There has been quite the uproar about an article in the journal Hypatia on “transracialism” by Rebecca Tuvel. It’s creating a real controversy in feminist academia and philosophy.
So first off, I’m not a philosopher. I took one philosophy course in college. I did teach feminist studies of varied sorts in my academic career, so I guess I have a few creds, but really, one could say I’m not all that equipped to critique an article written by a philosopher in a peer-reviewed journal. Except I am. It’s hard to believe this article actually got published.
An amazing quote I got from an article written by Kelly Oliver, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt is this:
As one academic wrote to me in a private message, “sorry I’m not saying this publicly (I have no interest in battling the mean girls on Facebook) but fwiw it’s totally obvious to me that you haven’t been committing acts of violence against marginalized scholars.” Later, this same scholar wrote, again in private, saying Tuvel’s article is “a tight piece of philosophy” that makes clear that the position that “transgender is totally legit, [and] transracial is not—can only be justified using convoluted essentialist metaphysics.
And given that quote, I just had to write this post. If this is a “tight piece of philosophy”, I’ll eat my hat.
Let’s get one thing done first. The whole premise of this article is to debunk varied arguments that suggest that you can change gender, but you can’t change your race. And I have absolutely nothing against talking about, and thinking about what that means – what it means to decide you are of a different race than you’ve grown up with and society perceives that you are. And because both gender and race are social constructs, and do often define one’s position in the social hierarchy, it might be easy to think they are, in some ways, similar, so I can see that one might be tempted to argue that being transracial = being transgender. (Insert sound of squealing brakes.)
Part of the uproar about the critiques of this article is that those critiques have called the article “epistemic violence,” and defenders of Tuvel are outraged by the use of that term. What is “epistemic violence”? Epistemic violence is a term I hadn’t known about, so I googled around. It’s a term by Foucault (of course.) Here’s a quote from Wikipedia from their article on post-colonialism:
Spivak developed and applied Foucault’s term epistemic violence to describe the destruction of non–Western ways of perceiving the world, and the resultant dominance of the Western ways of perceiving the world. Conceptually, epistemic violence specifically relates to women, whereby the “Subaltern [woman] must always be caught in translation, never [allowed to be] truly expressing herself”, because the colonial power’s destruction of her culture pushed to the social margins her non–Western ways of perceiving, understanding, and knowing the world.
At first, before I researched this, I thought that the idea that Tuvel’s article is “violence” was hyperbolic. But, actually, in reading a bunch of things, based on my reading of Tuvel’s article, I actually have to agree with this. Tuvel’s article does indeed meet the standard of the term epistemic violence as applied by Spivak and others. I do think that the term includes the word “violence” is not great, because using it amps up the controversy in a way that’s unfortunate. But I do think the article fits that definition.
So why is this article epistemic violence? Or to rephrase, using some of the language in the quote above, how does it destroy black and transgender ways of perceiving the world?
The first way that it does that is by basing the entire argument on the foundation of two particular lives and experiences, neither of which is representative. That is, Rachel Dolezal is no more a representative of transracialism than Caitlyn Jenner is representative of transgender lives. Tuvel spends a bit of time not prosecuting Dolezal’s case, but her concern is “more with the arguments for and against transracialism.” OK, if your arguments are for and against transracialism you have to spend some time defining what you are actually talking about, and not leaning too hard on the example of one particular person, with some very serious personal issues.
Is it even possible to feel like a member of another race similar to the way one can feel like a member of another sex? I do not know whether it is possible to feel like you belong to a different race. Indeed Dolezal’s claim that she saw herself as black as a child and drew self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon do strike me as decidedly odd. But I cannot say whether they seem odd because they are false, or because we are not routinely confronted with such claims. Indeed, I imagine it was once just as odd to hear people say they felt like they belonged to a sex other than the one they were assigned to at birth.
In any case, it’s not clear how one can affirm that it is possible to feel like the member of another sex, but deny it is possible to feel like a member of another race. How can one hold such a position?
Oy. This is a philosophy article? In a peer-reviewed journal? To first, reduce the transgender experience to “feeling like the member of another sex” is problematic (at best, at worst, it’s epistemic violence.) Second, to equate transracialism with the experience of Rachel Dolezal erases years of history of *actual* transracialism – that is, the experience of people of color who can pass as white.
She then goes on to talk about “identity categories” and what might appear “to limit to the status quo the possibilities for changing one’s membership in an identity category.” But she doesn’t talk about he pivotal difference between race and gender, which is the ways in which our brains process appearance, and the what that means in terms of the social situation of people who wish to change identity categories.
There’s a great article about the neuroscience of prejudice. Our brains process who is “us” and who is “them” before we can make a conscious thought. It also processes information about gender quickly, but that’s based largely on changeable characteristics. That is, it is very possible to change your appearance so that most (or all) people will read you as the gender you want them to read you as, but that is virtually impossible for with race, unless you are multi-racial and can pass as white.
Ijeoma Oluo interviewed Rachel Dolezal recently:
I‘m sitting across from Rachel Dolezal, and she looks… white. Not a little white, not racially ambiguous. Dolezal looks really, really white. She looks like a white woman with a mild suntan, in box braids—like perhaps she’d just gotten back from a Caribbean vacation and decided to keep the hairstyle for a few days “for fun.”
So then, Tuvel spends some time discounting the idea that white people identifying as black is different than the long tradition of blackface. Which, of course, it is. Except that this whole argument is tottering on the threads of one woman’s mind. It’s not like there are thousands, or hundreds, or even tens of white people who identify as black. And most people would agree that the white people who identify as Native American are doing cultural appropriation.
Then, there is this:
…to point out 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. But the fact that a person could potentially return to male privilege does and should not preclude their transition.
Her point is to debunk the idea that privilege or lack thereof shouldn’t preclude transition, and I concede that point, except it’s not that simple. Many feminists have the idea that women who were born as men had male privilege. Which is, on it’s face, true, but it’s much, much more complicated than that. If you spend your boyhood wanting not to be what you are, it’s a very different experience of privilege than if you’re happy being a boy. It’s just not the same. And the millisecond you express your gender in a way that is not completely male, *poof*, male privilege is gone.
She then goes on to talk about Michael Jackson and Lil’ Kim, but completely erases the history of “passing.” How is it that she doesn’t even mention it in an article supposedly about transracialism?
Then, there’s this:
Recall my earlier point that for a successful self-identification to receive uptake from members of one’s society, at least two components are necessary. First, one has to self-identify as a member of the relevant category. Second, members of a society have to be willing to accept one’s entry into the relevant identity category. At this stage, I think it’s reasonable for a society to accept someone’s decision to enter another identity category only if it is possible for that person to know what it’s like to be treated as a member of category X. Absent the possibility for access to what it’s like to exist and be treated as a black person … there will be too little commonality to make the group designation meaningful. For example, if a cisgender white man fights for his rights not to be subject to anti-black police violence or to misogyny, yet never faces the possibility of having his rights so violated, we can reasonably expect allyship, not identification from him.
This is really an odd statement. But in a way, it destroys her argument. Rachel Dolezal is rarely, if ever, seen as black (even if she thinks otherwise.) Therefore, she is kinda like the cis white dude, because her personal experience is going to be one of white privilege.
She describes a specific theory of social construction (that of Sally Haslanger):
According to Haslanger, then, the presumption of one’s biological role in reproduction or the presumption of ancestral link, coupled with the relevant social treatment, is sufficient for one’s membership in a gender or race. Insofar as a transracial individual is presumed to have black ancestral ties and is treated accordingly by society, then such an individual could qualify as black on Haslinger’s account.
Cough, sputter. presumed? Presumed??? Um, upon what basis is that presumption, pray tell? I’ll tell ya: specific physical characteristics, skin color, hair, nose, lips. So yeah, if you have black ancestry, and you look black, and are treated like you’re black, you’re black. Duh. She then goes on to say:
The advantages of Haslinger’s account are clear: it helps us identify groups that formed, and continue to exist, due to oppression… In the same way that Haslinger’s account accommodates transgender individuals, I think it could similarly account for transracial individuals.
She goes on to describe a couple of examples that are, frankly beside the point: a black couple adopting a South Asian child and raising them as black, and a theoretical Rachel Dolezal with some African ancestry. But again, these are straw people – she’s building a whole argument on one woman.
Then she wraps up with this hum-dinger:
Haslanger writes, “rather than worrying, ‘what is gender really?’ or ‘what is race really?’ I think we should begin by asking (both in the theoretical and political sense) what, if anything we want them to be.” I have taken it as my task in this article to argue that a just society should reconsider what we owe individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with another race, and accordingly what we want race to be. I hope to have shown that, insofar as similar arguments that render transgenderism acceptable extend to transracialism, we have reason to allow racial self-identification, coupled with racial social treatment, to play a role in the determination of race than has previously been recognized. I conclude that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex.
So this is where we get into some more epistemic violence. It’s as if she (and it seems Haslanger, but I can’t be sure) completely forgets that race is a social construct that white people created. It’s not natural. It’s not real. It’s not random. It’s a construct that was purposely built, and purposely continued, to oppress and exploit certain people. I could tomorrow decide that I’m white, but no one is going to agree with that self-definition, and it’s not going to change my day-to-day life.
The whole of this article, besides the completely unstable basis it is written upon, also completely ignores years of critical race theory and intersection theory and trans theory. You’d hardly know that there were tons of people who have been working and writing and talking about race and gender and their intersection for a long time. And I don’t know how you get away with writing and publishing an article comparing transracialism and transgenderism (I don’t like the way that term is generally used) without diving into that literature.
A lot of people are suggesting that this controversy is going to end Rebecca Tuvel’s academic career. That’s unfortunate. But if that’s so, I place the blame more on Hypatia for letting this through, and for her mentors for letting her down (after reading this, somebody should have sat her down with a stack of critical race theory books.) And if it was more that she didn’t listen to her mentors, then it’s all on her.