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.