Many discussions and questions have arisen in light of the recent Rachel Dolezal situation. Rachel Dolezal, the (now former) president of the NAACP Spokane chapter and professor of africana studies at Eastern Washington University, has been revealed by her parents to be almost entirely white despite her claims of substantial black and native ancestry. A quick google search of “Rachel Dolezal” will give you all the background information you need. However, searches like “transracial” will bring you deeper into the discussion surrounding the story. Various articles are tackling social media’s response to Rachel Dolezal, often comparing her situation with that of trans women like Caitlyn Jenner. With hashtags like #transracial, #transethnic, and #wrongskin trending, many are asking what the difference is between being transgender and transracial. Some are convinced these concepts are the same, others are questioning it, and many recognize the inherent difference between being transgender and being “transracial,” but may have trouble navigating or deciphering historical context to articulate their stance.
First, I’d like to clarify that the term transracial/transethnic was originally meant to describe the experiences of children adopted by families of another race, and in that context does not imply that one feels as if they were born into the wrong race. However, in recent situations people seem to be appropriating the term, which raises questions. Can someone fully identify with the experiences and struggles of an ethnic group they are not a part of? How is this different from identifying with the experiences and struggles of another gender? While it is true that both gender and race are social constructs, they do not operate in ways that are exactly parallel to each other, and are not comparable in this way.
Both gender and race are constructs with relations to labor. For instance, gender has been historically meant to exploit reproductive and domestic labor of women. Thus gender systems have tended to justify violence against those who do not conform or adhere to it, as they are seen as a threat to labor, the system, and to the instilled prejudices meant to uphold these systems. This affects both cis and trans women. Those saying “if trans women can appropriate the experience of being a woman, then Dolezal can be Black,” are forgetting that trans women are not appropriating anything. There is no exact and universal narrative of womanhood, and to say so is colonialist. Drawing a parallel between blackface (what Rachel Dolezal is doing is, in fact, blackface) and trans women (most of what I’ve seen about this has specifically targeted trans women, though this applies to trans men and nonbinary trans people as well) is transmisogynistic, demonizing, and exploitive.
Another important aspect to note is “biological essentialism,” which can range from deliberate misgendering on the basis of genitalia to language like “biologically male/female.” I’ve seen a lot of people on social media using phrases like “if someone is biological male and wants to be a woman… if someone is born white and wants to be black….” Biological sex is a social construct as much as gender, specifically as it still genders anatomy and implies an innate gender. Biological essentialism tries to force biological sex into a binary that does not really exist, defining individuals by their body’s physiology. It ignores the spectrum that exists in biology as well, both with sex organs, secondary sex characteristics, and chromosome combinations. It also further medicalises and marginalizes transness (have we forgotten that being trans has a history in the psychiatric world?) as well as upholds a violent gender system. What biological essentialism dictates is that a trans woman ultimately has the same experiences and narrative as a cis man… which is simply not true. To condone (or condemn) Rachel Dolezal with biological essentialist rhetoric is not only racist, but transmisogynistic.
Race as a construct operates differently than gender. The concept of race as we experience it today was used and invented to justify colonialist and imperialist evils. It was uniquely profitable in white imperialist countries (specifically the U.S.) as people observed that institutionalized, racially determined lifelong slavery made more money than indentured servitude and wage labor. Colonialist endeavors in African countries also helped fund insurance and the formation of private companies in both the U.S. and Western Europe. Racism became a necessary part of western capitalist advancement. The effects of slavery, colonialism, and racism are cyclical and pervasive. Still today the lower class is a calculated thing.
Coming from a family with women is obviously different than coming from a white family or family of color–especially because gender and race play a different role in regards to family. The construct of gender is not an inheritable trait or experience but rather a dictation of organization and labor distribution, and women in today’s relations are still seen as a necessary domestic component to each family cell. While race is typically defined by lineage and ancestry, and is not an imperative component to each individual family cell but rather affects it as a whole, contributing to the interconnectivity of race and class. Simply put, “womanhood” isn’t an inherited experience like race can be. While race and gender aren’t completely unrelated, as there are intersections and as constructs they can appear to operate similarly, they do have different histories and contribute to the system in different ways.
Bottom line, being “transracial” (in the context of Rachel Dolezal) is not the same as being transgender because she is still white. Even while pretending to be black, she still benefits from white privilege (trans women do not benefit from male privilege) as she is able to use race as a costume (trans women are not using being a women as costume). She can appropriate blackness as she pleases, therefore avoiding racial violence when it is convenient. She is also amplifying her voice in a community that is not hers and speaking over those who have first-hand experience with antiblack racism. And those claiming that she still contributed as an activist need to understand how inherently racist her actions are: she, a white women, profited off of her position and exploited the struggles of the Black community. What/who else has historically profited off of the exploitation of the Black body? The answer: white supremacy and white imperialist nations. Being transgender and being “transracial” are two fundamentally different things, both by definition and by a gender/race analysis.
I encourage comments and contribution especially as this article is purely reflective. If I’ve made any errors in terms of terminology, history, facts, etc., I apologize and corrections are welcome.
This article is by Sage, an 18 y/o artist and writer from Boston, MA. Their work tends to focus on childhood, imminent death, or just having fun! Sage can often be found enamored with the moon, reminiscing about cool dreams, or eating fries. While also an active tumblr and instagram user, they prefer to keep a quiet social media presence. Currently, their portfolio is not available online (but will be soon!).
Featured image “Rachel A. Dolezal at her home in Spokane, Wash., in March” by Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review, via The New York Times.