Now, to be clear, I’m not saying I condone (or completely understand) what Dolezal did or is doing. Not only did a woman essentially adopt blackface as an identity, but she used it in a way to gain credibility and influence in safe spaces that African-Americans were creating for themselves. Also…it’s just really weird… And I think this Huffington Post article spells all of those concerns out for me already.
But that discomfort that I was feeling got me to thinking…don’t folks who don’t understand and respond with almost anger towards Caitlyn Jenner similarly feel uncomfortable with a man ‘pretending to be a woman’? That, at least, is a connection to examine – how folks who continue to perform the people that they were born as feel uncomfortable with someone who’s biologically not like them claiming to be.
I’m also not at all against Caitlyn Jenner. I completely accept that there was a dysphoria with the body she once lived in, one that she effectively came to Peace with through gender reassignment. I suppose the question is, if someone said that they experienced a different kind of dysphoria, in this case around their race, would we give them the same respect and dignity that we give trans people? The answer is unclear, since Rachel Dolezal never claimed to have a dysphoria and there hasn’t been anyone claiming such dysphoria (unless you count this really problematic ChristWire article). But let’s imagine for a minute….
…Yes, I’m potentially activating the ‘Slippery Slope‘™ that the conservatives have been talking about for years. I’m ashamed of me too. But it’s for the sake of philosophical inquiry. Or rather that’s what I’ll tell myself when it’s time to get some sleep…
So, in examining the case for transforming race,the first question is most likely ‘what makes race?’ It’s not social influence or cultural factors, because those things speak more towards ethnic groups. It would also potentially make social behaviors like discrimination intrinsic to being ‘black’, and I hope that’s not true. So that means it boils down to…biology? Not quite, according to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. They say;
There is great genetic diversity within all human populations. Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.
It does pose a problem for those saying they’re born in the wrong skin, though – if there is no race, then it becomes impossible to transform one’s race…but that arguably doesn’t matter when culturally race is very real and very often acted upon. Race, as a social construct, has been bought into by the men and women who have created or practiced racism, as well as the victims of racism who have created structures to survive and eradicate it. But then, at least to some degree, race becomes a performance in line with an existing social construct. Gender is a social construct as well, with its roles and norms prescribed by whoever has majority power to make those dictations in that space.
Sex, however, is different from gender, and still critical to the transgender conversation. Caitlyn Jenner, for instance, is transsexual. She went through a series of procedures to have her sex changed…but then what makes sex? At least from a biological perspective, the average man can be identified on a chromosomal level by two letters – XY – and a woman by XX. And, although Caitlyn changed her physical appearance to that of a woman…her biology still reads XY. Does this make her definitively incapable of becoming a woman, as she has? Progressive society says no (and I agree! Remember, this is just a philosophical inquiry…don’t kill me…), but that doesn’t change the fact that intrinsically – and currently immutably – Caitlyn’s biology is that of a man.
That means, at least to me, that even if we disregarded the statements of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and assumed there was a biological foundation for multiple human ‘races’, Dolezal would still be within her right to perform as she has been. If Caitlyn Jenner can physically but not biologically be a woman, then Rachel Dolezal should theoretically be given the right to be physically but not biologically a black woman…right?
That last part was really a question. What do you all think? does people’s bodily autonomy potentially give folks the right to change any changeable status? What makes race and sex/gender intrinsically different in ways that makes transforming race impossible but transsexuality still acceptable?
NOTE: I removed all references to the term ‘transracial’, which refers to a much different and less controversial phenomenon where one’s adoptive family’s race is different to that of the adopted child. It’s important to keep in mind how these labels and who they refer to can be best used to respect all people.