Why you should care
Is race mere biology?
OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail with OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! To kick things off, we’re shelving the PC and launching debates. Nothing is off-limits, and we’ll go where most fear to tread. Each Wednesday, we’ll post a provocative question, with a focus on topics that might make it onto the show. Our Third Rail with OZY question this week delves into identity: Is it more acceptable to be transgender than transracial? We want to hear what you have to say. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts or a personal story, and we might feature your answer next week.
Treva Ellison, an assistant professor of geography and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Dartmouth College, weighs in below:
Starting in 2015, Rachel Dolezal’s claim that she is a Black woman — after being “outed” by her parents as the biological daughter of two white people — reignited public discussions about race, gender and authenticity. Dolezal has used the term “transracial” to describe herself and has likened her racial transition to a gender transition. Whether or not Dolezal is being truthful — and I believe she embraced “transracial” only after she got caught trying to convince everyone she was genetically Black — is neither here nor there. The question we should be asking: Is it possible to be transracial? If so, how is it similar to or different from being transgender? And is this new term an important attempt or a misguided one to break down the relationship and essential differences between race and gender?
First, I would argue against thinking of race solely in biological terms. Race is not just biological and it has to do with more than just genetics. Race is embroiled in the history of power in this country. I disagree with Dolezal “deciding to be Black,” but not for the reasons I’ve seen many others deride her for. I’m talking about the arguments that are grounded in race being biological that are used to dismiss Dolezal.
In Dolezal’s case, she claimed she was Black because she was philosophically invested in Black culture and politically committed to the Black experience. She asserted that being Black transcends physical characteristics, ancestry and genetics, but she also changed her appearance to pass as Black, thereby deceiving those around her — and eviscerating her argument and conceding that being Black, or being perceived as Black, is tied to physical features. Moreover, Black people could never be transracial the way she’s attempting to be. Dolezal’s whiteness provides the empty template for her to redesign. I am troubled by her version of transracial because it’s something only white or light-skinned people can enact.
Still, Dolezal’s description of her transracial identity was striking because her plea for recognition was reminiscent of appeals for transgender rights, visibility and recognition. Dolezal says that being transracial is, in her words, living in her “truth” — being the truest version of herself. So why do we support individuals transitioning gender, but have a visceral reaction to the idea of transitioning race? Because it pulls us back to the notion — flawed, in my opinion — that race is biological, immutable, whereas gender is porous or fluid.
Not surprisingly, Dolezal promotes race as a social construct, an invention — and she’s met by several well-trafficked articles contending that race is a genetically inherited trait, a matter of parentage, with a kind of historical baggage that gender does not have, and that being transracial in the way Dolezal has claimed is impossible. But I would contend that perceiving race as solely an inherited trait is dangerous because it’s a rationale that can be used to justify hierarchy, physical violence, labor exploitation and institutionalized discrimination.
Why we see gender as mutable but race as fixed is ultimately very complicated and, I believe, it doesn’t do any good to insist that race and gender are totally different. Instead, I would caution against adopting a biological narrative for race — in that it could serve to reinforce some of society’s uglier impulses — and we should understand that being trans is not a simple choice that can be done and undone.
In the end, I’m not interested in judging Dolezal personally or rejecting her “truth.” I am far more interested in the intimate ways race and gender are entangled and recognizing how much is at stake in this moment.
What do you think? Tell us your thoughts below or email email@example.com.