Transrace and Transgender

When I am not reading economics-related material, one of the things I like to do is probe the strangest depths of Tumblr identity debates. Although I don’t write about it much (save one time before) and have no particular interest in their outcomes, I find these debates extremely fascinating on a purely argumentative level and so I continue to observe. Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who “faked” (in quotes because that’s what is in contention) being black for ten years, has finally thrust one of those obscure Tumblr debates into the mainstream.

The central question of the debate is this: if you can be transgender, then can you also be transrace? The overwhelming consensus in the Tumblr circles I have followed over the years is: no. But the justifications for the “no” answer have never been terribly crisp. To say transgender identity is valid but transracial identity is not, it’s necessary to identify relevant distinctions between the two. And though efforts at distinguishing the two are occasionally made, all the ones I’ve ever seen either begged the question or didn’t actually succeed.

Here is a list of points I’ve commonly seen and the problems with them:

1. Being transracial is cultural appropriation and akin to blackface.
The problem here is that some women argue that being transgender is gender appropriation and akin to whatever the woman version of blackface would be (womanface?). The latter charge has consistently been raised about drag shows.

The gender appropriation argument, in its most sophisticated form, even goes as far as to distinguish between transmen (which are seen as fine) and transwomen (which are seen as oppressive). The distinction between the two perfectly mirrors some of the arguments you see about cultural appropriation: it is wrong when dominant/oppressor groups do it to subordinate/oppressed groups. Thus, females appropriating the masculine gender is counted as acceptable while males appropriating the feminine gender is not.

2. Transracial people don’t have the lived experiences of other races.
According to this argument, the issue is that (for instance) a white person did not grow up as black or latino and therefore does not know what it’s like to be raised in that racial category and especially does not know what it’s like to navigate our racist society.

The problem here is that the same thing can be and is said about transwomen. Someone like Caitlyn Jenner has gone 65 years of life without knowing what it’s like to navigate the world as someone outwardly identified as a woman. The demeaning, the catcalls, the assumption of greater ignorance and lesser intelligence is as foreign to Jenner as stop-and-frisk is to a white person identifying as black or latino.

3. Transgender people, unlike transracial people, don’t lie about their identities.
This point, which I’ve seen occasionally, actually popped up in the Dolezall commentary:

Trans people don’t lie about their gender identities — they express their gender according to categories that reflect who they are.

The problem here is that this is entirely question-begging. It says that the difference between, say, a transwomen and a transblack person is that the former is a woman while the latter is pretending to be black. But whether one, both, or neither is pretending is precisely what the debate is about. To assume one is truly reflecting who they are and the other isn’t is to simply state your conclusion without ever providing a separate argument for it.

4. Transracial people retain their privilege.
This also got play in the recent Dolezall commentary:

As a white woman, Dolezal retains her privilege; she can take out the box braids and strip off the self-tanner and navigate the world without the stigma tied to actually being black. Her connection to racial oppression is something she has complete control over, a costume she can put on — and take off — as she pleases.

The problem here is that critics of transgender people would say that this is also true of transgender people. They would say a transwoman can reassume a cis man identity and navigate the world as a man with privilege. Now, you might retort that transgender people cannot do that because they are, unlike transracial people, actually the gender they identify as, but then this is just an indirect version of the question-begging identified in number 3.

Other complications
Beyond the troubles in finding coherent distinctions, there are other complications I’ve seen raised before. For space reasons, I won’t go into all of them here, but there is one that I find particularly interesting.

The pro-transgender position is driven by the underlying argument that gender is a performative social construct. But this is true also of race and, crucially, gender performance is itself racialized. Which is to say there isn’t just some universal femininity or universal masculinity. Rather, performances of both vary across races and cultures: black masculinity differs from white masculinity, latina femininity differs from Japanese femininity, and so on.

Given this, what exactly does it mean when a male assigned person says that they identify as a woman? Obviously it means they don’t identify with any of the masculinities, but which performance of femininity do they identify with? And, perhaps more importantly for the present discussion, which kind of femininity are they allowed to identify with? Are white transwomen only permitted to perform white femininity, and black transwomen only permitted to perform black femininity? Does that make much sense? Is it possible, for instance, that male-assigned individuals sometimes identify with feminine gender performances, but somehow never identify with the feminine gender performances of racial groups other than their own? Why would that be? Why would someone assigned the socially constructed performance of “white masculinity” only ever identify with other socially constructed gender performances that are also of the white variety?

Like I said at the top, I am watcher of this debate only because I find it interesting. I am not trying to put forward any kind of position, just relay what I’ve observed mostly prior to this recent blow up. Gestures have been made to distinguish transgender and transracial identity so as to permit the former and forbid the latter, but thus far little has been said that successfully does so (that is, makes an argument about one that doesn’t also apply to the other). Ultimately, such argumentative coherence may not be necessary. It could be one of those things that you just can tell from observing the nature of human beings: race is more salient and sticky an identity than gender. But then again, if it’s observations and intuition that’s supposed to make you see the distinction, there are certainly many anti-transgender people who say their observations and intuitions lead them to think the same thing about the mutability of gender as others think about the mutability of race.

Two Notions of Liberty

At the risk of flattering Isaiah Berlin, who I believe to be a very overrated figure, it is important in debates about liberty to not muddle two different concepts.

Liberty in the “negative” sense refers to essentially non-interference. Previously, I have spent a lot of time pointing out that this sense of liberty is incompatible with property because property involves interfering with those deemed to be non-owners. Under normal property theories, when pieces of the world are unowned, they may be accessed by anybody without interference. When those pieces of the world are made owned by appropriation, this goes away and a massive scheme of interference is put in place to interfere with anyone who tries to access the appropriated piece of the world. Whereas previously everyone was at liberty to access and use that piece of the world (provided they don’t physically interfere with the body of someone else), they now no longer are. Under “negative” liberty, then, property is the most anti-libertarian institution in history.

Liberty in the “positive” sense is a more muddled concept. But one way to think about it is as indicating the full set of things you can actually do. A libertarian not happy with the conclusion of the prior paragraph may note that, although property does restrict you in a purely physical sense, the institution of property facilitates the creation of so much wealth that it really does give you more genuine liberty to do stuff. Put another way, in the propertyless world with totally unrestricted access to everything, the value of the stuff you can access may only be worth $500. But, in the property world, the value of the stuff you can access may be even on the low end $10,000. So though property might look initially like a great infringement of liberty (defined conventionally), it actually is a great expander of liberty (defined in basically welfare terms related to the index of things a property system eventually allows people to do).

I am not going to quibble here and talk about real liberty, but it’s important to tease out the implications of the “positive” liberty move. What it means is that liberty is not a binary thing related to whether you are being restricted by others or not. Instead, liberty is a sliding scale concept that, crucially, is related directly to how much money (or whatever you want to use as the stand in for resources/stuff) you have. This means poor people have the least liberty and rich people have the most liberty. This means that transfer incomes increase the liberty of their recipients and, in that sense at least, are distinctly pro-libertarian measures. This means that “equal liberty” (something libertarians generally seem to be supportive of) requires economic egalitarianism.

While I don’t want to problematize the second notion of “liberty” per se (in fact I think it more closely tracks on to what is meaningful about liberty), it’s worth noting that it’s basically defined liberty as welfare. Under the first definition, we can imagine people with significantly different ability to do things and access things in the world but who have equal liberty insofar as they are not subject to external restraint. Under the second definition, this is not possible. In this sense, it becomes a lot harder to understand what the “libertarian” answer to certain things is. Cutting food stamps reduces the liberty of food stamp recipients, but may increase the liberty of whoever’s pocket the money winds up in instead. How do we know what the libertarian approach is? Is libertarianism about maximizing liberty so defined? Does liberty maximization contain within it an appreciation of diminishing marginal liberty (utility)?

Shifting to a positive sense of liberty might save you from the anti-propertarianism inherent in the negative sense of liberty, but trying to then use this positive sense of liberty to get you to laissez-faire capitalism (the libertarian’s ultimate goal) is fraught with problems.

A Note On Libertarian Anti-Paternalism

Whenever libertarians talk about the evils of liberty-restricting paternalism, I can’t help but recall that the endorsement of paternalism is the only plausible way their theory of laissez-faire property is supposed to get off the ground in the first place.

As Nozick notes, the appropriation of property is inherently liberty-destroying:

It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object’s coming under one persons’s ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previous they were at liberty (in Hohfeld’s sense) to use the object, they now no longer are.

Nozick’s way around this unsavory realization is the endorsement of paternalism, though he doesn’t call it that:

A process normally giving rise to a permanent bequeathable property right in a previously unowned thing will not do so if the position of others no longer at liberty to use the thing is thereby worsened [Lockean proviso].

I believe that the free operation of a market system will not actually run afoul of the Lockean proviso. If this is correct, the proviso will not play a very important role in the activities of protective agencies and will not provide a significant opportunity for future state action.

This bit of Anarchy, State, Utopia is a bit rambling (mainly because its filled with non-appropriation examples of things that don’t worsen the position of others). But the upshot of it is very clear. Nozick argues that, even though appropriation is liberty-destroying, it is permissible insofar as it leaves everyone better off in welfare terms (or at least no worse off) than the non-appropriation baseline. This is, as he notes, an empirical claim about the operation of free market capitalism, which means he is essentially saying liberty-destroying property appropriation is justified because the system it generates vastly improves the lives of everyone, even those immediately deprived by the appropriation.

Under this reasoning, when a person unilaterally declares themselves the owner of some piece of the world, anyone objecting to the liberty constraints this declaration imposes upon them will be told: “it’s for your own good.” Sure, your liberty is greatly circumscribed by property (step outside your dwelling and basically everything you see is off limits to you), but are you not better off? Don’t you have a TV and ample food?

Given that any sort of plausible account of why the liberty restriction of property can be justified relies upon paternalism, subsequent libertarian posturing against paternalism always strikes me as amusing. The amusement is compounded by the fact that often the paternalism they decry is far less paternalistic than the paternalism of property.

Under the paternalism of property, you have no choice. The propertarians declare that the system is for your own good, and if you disagree, too bad. You can’t go on ignoring property systems. If you do, violence will visit you shortly.

Under the paternalism of modern-day nudges, you do have a choice though. Laws that put cigarettes behind counters out of sight do not forbid you from buying them. Laws that limit the cup size of sodas does not prevent you from drinking as much soda as you want. Laws that put gruesome labels on cigarettes also do not prevent you from buying them. Conceivable laws that would forbid putting sugary impulse buys near registers also would not prevent you from buying the things usually featured on those shelves. In all these kinds of cases, choice is entirely preserved. The paternalism only changes the decisional environment in which the choices are made. This is done “for your own good” in the same sense as keeping you off appropriated property is done “for your own good,” but again different because property paternalism is choice-destroying while nudging paternalism is choice-preserving.

If you find nudging paternalism problematic, even though it is choice-preserving, then it should follow a fortiori that you find the hard paternalism of property even more problematic. But of course libertarians don’t seem to see it that way. This is because their core value is property, not liberty.