Good trans, bad trans
Why was Rachel Dolazel denounced by the same elites who promote transgender identity?
Written by John McLaughlin
For most people, Rachel Dolezal is remembered as a hilarious meme. In 2015 Dolezal, while serving as chapter president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP, was exposed as a racial fraud. For years she had presented herself as Black. She taught Africana studies at university, had a Black husband, 2 Black sons, and even sported tanned skin and braided hair extensions. But she was in fact White. Following her widely publicized exposure, Dolezal doubled down on her Black identity and tried to explain the reality of her mental self-image as a Black woman: “From a very young age, [I] felt a spiritual, visceral, just very instinctual connection with ‘Black is beautiful’.”
Although comical, the Dolezal saga also raised interesting questions. Is it possible to identify more with a race other than one’s own, or to change one’s race altogether? If so, would changing one’s race be permissible? Would it be different from changing one’s gender?
It is the task of philosophy to probe and clarify our concepts and to explore the unforeseen and even uncomfortable implications of our worldviews. In 2017 philosopher Rebecca Tuvel did just that with her paper “In Defense of Transracialism,” published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. Taking Dolezal’s case as inspiration, the paper argued for the possibility of transracialism, or a scenario in which an individual chooses to identify as a member of a different race.
Transgenderism, therefore transracialism
To make her case, Tuvel takes as her starting point the more familiar paradigm of transgenderism, in which an individual chooses to identify as a gender or sex different from their natal gender or sex. With this model of identity transition in mind, she argues that “Generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume.” In her view, the two important components of self-identification are “(1) how a person self-identifies, and (2) whether a given society is willing to recognize an individual’s felt sense of identity by granting her membership in the desired group.”
Tuvel accepts at the outset the legitimacy of transgender identity, and on that basis – along with her two-component formula for self-identification – systematically refutes four different objections to the legitimacy of transracial identity:
“First, someone might object that a person like Dolezal cannot identify as Black because she did not grow up with the experience of anti-Black racism…
The second objection holds that Dolezal cannot identify as Black because of the way society currently understands racial membership…
The third objection holds it is insulting or otherwise harmful to the Black community for a White person to identify as Black…
Finally, there is the objection that it is a wrongful exercise of White privilege for a White-born person, such as Dolezal, to cross into the Black racial category.”
For each objection to transracialism, Tuvel shows that it would equally refute transgenderism. For example, her rebuttal to the last objection reads:
“...To the point that a White-born person could always exercise White privilege by returning to being White, I note that the same argument would problematically apply to a male-to-female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege, perhaps especially if this individual has not undergone gender confirmation surgery.”
And so on.
Since we accept the legitimacy of transgender identity, her reasoning goes, we therefore ought to deny these objections and accept transracial identity too. A rational and consistent person must either embrace both transgenderism and transracialism or reject both.
Running Tuvel’s argument in reverse
Tuvel’s argument highlights an important point: to be consistent in our philosophical commitments, we must either accept the legitimacy of both transgenderism and transracialism, or reject both. There does not seem to be a convincing way to make one workable without the other. Since both are forms of self-identification – often running contrary to social conventions and our deeply felt intuitions – all the considerations that would prop up one category of “trans” would also support the other.
However, it seems that most observers still do not consider transracialism feasible or morally acceptable. A brief argument against the possibility of transracialism might boil down to these main points:
Race is (at least) partly grounded in heritable physical traits of individuals and/or facts about their ancestry.
In some social and historical contexts, individuals have been – or are currently – subjected to differential treatment based on their actual or imagined racial membership.
Given our current level of technology, it is not possible to alter the racially correlated physical traits subsumed under (1), except only superficially.
Given (1) through (3), since race is (at least) partly grounded in heritable and immutable physical traits of individuals and/or facts about their ancestry – and racial membership may confer differential social treatment – it is not possible to change one’s race.
Let’s examine point 1, likely the most controversial: Race is (at least) partly grounded in heritable physical traits of individuals. To be sure, racial categories involve social construction and thus evolve over time; there is an arbitrariness to our categories stemming from the contingencies of history and politics. Recent examples include the Frankenstein’s monster of “Asian American and Pacific Islander,” and the US Census Bureau’s evolving methods for counting Hispanics.
But racial groups are also marked by distinctions in physical appearance – most obviously in skin color, face shape, hair texture and color, height, and overall stature. It is obvious, for example, that an ethnic Japanese looks different from a White Briton, who in turn looks different from a sub-Saharan African. These characteristic differences in external appearance – perhaps the most relevant markers of race or ethnicity – are not socially constructed. Although social constructions may certainly layer onto them, these physical variations are causally rooted in variations in our genetics and biology. Some broad racial groupings can be accurately predicted from a DNA sample.
Race is more than skin deep. Certain racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by different medical conditions owing to differing frequencies of genetic variants. One of the best-known examples is the case of sickle cell disease (SCD). In America, SCD is much more common in Blacks than Whites: 73 out of 1,000 Black births vs 3 out of 1,000 White births are affected. Why? Because possessing just one copy of the SCD-causing allele confers protection against malaria – an obvious adaptive advantage for populations living in sub-Saharan Africa – while 2 copies result in the SCD disease pathology. The past selective advantage of protection against malaria was enough to preserve this allele over time, despite the negative selection it may have inflicted on those carrying 2 alleles.
So racial groups can differ in biologically significant ways that go beyond “skin deep.” One recent study has even shown that AI models can accurately predict the self-reported race of an individual – White, Black, or Asian – solely on the basis of their medical images. Regardless, humans have understood that race exists well before the knowledge we’ve acquired from genetics and molecular biology. None of this is to imply that physical differences among racial groups carry any moral significance – merely that they exist.
The above discussion is meant to unpack what many may already feel intuitively: We can’t change our race. However, it also brings to light some conceptual difficulties for the transgender activists’ worldview.
The physical variations among racial groups pale in comparison to those between the two sexes. Human males and females diverge strikingly in their physical makeup owing to their different roles in sexual reproduction. Beyond the obvious and significant differences in primary sexual anatomy – males produce the comparatively smaller, numerous, motile sperm while females produce the less numerous and larger eggs – the two sexes differ across a number of associated physical capacities. Men are, on average, taller in stature, possess higher lean body mass and muscular strength, and are responsible for much more of society’s violence than women.
Trans rights activists have worked hard to decouple gender from sex, and instead make self-avowed belief about one’s gender the sole criterion of gender membership. But if gender is fully unmoored from physical facts about humans – if we refuse to admit that a woman is an adult female, or a man an adult male – it becomes unclear what being a particular gender consists in. Does it suffice to define a woman as one who believes one is a woman – and that’s all there is to it? Trans philosopher Talie Mae Bettcher anticipated this dilemma in her paper “Trans Identities and First-Person Authority”:
“If believing one is a woman replaces genital status as sole determinant of membership, there are difficulties concerning an account of what it is to believe one is a woman. Is it to believe one possesses the special feature making one a woman? If so, to believe one is a woman is to believe one believes one is a woman. And now we seem to have some problem of circularity or regress. In practice this means that the criterion is virtually unintelligible.”
If we take self-avowed identity to be the sole criterion of gender or racial authenticity, we risk stepping into an infinite regress of social constructions that begin from nothing and end with nothing. However circuitously, both gender and race must ultimately anchor in physical facts about humans.
Which brings us to point 3: Given our current level of technology, it is not possible to alter racially correlated physical traits, except superficially. With a spray tan and some confidence Rachel Dolezal may have passed as a Black woman for a while, before being found out. Hormone therapy, while it can often achieve dramatic transformations for FTMs, does not accomplish nearly as much for MTFs due to the entrenched disparities in lean body mass, muscular strength, and skeletal shape conferred by testosterone. And neither hormones nor surgery can as yet transfigure ova into sperm (or vice versa) or recreate the intricate functions of the primary sex organs with great success. Maybe we could entertain a “Ship of Theseus” style thought experiment in which an individual’s sex chromosomes were cell by cell surgically replaced with those corresponding to the opposite sex, along with equally complex manipulations to all their bodily tissues. Would the result be an authentic transformation of sex? Perhaps. But that ability is so far out of reach as to be irrelevant to our practical use of the concept today.
In totality, all the considerations that would rule out the possibility of an authentic racial transition seem to apply equally or even more forcefully in the case of an authentic gender transition. While many may politely address a trans woman as she, to acknowledge their “social transition,” that is quite different from recognizing them as a literal woman.
Why is transgenderism good, transracialism bad?
The most fascinating aspect of Tuvel’s paper was the reaction it inspired among highly credentialed adults. Over 800 people – including a large number of professional philosophers – signed an open letter condemning the paper for its copious thoughtcrimes and demanding a retraction and apology from Hypatia.
To be fair, this reaction was not entirely surprising. Looking back on the breaking of the Dolezal story just two years earlier, the commentary on social media was equally hysterical and incoherent:
Why is it a false equivalency?
In that case, why should we allow men to co-opt the historical oppression of women by identifying as trans?
This is just begging the question.
Why don’t #TransRacialLivesMatter too?
Both the Dolezal and Tuvel controversies lead inexorably to the same question: Why do academia and the political left so vehemently affirm the reality of transgenderism while treating the mere hypothesis of transracialism as a crime against humanity? The answer may lie in the historical legacy of slavery and race relations in the United States and the West more broadly.
Black slavery is America’s original sin. Rivers of blood were spilled to end the institution, and over half a century since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Black-White race relations and the specter of “systemic racism” remain a key battleground of the political left and right. And with the George Floyd riots of 2020 – and subsequent rise of BLM, “anti-racism”, and corporate DEI initiatives – there is no sign of a slowdown. Of the various oppressed identity categories within the left’s political coalition, the racially oppressed occupy the most esteemed place. Holding the correct racial membership is thus a valuable moral and political asset, perhaps more so than for any other identity category.
In short, my theory is that individuals cannot be permitted to change their race for the same reason that the Fed cannot permit foreign nations to print US dollars: it would lead to disorder and decline of the reserve currency of oppression.
How would transracialism work in a society in which Asians and Whites are penalized in elite university admissions and the corporate job market, while Blacks and other racial minorities are given state-sanctioned preferential treatment? In pursuit of those same benefits, the savvy and self-interested would quickly start changing their race, eventually devaluing it as a marker of oppression.
There are already clues as to what happens when individuals are granted license to opt into identity categories that offer the promise of moral praise, preferential treatment, or even physical advantages. The recent Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a career conference for women in tech, was overrun by men with the sudden urge to identify as trans women or non-binary – and land their resumes at the top of the stack. Mysteriously, trans women are also dominating in women’s sports, being crowned Woman of the Year, and getting themselves transferred into women’s prisons.
The left’s rejection of transracialism is not grounded in some important metaphysical distinction between the concepts of transgender and transracial identity. It is rather purely political considerations that make the former acceptable (even virtuous) and the latter forbidden. The racially oppressed must serve the role of Atlas, holding the entire intersectional system on their shoulders – they represent the one identity category that must remain anchored in immutable physical facts about humans, lest the entire system collapse.
Interestingly, philosophers Robin Dembroff and Dee Payton have pursued a similar line of reasoning that aims to defend the legitimacy of transgender identity while ruling out (for the most part) the possibility of transracial identity. Because racial inequalities, they argue, accumulate across generations, a White man attempting to become Black would be fundamentally “cheating” in a way that would not apply if he decided to become a woman instead. As they put it:
“Gender inequality, unlike racial inequality, does not primarily accumulate intergenerationally, if only for the obvious reason that the vast majority of households are multi-gendered…Young girls inherit the same sexism and misogyny that their mothers faced as young girls, regardless of whether they are transgender or cisgender...While transracial individuals like Krug and Diallo eschew much of the weight of anti-Black oppression and White supremacy, trans women and cis women alike are burdened by the legacy of patriarchy. ”
On their view, historical and economic considerations about racial privilege and oppression trump our duty to recognize the individual’s deeply felt sense of their “authentic” race, whatever it may be. But it seems awfully unjust for activists and academics to gleefully affirm the identities of transgender individuals – even in the face of overwhelming resistance from the public (and their own biology) – while denying the transracial those same privileges, simply because of racial injustices that occurred decades or even centuries before our time.
In any case, trans rights activists show no signs of softening their aggressive political demands. We should expect more displays of cognitive dissonance as they duke it out over which forms of personal identity can be made “transable” or not.
John McLaughlin is a former scientist interested in philosophy, science, and education.
Consider supporting Aporia with a $6.99 monthly subscription and following us on Twitter.