Civil Rights

If progressives believe gender is fluid, then why not race?

Rachel Dolezal, NAACP, Spokane

Philosophy professor Rebecca Tuvel touched off a firestorm of controversy this week with her paper “In Defense of Transracialism,” published in the feminist journal Hypatia.

In it, Professor Tuvel argues that we ought to support those who identify with a racial group other than the one into which they were born just as we support transgender people.

{mosads}Outrage ensued, and Hypatia has, in less than a day’s time, apologized for publishing the article, enumerating several spurious problems with it.


Classical liberals should care about the questions addressed in Tuvel’s paper — as well as the overwrought, hyperbolic response to it — because they implicate our fundamental concern with respecting the individual’s right to direct her own life and live it consistent with her own values.

The left seems no longer to care about such liberal values, its breathless reaction to Tuvel’s really rather innocuous paper exhibiting the usual authoritarian “shut it down” approach to disagreement.

Philosopher Nora Berenstain, for example, asserts that Tuvel, through the article, “enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways,” using such hideously exceptionable phrases as “male genitalia” and “biological sex.”

Could it be that the critical-theory left literally cannot distinguish between writing in a scholarly journal and enacting violence?

Tuvel, it should be noted, has an exceptional record of scholarly achievement and appears (from her students’ reviews) to be a beloved teacher.

{mosads}Most of the criticism that has emerged online seems to amount to faulting her for being a cisgender, heterosexual white woman, which we’re meant to take as some kind of proof that she doesn’t know whereof she speaks. Professor Tuvel didn’t want to confine herself to Dolezal’s specific case but to explore the more general questions raised by it, to ask how we ought to respond “[w]hen confronted with such an individual.”


The central argument of Tuvel’s article is “that considerations that support transgenderism extend to transracialism.”

“Generally,” she writes, “we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume.”

Thus should there be a weighty presumption against so blocking people, against subordinating them by substituting our judgments about their identity for their own.

This would seem to be a rather uncontroversial point, based on ordinary liberal arguments in favor of tolerance and respect for the dignity of others.

Whole articles written to address the perceived problems with the transgender-transracial analogy don’t ever get around to exposing its weaknesses, instead simply asserting the dissimilarity between the two phenomena over and over.

For example, transgender author and advocate Meredith Talusan, writing in The Guardian, contends that the “fundamental difference between Dolezal’s actions and trans people’s is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.”

It is not at all clear, though, that Talusan is in a position to make such a claim, to draw such a sharp distinction between one choosing the race with which she identifies and one choosing the gender with which she identifies.

And if the latter is not really a choice at all, then how do we really know that the former is? Talusan goes on to insist that, for Dolezal, being black is “not a fundamental attribute of her existence.”

Again, we’re left to wonder how Talusan could possibly know this such as to make the claim — how does she have such privileged insight into Dolezal’s psyche?

Dolezal has been cast as a villain, a cynical appropriator of black culture, assumptive in her theft of something that doesn’t truly belong to her.

Such charges of inauthenticity abound, and they may sound familiar.

For as Kai M. Green pointed out almost two years ago, “These are the same arguments that people make regarding transgender bodies,” that trans people are, for example, men trying to “steal” femininity and, with it, female victimhood.

Such arguments are wrong about both transgender and transracial people.

Critics of transracialism have similarly worried that the decision only works in one direction, white to black. Perhaps that’s true. Certainly we don’t know for sure.

Yet even if this were an empirical fact, it fails to dispose of the question presented by those like Tuvel who dare to defend transracialism: do the privilege and hypocrisy admittedly built into the social fabric and its constructs mean that we ought to deny to the individual the chance to live her claimed identity?

After all, if the freedom to define oneself is limited by pervasive privilege (related to one’s race, sex, gender, ethnicity, etc.), this fact, on its face, seems to favor not further limitations on that freedom—in some abortive attempt to police or reapportion privilege—but rather the abolition of the subject privilege altogether and the expansion of the liberty and agency of the individual to self-define in any way she sees as authentic.

That some groups have been marginalized or ostracized should not form the basis of an argument in favor of marginalizing or ostracizing still another group.

As is probably clear, Tuvel’s critics are impossible to pin down, because they work in reverse from a conclusion—transracialism is bad!—to the reasoning used to support it.

For example, Tuvel’s critics, coincident with their round rejections of any essentialist definitions of either race or gender, censure her for not adopting their preferred essentialist definitions.

That is, they argue forcefully against defining race or gender in terms of any objectively identifiable biological factors, even as they promote an extremely tendentious definition of race that simply takes for granted the impossibility of transitioning to another race.

It is therefore interesting to observe that many explanations of the apparently consequential differences between race and gender—that is, the differences that bear on why gender transitioning is defensible, whereas race transitioning is not—explicitly point to fixed or verifiable biological realities.

For example, Huffington Post contributor Tim Rymel argues that because “racial features are passed on, but gender is innate,” being transracial is illegitimate. “[T]he biology we know,” says Rymel, “cannot be ignored.”

This is a rather remarkable claim—just the kind of crude essentialist claim, in fact, to which trans advocates so often take exception.

At Slate, Evan Urquhart likewise offers an explanation of the meaningful difference between the two that hinges on a version of biological essentialism, arguing, that although “the science isn’t in, yet,” “most trans people and their allies suspect that transgender people are born that way.”

What a thin reed on which to hang the kind of venomous outrage occasioned by the mere notion that someone might identify as another race.

Consider the implications of this argument: suppose, just for the sake of argument, that science is unable to fully determine whether “transgender people are born that way,” or that science can show that some trans people are indeed born that way while others aren’t. (Urquhart admits, “For now, even those who are most familiar with this topic can’t say for sure what being transgender is, and what might cause it.”) 

Do the individuals in the latter category have a less legitimate claim to the gender identification of their choosing?

Most of us who believe in protecting the liberty and autonomy of all individuals would answer with an emphatic no; whether or not one possesses the requisite biological indicators oughtn’t settle the question, especially if we believe that a trans person actually doesn’t need to provide reasons to anyone else for the decision to live his or her truth.

Further, the extent to which gender differences “in the brain” are rooted in immutable biological facts, as opposed to learned social behaviors and roles, remains a subject of deep dispute.

And that’s where the opponents of transracialism go very wrong: all of the cited differences, supposedly justifying the different treatment of race transitioning, are either completely arbitrary, or themselves extremely controversial and unsettled, or simply unable to carry the heavy burden of denying someone something so central to her personal identity.

Many of the attempted distinctions have focused instead on the fact that being trans subjects a person to, in the words of Advocate magazine’s Amanda Kerri, “vitriolic hatred,” meaning apparently that trans folks must be the genuine article while transracial people are just cruelly and insensitively appropriating another culture and identity.

As noted, though, Dolezal’s decision to live as a black woman has made her the target of a tidal wave of the most vicious criticisms and accusations of extreme bad faith. Professor Tuvel has likewise been on the receiving end of the left’s wrath just for writing an academic article.

In any case, the argument holds for Dolezal: why would she do this unless the decision came out of a sincerely felt identification with blackness?

Perhaps this is why we see so much kicking and screaming about Dolezal and transracialism in general; the arguments against it simply don’t hold up and, moreover, often incorporate harmful essentialist premises that, in other contexts, trans advocates rightly reject.

The opponents of transracialism can’t decide why they so execrate the idea, can’t agree with one another about what makes it so appalling a suggestion.

If they admit the truth that one’s self-perception and self-identity are completely subjective, determined by an infinitely complex jumble of social, cultural, biological, and other factors — some learned, some not, some innate, some not — then they give away the game; they would then have to admit that it is arbitrary, insensitive, and ultimately unfair to deny to the individual membership in her professed race.

As philosopher Crispin Sartwell observes, “Perhaps precisely because race is so obviously socially articulated and is so obviously a chaotic spectrum, it may need, in order to exist at all, to be enforced even more severely than gender.”

Ultimately, the incensed arguments against transracialism are a conveniently and haphazardly improvised recipe of bald outrage, the first and most important ingredient, and outmoded appeals to essentialist claims about the biological contours of both race and gender.

As Professor Tuvel correctly points out, “there is no fact of the matter about [Dolezal’s] ‘actual’ race from a genetic standpoint,” no platonic ideal of blackness waiting to be discovered by left-wing critical theorists.

A free and open society should defer to an individual’s self-identification, not shame her for embracing her agency and individuality.

David D’Amato, an adjunct law professor at DePaul University, is a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Rachel Dolezal Transgender

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