Saturday, June 13, 2015

Passing: Is Transracial The Same As Transgender?

Black or White? Woman's Story Causes Furor:

She has professed an affinity for black people since she was a teenager, when her parents adopted four black children. She chose a college where she could immerse herself in racial issues. She married a black man and built a reputation as an advocate for civil rights.

Rachel A. Dolezal would hardly be the first person to embrace a racial identity she was not born or raised in, but a rare twist in her story has suddenly turned her into a subject of national debate. Ms. Dolezal, president of her local N.A.A.C.P. chapter and a university instructor in African-American studies, has claimed for years that her heritage is partly black.

And that, her parents say, is a lie.

“She’s clearly our birth daughter, and we’re clearly Caucasian — that’s just a fact,” Lawrence A. Dolezal said in an interview from his home in Montana on Friday. “She is a very talented woman, doing work she believes in. Why can’t she do that as a Caucasian woman, which is what she is?” Ms. Dolezal did not respond to numerous phone calls, emails or knocks on her door in Spokane, Wash., on Friday, but the allegation lit up the Internet, fueled by Ms. Dolezal’s apparent refusal to give a direct answer about her racial background, and by family photos of her as a blue-eyed teenager with straight blond hair.
So on the one hand, this seems like a case of "passing", if you will. Until, the article suggests, you note the similarities between Dolezal and Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and her recent transition to female.
Blacks and liberals accused Ms. Dolezal of an offensive impersonation, part of a long history in which whites appropriated black heritage when it suited them. Jonathan Capehart wrote in The Washington Post, “Blackface remains highly racist, no matter how down with the cause a white person is.” Others noted that for her, unlike black people, casting off the advantages of whiteness was a choice. “I wonder what race Rachel would become if she got stopped by the police?” the author Terry McMillan wrote on Twitter.

But many conservative commentators accused liberals of hypocrisy for accepting Caitlyn Jenner as a woman, but not Ms. Dolezal as black. “So, to recap, if Rachel Dolezal says she is a man, we must all agree, on pain of being publicly censured,” Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative. “But if Rachel Dolezal says she is black, it is fair game to challenge her claim.”
A quick search reveals that Racial Dysphoria (Racial Identity Disorder) seems very similar to Gender Dysphoria (Gender Identity Disorder), with the exception that the former is not in the DSM-V (of course, that too is meaningless, given the subjectivity of the DSM anyway). The operative word here being Dysphoria.

Also,  the arguments against racial dysphoria, that it's just a racist form of "blackface," or arguments that the person can always "return to a position of privilege" being white, are the same arguments used for many years to discount transgenderism (they are just "drag shows" or "drag queens" who can return to male privilege, etc.).

However, many on the "left" are pushing back against what is viewed as "conservative" reaction, arguing the two things couldn't be any more different and that drawing those parallels harms both transgenderism and, apparently, people pretending to be other races.

Sidebar: the one thing I would caution you about is politicization. The minute this issue is seen as a conservative/liberal, Republican/Democratic issue, all sense will be lost (and Googling the topic, it appears that shark has been jumped already).

Sociologically speaking, we use the term passing to describe the ability to transcend a variety of social groups, from race and ethnicity, to gender, class, ability, and so on. The history of racial passing was largely a 20th century phenomenon, and the term was used derogatorily when African-Americans attempted to "pass" as white. But whites passing as African-American seems to have happened rarely, if at all, though it would still fit with the sociological use of the word.

No one knows at this point what Dolezal's story is (whether she's claiming racial dysphoria or if she was simply lying all this time), but the debate has exploded the interwebs in the past few days as parallels have been drawn between the transgender movement and what could seemingly be a transracial movement, designed to break down and explode rigid conceptions of race and ethnicity in an increasingly multiracial and multi-ethnic society.

If you can get past the ideological pablum on both sides and try to view this as an issue if identity construction and sociological passing, welcome to what could be the next chapter in 21st century race relations.

UPDATE: This is a great piece from the Chronicle of Higher Ed documenting the phenomenon of racial transition.

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