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In defence of transracialism

Kida Lin puts forward a controversial case

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CW: Transphobia

This piece is a qualified defence of transracialism by way of analogy. I argue that we ought to embrace transracial identity for similar reasons that we ought to embrace transgender identity. I shall start with three preliminary remarks.

Firstly, I assume that transracial individuals exist. That is, I assume that there are people who strongly identify with racial groups different from the ones commonly assigned to them by society based on characteristics such as languages, national affiliations and physical traits. I also accept that, besides strong self-identification, some other conditions might need to be met for one’s claim to transracialism to be legitimate — for example, perhaps transracial identity needs to be an essential part of one’s self-conception. Nevertheless, my argument in this piece is conditional: namely, I argue that if transracial individuals exist, we ought to embrace transracial identity. Therefore, I do not talk about individuals who are ‘passing’ or who simply want to share solidarity of other groups, because they do not meet the criteria I specified above.

Secondly, I think there are good enough reasons to believe that transracial individuals exist (or at least, there aren’t good enough reasons to believe otherwise). As we will see later, it appears that some people do sincerely identify as transracial and there are no particular reasons to doubt their claims. It’s important to note that our epistemic access to the minds of others is always imperfect. Therefore, certainty shouldn’t be what we aim for here, and we ought to assume good-faith self-identification. Some might question why there aren’t more people who identify as transracial. But that is bad reasoning: there aren’t many openly transracial individuals precisely because transracial identity is not widely accepted. To argue this is proof that transracial individuals don’t exist is like claiming the fact that there weren’t many openly queer individuals in the 1940s proved that queer people didn’t exist.

Thirdly, although my argument draws on an analogy between race and gender, I am in no way suggesting that they are identical or that they are historically constructed in the same way. Nor am I saying that the situation of transracial individuals is exactly the same as that faced by people who are transgender. My argument is that transracial and transgender identities are reasonably analogous in relevant ways.

So, the question we have to ask is this: are race and gender different in ways that make it possible to traverse the boundaries of one, but not the other? Some people certainly think so. Writing in The Conversation, cultural studies researcher Victoria Anderson from Cardiff University argues that race and gender differ in both the nature and the content of their constructions. In terms of the nature of racial construction, Anderson argues that it is primarily externally imposed in ways that gender is not. As she puts it, “because race has always been first and foremost an externally imposed classification, it is understandable that the idea of people declaring themselves transracial struck many as offensively dismissive of the social realities of race.” In addition, Anderson argues that some distinct features of race make it impossible to traverse racial boundaries: race is constructed based on hereditary lines; our understanding of race cannot be separated from historical oppression of slavery and colonisation; the historical purpose of race is to maintain control of social hierarchy. All of these mean that individuals do not have the ability to self-identify.

First, it is unclear whether those factors do in fact differentiate race from gender. The race-external vs. gender-internal dichotomy has already been widely challenged. Judith Butler points out the non-intrinsic nature of gender in favour of a more malleable understanding (“performativity”). Sociologists like Rogers Brubaker also start to highlight the fluid nature of race. Writing in the New York Times, Brubaker states that, “sociologists have documented substantial shifts in racial identification from one census to the next, and from one social context to another. Ancestry, increasingly understood as mixed, has begun losing its authority over identity. And race and ethnicity, like gender, have come to be understood as something we do, not just something we have.”

Second, it is also unclear whether race is constructed solely based on hereditary and historical factors. It seems that a significant part of racial identity is contingent on how people in the present choose to express it — therefore, we speak of racial expressions, customs and practices. Anderson argues, “to choose one’s racial identity irrespective of inheritance is tantamount to an admission that race does not exist.” This can be easily translated to “to choose one’s gender identity irrespective of biology is tantamount to an admission that gender does not exist.” We have the same reason to reject the latter as we do with the former.

Third, even if race is constructed based on hereditary and historical factors, that still doesn’t mean individuals cannot traverse racial boundaries. It’s important to note that we cannot fully understand gender without understanding the oppressive history of patriarchy. But that doesn’t mean that gender cannot be re-interpreted and re-internalised by some individuals. (Note again, I do not argue that it can be re-interpreted and reinternalised by all individuals — some criteria need to be met. My point is simply that reinterpretation and reinternalisation are possible.)

Having considered why the differences between race and gender do not rule out the possibility of transracial identity, I shall now note some similarities between anti-transracial and anti-transgender rhetoric. To make it clear from the start, I do not think that anti-transracial can be compared to antitransgender in its scale and severity. Unfortunately, anti-transgender rhetoric still threatens the safety and wellbeing of trans individuals in truly appalling ways today and I do not think it can be overstated. Yet, the logics of the two are stunningly similar. Take the now (in)famous Rachel Dolezal for example. Dolezal was born as a white woman and raised in a white family, and she now identifies as African-American. Despite her history working to understand African American art and serving as a chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she was ridiculed, subject to online shaming, and called “mentally ill.”

Some argue that transracialism is cultural appropriation or simply “racial fraud.” This seems to be the same logic employed by some radical feminists who oppose transgender identity on the grounds that the experiences of women cannot be understood if someone is born male. Some also oppose drag culture on the grounds that it degrades women. But embodiment of a minority identity in a respectful manner or subverting oppressive norms is hardly unacceptable. Some also accuse transracial individuals of appropriating “benefits” that come with minority identities. Dolezal, for example, is accused of gaining preferential treatments in college admission for “passing” as AfricanAmerican. It’s perhaps important to note that the idea of people faking certain identities for benefits is an age-old trope. It is not only used to oppose the rights of transgender individuals but also to oppose affirmative actions in general. As noted above, we have a reasonable and justified belief that individuals will declare self-identification in good faith and there is no reason to deny transracial individuals the same ability to do so.

But what if I am wrong? I think at the very least, we need to have a more open discussion on transracialism in order to develop a more thorough understanding of the issue. Last year, feminist philosopher Rebecca Tuvel published a piece in feminist philosophy journal Hypatia defending transracial identity. This made her the target of online shaming and harassment, which resulted in the journal unprecedentedly retracting the article and issuing a public apology.

In writing this, I do not profess to fully understand transracial identity or transracial individuals. But when I read the story of Rachel Dolezal, I felt a profound sense of sadness. I felt I was reading a story of frustration, marginalisation and exclusion. Maybe I was mistaken; but I couldn’t help but feel that maybe there was a world— one that I was not yet occupying—where we could be kinder and more accepting.

This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.