave Holocaust including the horrors of the Middle Passage over a period of three centuries, and continued badges of slavery imposed on the survivors.

    If Rachel Dolezal, whatever her chosen appearance or associations, had on appropriate forms declared a “nonbinary” status making clear both her recent European ancestry and her self-identification, I believe that the issue might have been addressed quite differently, and without the level of conflict that resulted.

    A complication of ethnic as opposed to gender transitions is they often involve questions of lineage, whether biological or adoptive, with both types of lineage respected and esteemed in many cultures. However, adoptive or created lineage, to be valid, must be by mutual consent. When lineage is claimed unilaterally, as often happens with people in the U.S.A. who make problematic assertions of an ancestor from some Indigenous Nation (often one of the most popularly celebrated, such as the Cherokee or Lakota Nation), then a boundary is violated, and oppressed communities experience a loss of autonomy.

    These issues are complex, and make me reflect on my own status as a Lesbian feminist trans woman. If I sought to exercise frontline leadership on issues of reproductive rights that have not directly affected me in terms of my own body, and did not disclose my trans status, I might be in a position somewhat analogous to that of Rachel Dolezal. And I would not consider it a desirable place to be.

    Please forgive me for the length of these musings. In mid-June, I was very focused on these issues; in the last weeks, I have come to focus on other issues, and so may now be able to look back and summarize my reactions so far as an Ashkenazi Jew who experiences white privilege.

    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Very interesting reflections, Margo – I think the self-reflection this has stirred up has been helpful for a lot of people, just not the noise it’s created


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