By Crispin Sartwell
I'd like to think about Rachel Dolezal - the Spokane NAACP official who describes herself as black, though her parents describe her as white - as a transrace person, as Caitlin Jenner is a transgender person. The moral problem with Dolezal might be her seeming dishonesty or misrepresentation of herself, but that's an accusation that one way or another has been hurled at many a transgender person as well.
The idea of someone transitioning from one gender to another or from one race to another both presupposes and throws into question the categories of male and female, and of black and white. All sorts of people - men and women, black people and white people, rightists and leftists - are going to be extremely uncomfortable if gender and racial dualities break down, and a lot would be lost if they did. Then again, many wild and liberating possibilities might open up.
The idea that someone with male anatomy is really a woman deep inside - which is one of the ways transgender identity is being described in this very trans moment - presupposes the reality of the distinction between men and women, and it presupposes that the distinction is a or even the most basic aspect of human identity. It also appears to assume that there are exactly two genders, and that you must be one or the other, on the surface or deep inside. But the fact that people are migrating from one to another, or can be in a transition from one to the other also shows the duality breaking down; the road from one gender to another traverses a spectrum.
If at this moment of acknowledging transgender identity we think that we should take as dispositive people's account of their own identity, use the pronouns they prefer, and listen to and acknowledge as real their experience, why should we not do the same with race? If Rachel Dolezal feels black or declares herself to be black as a matter of deep identity, why shouldn't we extend to her the same sort of respect we do to transgender people?
Indeed, it is - obviously - even less plausible to think of race as a strict duality than to think of gender that way. It is widely held that race is a 'social construction,' the ultimate demonstration of that in the U.S. being that the child of a black person and a white person counts as a black person. Races - if the idea makes sense at all - are entirely liquid, and every combination, every point on the spectrum between races is occupied. People have been passing in one direction or another - transitioning - since there have been races.
Dolezal in many ways shows just how socially constructed the black-white distinction is. A few little signs - a spray tan and a perm, for example - and people will read your race completely differently. She shows how easy it is to do race drag convincingly. And drag - though it might be a deception in some cases - might also express outwardly how someone sees her or himself or wants to see her or himself. It might be more honest than non-drag.
Perhaps precisely because race is so obviously socially articulated and is so obviously a chaotic spectrum, it may need, in order to exist at all, to be enforced even more severely than gender. The outrage that is focused on Dolezal shows this policing in action.
Progressives have learned to respect transgender people, but they are having an extreme problem with transrace (consult the Guardian's opinion page, e.g.). Many aspects of the progressive agenda - affirmative action, for example - presuppose the reality and clarity of racial identities. White liberals can't help uplift the black community if there are really no white or black people, or if the social reality of blackness and whiteness disintegrates. Progressive politics is no less wedded to the reality and rigidity of racial identities than is reactionary racism.
If we lose the distinction between men and women, we lose a lot: rich histories of women's culture and identity feminism, for example. And if we lose the distinction between black and white we lose a lot too: black culture, black nationalism, black arts, and so on. These would be real losses. But as well, of course, these distinctions have been terribly problematic, the scenes of some of the most vicious sorts of oppression that members our species have ever inflicted on one another.
It is hard to know what might happen to us if we lose or wildly multiply racial and gender identities. New oppressions might emerge as old liberation movements die. But in our trans moment, a thousand new possibilities are emerging as well, for each person and for our society. It is an excruciating and beautiful moment, I think.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. He is the author of Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity.