Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post was written by Ginny Brown on the differences between gender and race identification and the recent uproar about Rachel Dolezal. She also has many links to the views of prominent trans people of color that you should check out.
First of all, the people we really need to be hearing from on this issue are black trans women. Kat Blaque has made a fantastic video answering the same question (with transcript for those like me who don’t take in video that well.) I strongly suggest you watch/read that first, then come back and read this if you want.
I don’t often write about current news stories — in part because my writing process is way too long — but this Rachel Dolezal thing has taken up occupancy in my brain and won’t let go… specifically, the question many people are throwing out, “Why is it okay to identify as a different gender but not as a different race?” The part of me that loves to educate meets the part of me that’s still working to comprehend issues of race and racism meets the part of me that goes all Big Sister Bear when trans* acceptance is threatened.
And, coincidentally, the day before the Dolezal story broke, I had been texting with my brother about why I don’t think it’s fair to compare cross-dressing to blackface. So I was already primed to have this discussion.
Gender and race have some stuff in common. They’re social constructions, centered around aspects of our bodies. They’re axes of oppression. They’re important parts of many people’s identities. But just because they have those things in common doesn’t mean they’re the same, and it doesn’t mean an analogy between them is valid. In this case, it’s hugely harmful to black people and trans people alike. Janet Mock lays it out, but if you want more detail and explanation, I’ve tried to hash out some of the issues below.
I know a fair bit about gender, and a little bit about race. I’m indebted to several black (and other PoC) writers and tweeters for helping me understand the racial aspect of this question better, and I’ve linked to them at the relevant points. There’s a lot I’ve left out and probably a couple of things I’ve gotten wrong. (Up until yesterday, I’d been saying that “transracial” isn’t a thing. Turns out it is, just not in the way it’s being used here.) If this is an issue you’re interested in, I urge you to keep searching out other writings on it, especially writings by trans people and people of color.
One more note: while most of the current buzz has been comparing “transracial” to transgender identities, there are also comparisons to be made with men who identify as men in their everyday lives, but who sometimes present publicly as female/feminine — drag performers and people who cross-dress socially on occasion. At different points below, I talk about cross-dressing men, trans women, or both. Please don’t conflate or confuse the two groups: trans women are women who were assigned male at birth (AMAB), and cross-dressing men might be genderqueer, but often are quite comfortable identifying as men who sometimes express themselves through femininity. The important similarity here is that the same question has been raised around both groups: “Isn’t that just as bad as blackface?”
Okay, let’s get to it: some of the key differences between gender and race, that make the transgender=transracial analogy just plain wrong.
Different histories around cross-presentation
Blackface, historically, has been used to entertain white people, mocking and caricaturing a white view of blackness. It centers around exoticizing and “othering” blackness, while affirming the whiteness of everybody in the space. Even in cases where blackface performers thought they were showing respect and appreciation for pieces of black culture, what they were actually doing was hugely appropriative, carefully calculated enjoy what they wanted while distancing themselves from actual black people and their needs and humanity. (See below for more on appropriation.) And, of course, many times blackface was simply mean-spirited and contemptuous.
Male cross-dressing*, on the other hand, has historically been about self-expression of the man himself. While I’m sure there have been times and places where men put on exaggerated femininity for the amusement of other men, it’s not a big piece of our cultural consciousness the way blackface is. The closest I can think of is in cases where a junior man is forced to wear a dress or act feminine as part of a hazing-type ritual. This is clearly a case where femininity is being ridiculed and masculinity affirmed, but in these cases the person doing the cross-dressing is being compelled by higher-status men, and part of the point is humiliation of the cross-dresser. Men who voluntarily cross-dress and put on femininity, whether on a stage or on the streets, are doing a very different thing (and most men would be very careful to distinguish between the two.) Rather than “othering” femininity, they’re embracing it.
If the distinction still isn’t clear, consider: a white person who performed in blackface wouldn’t face any questioning of his whiteness, while a man who voluntarily cross-dresses instantly faces questioning of how much of a man he really is. Blackface serves to deify whiteness and otherize blackness, while cross-dressing blurs the line between masculine and feminine.
*(Trans womanhood isn’t applicable here at all, since womanhood is not a role trans women put on and take off.)
Different histories around appropriation
Appropriation and colonization make up a large part of racial oppression. We white folk have a nasty habit of saying to communities of color, “Oh you’ve got something we like? Cool, it’s ours now.” It happens with land, with neighborhoods, with music, with language… we take what we want and leave the people who created or nurtured it to fend for themselves. It’s not the only shitty thing white people do to people of color, but it’s a big one and covers a lot of the turf. So when a white woman occupies black spaces, takes scholarships designed for black women, and claims black experience as her own, it comes in the context of an overwhelming trend of appropriation, which can’t be ignored.
Sexist oppression contains some forms of appropriation — men taking credit for ideas women had years earlier comes to mind — but it’s much less central and common. On the contrary, sexist oppression tends to involve male contempt for femininity and rejection of the feminine, except as a means to be served (sexually or maternally.) It is the cis female body that patriarchal maleness claims ownership over, not femininity or womanhood itself. So a man or male-assigned person taking on femininity does not resonate with years of former oppression, as this Rachel Dolezal thing does.
Oppression of AMAB femininity
Building on the previous point, men who cross-dress and trans women are, in general, taking a on more dangerous and scorned identity than simply “woman.” If the wrong person reads them, they risk violence or murder (especially if they’re a person of color.) And even without the violence, they are subject to ridicule and contempt at nearly every turn. Sitcoms and stand-up comedians still feel quite free to use trans women as punchlines, erasing their humanity and treating them as freaks.
A trans woman (and, to a lesser extent, a man cross-dressing publicly) is not taking a risk-free dabble in the pool of femininity: she is swimming against a strong social tide that says it’s wrong and laughable to be what she is. With the side benefit of wondering if today’s going to be the day some dude assaults her because he finds her existence offensive.
What’s going to happen to Rachel Dolezal, or any white woman who poses as a person of color? A bunch of people will get real mad. Maybe she’ll lose her job. She probably will be the punchline of some jokes, but they’ll fade away as the news story fades from public interest. This is what it looks like when privilege takes a dabble in the pool of oppression.
The realness of transgender identities
For a trans person, gender identification goes far beyond playing. We do not have a detailed and clear-cut understanding of the biological and social factors that make some people cis and some trans. What we do know is that in every culture and every era of history, there have been people who identified as a different gender than the one they were assigned. We have unfortunate reams of psychological data showing that gender dysphoria is real, and potentially deadly. Even before we began to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with being trans, scientists recognized that, for someone with a strong trans identity, it was easier to change the body than the brain.
All philosophy aside, it is a matter of human decency to recognize transgender as a normal variant of human gender identity. People literally suffer and die when we don’t. If there’s a similar widespread phenomenon, of people feeling a strong internal identity with another race and suffering acute psychological distress when this is denied (apart from the social advantages and disadvantages that come from a particular racial identity), I’ve never heard of it. I suspect there isn’t, because gender and race are differently situated within the individual psyche.
Gender is universal in a way specific race isn’t
Gender, in a way, belongs to all of us. Man or woman, cis or trans, we started with the same set of tubes and gonads. They developed along different lines in utero, but we started out the same (and there are more diverse pathways and combinations than you might think). Man or woman, cis or trans, we have both estrogen and testosterone in our bodies. And whatever personality traits our culture associates with masculinity and femininity, we all have some traits that fall on either side of the line. We all have a little bit of male and female within us.
Playing with gender, in a spirit of self-expression, is a birthright that belongs to all of us, whether we choose to claim it or not. We don’t have the same kind of claim to different racial identities. I may enjoy, for example, music that came out of black communities, but that doesn’t mean I’m “a little bit black” in any way. No part of my history or genetics gives me the right to claim blackness as a legitimate means of self-expression.
Some people do have access to multiple racial identities — people of mixed racial background, or people who were adopted into a family of a different race. These people may have some leeway to play with “racial expression” in the way that all of us have the right to play with gender expression. But it’s still limited: if you’re half white and half Asian, you don’t get to claim blackness as an identity. And this “leeway” comes with a lot of identity struggle and having people deny or erase your identity.
And let’s keep in mind that cross-racial identification, even for those whose family gives them that right, is pretty much a one-way street. Someone whose appearance is read by society as white might be able to play with different racial identities, but someone who’s darker-skinned doesn’t get to play at being white. If this whole #WrongSkin concept catches on, is a dark-skinned person going to be able to say, “I’m really a white person born black” and have all of society start treating them as white? Nope. Not gonna happen.
The bottom line: you can’t ignore oppression
I long for a society where we take a transgender person’s word about their identity and treat them as the gender they have told us they are — whether they’re a man or a woman. In the parallel case people are trying to make, what would it mean to create a society where a black person could say “I’m really white inside” and we start treating them as white? “You’re white now, so we won’t follow you around the store expecting you to steal something, and we’ll allow you due process and reasonable response, and we’ll give you better jobs and not expect you to constantly prove yourself”? This is not the utopia I’m looking for. We don’t want to remove racist oppression by letting black people be white… we want to remove it by, you know, actually not being racist anymore.
Race is not just a matter of oppression and privilege, but oppression and privilege are so overwhelming right now that they pretty much dominate the scene when we’re talking about racial identity. We can’t ignore them and just treat racial identity as a matter of personal self-expression. If we were to take this #WrongSkin notion and run with it, all we’d be doing is increasing opportunities for white and very light-skinned folk, while leaving people who couldn’t pass for white in the same position they were in… except more of the jobs and scholarships that we’ve been striving to create for them are being taken by “black inside” white people. Again… this is not the utopia I’m looking for.
I hope I’ve helped in explaining some of the “whys”. I welcome questions and corrections in the comments. On the simple “what,” Janet Mock deserves the final word:
There are dangerous implications when we compare experiences. The only ones hurt will be those who embody blackness & transness & womanhood.
— Janet Mock (@janetmock) June 14, 2015
Ginny Brown is a writer, speaker, and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She writes for various publications, and has her own blog at http://thebrunettesblog.wordpress.com. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her poly family and three cats. Follow her on Twitter @lirelyn.