Transgender//Transrace—Dolezal, Destabilization and the four Quadrants

“It’s not a costume. I don’t know spiritually and metaphysically how this goes, but I do know that from my earliest memories I have awareness and connection with the black experience.” Rachel Dolezal – Vanity Fair, July 19th.

This past summer, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, was outed by her parents as having attempted to ‘pass’ as black. Modifications of her hair, skin appearance and speech pattern have all been mentioned. After the media storm, she lost her position and suffered much public humiliation. Born in 1977 in Montana, to a family whose heritage, Dolezal was shown, after genealogical testing, to have only have Czech, German, Swedish and Dutch ancestors in the last four centuries. Her parents adopted several black children who she was raised with as her siblings and she attended the HBCU Howard University. However, even one of her brothers has referred to what she did as ‘black-face’, and whilst at Howard University she sued the establishment for discrimination against her—as white. The predominant view in the media was that she had been deceitful and benefitted from co-opting a disenfranchised identity. As her Vanity Fair interviewer Allison Samuels put it quite potently, “this was a new type of white woman: bold and brazen enough to claim ownership over a painful and complicated history she wasn’t born into.”

Not long before, the transgender icon, Caitlyn Jenner, graced the cover of Vanity Fair in what was perceived to be a watershed moment in the mainstream acceptance of the trans narrative. Not too unsurprisingly, questions were raised over why one trans (gender) was deemed legitimate but the other  trans (racial) was not. Rogers Brubaker’s paper, tries to elucidate the arguments that appeared on all sides of the question. His is a survey paper, explicitly written “as an intellectual opportunity rather than a political provocation.” (p.2)

He starts off by elaborating the contemporary context in which such a debate could arise, which he describes as being characterized by:

(1) A “massive destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks” (p. 2) linked in many ways to the theories of social construction which our seminar is built on. Such a destabilization leads to the overthrow of traditional binaries and the emergence of ’superdiversities’. However, “challenges to prevailing categorical frameworks have been less dramatic in the domain of race and ethnicity,” than in sex and gender.

(2) The enlargement of the space for choice. Individualism and choice is a central tenet of Western Modernity—especially in the struggle for many women’s rights. The vocabulary and logic of choice is becoming a part of our official and unofficial interactions with both gender and race (think job applications/yes means yes legislation/tinder/pgp’s, etc.).

(3) The increased policing of identity claims. With social categories destabilized, and the ideology of choice reinforced, there arise “concerns about unregulated, fraudulent, opportunistic, exploitative, unnatural, or otherwise illegitimate identity claims.” (p. 8) These include claims that transgender women are not really women since they do not “have the history of being born and located in this culture as a woman.” (Raymond 1979) Germaine Greer, an established feminist author has sparked controversy just this week by saying that she did not consider transwomen to be women. Applied to the idea of race, this policing has taken historical form through brutal policing of the boundaries of acceptable ‘whiteness’.

From this discussion emerge two contrasting visions of identity. One where there is a pre-existing essence that one obeys and adapts one’s body until the world responds to them as they see themselves. “This is notably the case for many transgender people.  In this mode of trans discourse, one’s basic identity is not chosen, but given.” (p. 9) This somewhat essentialist definition is used both to ‘justify’ and ‘challenge’ such disruptions of social categories. A potential conundrum from this vision would be the thus ascribed ‘black’ individual who has ‘african ancestry’ but doesn’t know it. (p. 10) A second vision of identity would be closer tied to choice and involves having no set essence but rather is selected or created.

Into this context, where such themes were already hotly debated, came the case of Rachel Dolezal. Without taking an explicit position, Brubaker’s work is in drawing up clear analytical distinctions between the various stand-points that appeared in the aftermath of the scandal. Positions one and three assume a parallel between the categories of race and gender and thus apply a syllogism to judge the validity of both Jenner and Dolezal’s claims at once. Positions two and four assume a difference between the categories of race and gender.

Position one states that both race and gender are essentialist and therefore Jenner is not a woman and Dolezal is not black. By assuming that Dolezal’s being black was patently absurd, conservatives sought to prove that Jenner’s trans identity was similarly wrong. By refusing to be defined by “newcomers to the category” (p. 13) radical feminists like Burkett refuse to recognize transwomen as being women in the same sense. The comparison to race is thus made and the syllogism elaborated before it was even made flesh by Dolezal: The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people … is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.” (p. 13)

Position two states that race is essential but gender is voluntary, thus Jenner is a woman but Dolezal is not black. This was most popular in liberal circles and goes in two ways. “While gender voluntarist boundary work at the frontier between quadrants 1 and 2  (A) presumed the illegitimacy of Dolezal’s change of race, and sought to explain the legitimacy of Jenner or others changing their gender, racial essentialist boundary work at the frontier between quadrants 2 and 3 (B) presumed the legitimacy of changing one’s gender, and sought to explain the illegitimacy of Dolezal’s change of race.” An example of A would be Khadija White who states “To conflate trans folks with Dolezal gives credence to the deepest, most malicious lie there is about transgender identity and queer sexuality – that they are deceitful.” An example of B would be Jody Armour who states “Michael Brown couldn’t be transracial, when you walk into prisons and jail cells, you see cellblocks brimming with bodies that are conspicuously black. Those black bodies had no choice in how they were perceived.” In brief, Dolezal optionally wore ‘blackness’ whilst transwomen ‘are’ women. One was chosen and illegitimate, the other genuine.

Position three states that both identity segments are voluntary and therefore Jenner is a woman and Dolezal is black. UPenn Political Scientist Adolph Reed Jr suggests that we should consider the possibility of the trans-race category since the arguments against Dolezal refer to biology in a troubling way that echoes racial essentialism. Furthermore, we cannot “know that Dolezal may not sense that she is ‘really’ black in the same, involuntary way that many transgender people feel that they are ‘really’ transgender?” (p. 15)

Position four states the inverse of position two and thus Jenner is not a woman but Dolezal is black. Unlike position two, very few commentators occupied this space, despite the  “widely shared sense that differences of sex and gender are deeper and more fundamental than those of race.” (p. 15)

The conclusion of Brubaker’s survey paper is that the Dolezal affair triggered “a large-scale exercise in vernacular comparative sociology” that was sadly “subordinated to efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal.” (p.21) But ultimately, the support for his second position suggests that though gender identity seems “more deeply bound up with…socially defined sex categories” than race is with what Haslanger would call ‘color’, “gender identity is at the same time more autonomous from the socially classified sexed body than racial identity is from the socially classified racial body”. (p.22) Popularly, at least, one can be trans-gendered but not trans-racial.

12 thoughts on “Transgender//Transrace—Dolezal, Destabilization and the four Quadrants

  1. Jeremy Read

    I am interested in Brubaker’s definition of race (or at least the definition he finds apparent in the literature). Brubaker finds race to be an objective quality in a way that gender is not. In the case of gender, objective perceptions should be conformed to subjective perceptions. In the case of race, subjective perceptions (i.e. self-identity) should be conformed to objective perceptions.
    While Brubaker establishes how this definition works in the Dolezal “reverse passing” case to discredit her personal identity at the hands of her supra-individual identity, I am a bit confused how this definition works in the case of “normal passing”.
    If an individual’s race is phenotypically indeterminant, and their history is unknown to those who observe them, then how can they satisfy the conditions for race?
    In the article, the distinction between reverse and normal passing is seen as an ethical one (passing is acceptable to avoid oppression, and unacceptable for appropriative gain). This distinction rests on an inherently essentialist understanding of race whereby everyone has a “true” race which could be determined or is known.
    It is unclear to me how Brubaker’s definition of race can possibly cut clearly in cases where “passing” is possible (in either direction).
    The definition appears to present three qualifications for racial identity: phenotypic identity, cultural identity and biological identity. However, as in the case of passers, only biological identity appears to be necessary.
    This then results in biological racial essentialism, a position I find useless for understanding racial identity in our highly heterogenous society.

    For me, the interesting part of Brubaker’s discussion was in his talk of “policing in the name of history”. Historical identity is used to police the boundaries when phenotyping fails. This “historical” condition seems focused on addressing oppression and inequalities in individual experience (as evidenced by the resultant normative judgements on “reverse passing”). It is impossible for a white person to become black, because they have not experienced what it is like to live as black their whole lives.

    This I do not like. While I understand the importance of the claim, it implies that there is an essential “black experience” or “white experience”. This is not accurate on even the highest levels of abstraction from detail. There are strong trends in the differential experiences of privilege and oppression across black and white populations. However, this generalization does not lend itself well to policing individual level cases, like the Dolezal one. I hold that it is entirely possible that Dolezal has lived a more “essentially black” experience than a “real” “black” person. In the case of phenotypically indeterminant bodies (like Dolezal’s) the “but you weren’t in a black body” response doesn’t work, unless you are willing to throw all biologically “real” “black” people who are phenotypically indeterminant under the bus as well.

    It seems then that the historical or cultural boundaries of race cannot hold on their own and accounts predicated upon them cannot resist collapsing into biologically essentialist language.

    So, my questions: 1. Can “white” people have “black” experiences?
    2. Do the terms of (1) even make sense?
    3. If “transracial experience” is possible, can it (under ideal conditions discussed above) constitute “legitimate” transraciality?

    1. Jeremy Read

      Third to last paragraph, I meant to say:
      the “but you weren’t in a black body” response doesn’t work, unless you are willing to throw all biologically “real” “black” people who are phenotypically indeterminant under the bus as well, OR resort to biological essentialism to save them.

  2. Jingyi Wu

    I’m really interested in the three meanings of “trans” that Brubaker explores in the end: “trans” as trajectory, “trans” as betweenness, and “trans” as beyond (Brubaker 24).
    It seems to me that the main reason our current discourse on transgender/ transracial issue uses this “trans” as trajectory meaning is that this meaning is compatible with our current perception of the permanence of social kind. One’s gender identity is fixed and permanent, so Caitlyn Jenner has always been a woman living in a wrong body, and she does this one-time change to make it right, and bang, she’s a woman forever. But is our gender identity really that permanent? Or should our gender identity really be that permanent? I see the permanence of perceived or imagined gender as one of the underlying reasons for gender issues. Gender is permanent, so norms make sense. There is not that much agency in choosing one’s gender under this permanence conception really. Even if one choose to change one’s gender, this person is still compelled by his/her biology and psychology, and he/she only does this one time change. The trans discourse looses so much strength if it chooses “trans” as trajectory as the meaning of “trans,” because it accepts and enters into the current gender binary (actually, a binary that permanentize one’s gender).
    I see the specific choice of “trans” as trajectory as the transgender movement’s strategic choice based on its political goal. It’s political goal is perhaps to legitimize transgender people’s existence, and then the movement chooses trans as trajectory as the meaning of trans. I think this is not unlike what Haslanger is doing when she incorporates a hierarchical definition of gender and race. However, I worry about the “trans” as trajectory as a definition because it misses a bigger problem of gender binary untouched. Shall I have similar worries for Haslanger? Does she miss a bigger problem by choosing a politically strategic definition of gender and race?
    Secondly, I want to explore the possible applications of the latter two definitions of “trans.” I do see “trans” as betweenness and “trans” as beyond as two radically subversive and therefore exciting definitions. How will our gender and race picture change if we blur the line of binary or even object the binary as a whole? What would our life look like if gender and race cease to be permanent? Will gender and race identity become something similar to being a Chelsea fan?

  3. Leo DesBois

    How would Haslanger respond to the Dolezal affair?

    Looking at Table 1 on page 11, it seems that Brubaker has not created space for Haslanger’s view that gender and race are neither essential nor voluntary. For Haslanger, the important question is not “Can one legitimately change one’s gender/race?” Since gender and race involve social structures of systematic subordination and privilege, it is clear that one cannot change one’s gender or race by a simple act of individual choice. Rather, the important question is: “Can one’s gender/race change as social attitudes change?” Since Haslanger rejects essentialism and embraces constructivism, she can answer “yes.” Although our gender and racial identities are not voluntarily chosen, they can be eliminated once we have achieved a just society.

    If Haslanger’s position has been left out, does this mean that the current debate focused on “the micropolitics of identity” misses the point? Is our focus on identity politics distracting us from broader issues of justice, as Adolph Reed Jr. argues in the article linked by Jack? Or is it Haslanger who is off the mark and out of touch with the public’s concerns about race and gender?

  4. Robert LaCroix

    While I am loath to accept its essentialist undertones, I found the quote from Burkett on p. 13 (“The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people … is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community,”” as Jack puts it ) to be thought provoking. There is something troubling about the idea, seemingly in the head of Caitlyn Jenner, that what one does as a woman is, in essence, have breasts and a vagina and pose mostly naked in Vanity Fair. And further, it isn’t entirely true that Jenner was merely aligning herself with her “real” identity; her speaking fee is now four times larger than Bruce’s. Getting a sex change was a canny business decision, a cynic might say. All of this is to say, I am having trouble parsing what, if anything, is different in the two situations, especially because the main objection to Rachel Dolezal seems to be that what she did is a asymmetrical process (i.e., black people cannot become white). If there were, à la George Schuyler (, a Black No More machine that allowed black people to become white, would being transracial no longer be immoral?

  5. Kyle Kysela

    One of the most interesting topics explored in this article is the conflict between narratives of givenness and narratives of chosenness. A longstanding argument for trans equality—as well as for the whole range of LGBTQQIAAP2S rights—holds that individuals who identify as trans should be accepted and afforded equal rights because their identities are just as natural, inherent, or essential. This argues explicitly against the idea that trans identities are chosen, opting instead for the mantra that such individuals are “born this way”—which presumably gives them some kind of ontological upper hand.

    Brubaker writes, “Dolezal chose to identify as black; Jenner simply was a woman. Dolezal was living a lie; Jenner was being true to her innermost self. Dolezal was opportunistic; Jenner was authentic. Dolezal gained material benefits from her imposture; Jenner gained only the satisfaction of being true to herself. Dolezal was guilty of appropriation and “cultural theft,” taking what rightfully belonged to others; Jenner harmed no one.” (16)

    Though it is a bit oblique to the topic of this essay, I would like to inquire as to the necessity and political usefulness—not to mention the biological reality—of such a “born this way” narrative. Couldn’t a more powerful, non-essentializing view of personal identity be based upon the value, not of a biologically given identity, but of a freely chosen self-identification? Couldn’t the autonomous choice carry more weight than the biological fact? And wouldn’t such a value system help wash away many of the nasty aspects of essentialized gender identities? It may seem like such a system paves the way for more Rachel Dolezals or implies my approval for her actions. This is not the case. I believe there are other good reasons for opposing Dolezal’s actions and her self-professed “blackness,” but that opposition is not based on narratives of givenness or narratives of chosenness.

  6. Max Riddle

    In the same way that a recent convert to a sports team can be perceived as a “fake fan,” those who transition from one race or gender to another are seen by essentialists as “fake.” Barring essentialism on the basis of biology, could a transgender or transrace individual be accepted as truly occupying their new identity after living the identity for some time? Once a trans individual has “experience” as a woman, or as black then they can be considered a member of that race/ gender by those who advocate for essentialism on the basis of “history.” In this picture sufficient experience is simply another step to being “in transition.” Consequently, an individual does not claim they are a woman, for example, without sufficient experience. This of course raises that question of what constitutes “sufficient experience” to belong to a gender or race, and any criteria involving ancestry cannot be satisfied.

    1. Timothy Patricia

      Well said Max. In defining “sufficient experience” in terms of gender we are forced to define the experience of being a woman, which is no good. As we’ve learned, the term woman is quite tricky to categorize. By the same token, defining “sufficient experience” in terms of race is equally troublesome, as we aren’t in a position to start tallying up points for “sufficiently black” experiences.

      1. Timothy Patricia

        “Policing in the name of history is illustrated by radical feminist Janice
        Raymond’s claim that a male-to-female transsexual cannot ‘have the history
        of being born and located in this culture as a woman. He can have the
        history of wishing to be a woman and acting like a woman, but this gender
        experience is that of a transsexual, not of a woman'” (8).

        What is the “history” of womanhood Raymond describes? Is she describing a history of oppression a-la Haslanger?

  7. Gioia Pappalardo

    This article was especially interesting, having just read about the importance/non-importance of biological ties with parents. Would the more essentialist arguments strengthen views like Moschella’s and Velleman’s?

    It seems like the strongest argument in favor of at least an unchanging racial identity (without relying on problematic claims of biological essentialism) is the fact that black people and other racial minorities cannot choose to give up their racial identity and the oppression that goes with it in the way that Rachel Dolezal can still live as white (at least to other people) and thus not experience the same oppression. This is a really powerful argument, but at the same time it might have some troubling consequences.

    Is the biggest different between racial and gender identity that there is now the (at least more widely accepted) medical technology to make gender changes (and unfortunately the corresponding oppression) more permanent. Yet, these developments are relatively recent – would being transgender have been something appropriative and unacceptable before, when a transgender woman could (supposedly) pass for a man when they wanted to, and thus avoid the oppression associated with being a woman? It seems really dangerous and wrong to make acceptance dependent on medical technology’s ability to make a change at least somewhat permanent (especially since not every transgender person can/will undergo these medical procedures, even when they are available, and we should respect their identity even then). But then, why would the medical technology to more permanently alter whatever physical features we ascribe to racial identity (and perhaps do so early enough that a child could grow up as the race they identified as) be considered as appropriative and wrong? In instances when people do try to alter their racial appearance permanently, don’t we still consider this as something that reinforces racial oppression?

    Maybe the more important difference between gender and racial identity is the different ways that those groups are oppressed in our society? But then, does that make the acceptance of transgender or transracial people dependent on what culture or time they live in, and how much/little they already resemble the gender/race they identify as (which also seems really dangerous)?

    1. Gioia Pappalardo

      I think perhaps the larger idea I was trying to get at is this: should the acceptance of identity in transgender and/or transracial people be considered a universal human right or must it be relative to different societies and times, and thus dependent on outside considerations (ie medical technology, the existence of oppressive structures, etc)?

  8. Mohamed Houtti

    “Some added that Dolezal’s claim was prima facie more reasonable than Jenner’s, since differences of race are superficial, while differences of sex and gender are deep. If one rejects racial re-identification out of hand, these commentators suggested, one would have an even stronger case for rejecting transgender claims.” (12)

    In what ways are differences of sex and gender “deeper” than differences of race? Alternatively, are there ways in which we might consider differences of race to be “deeper”, thus–according to this argument–giving us a stronger case for rejecting trans-racial claims?

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