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Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities

Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities

by Rogers Brubaker

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In the summer of 2015, shortly after Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender, the NAACP official and political activist Rachel Dolezal was "outed" by her parents as white, touching off a heated debate in the media about the fluidity of gender and race. If Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman, could Dolezal legitimately identify as black?


In the summer of 2015, shortly after Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender, the NAACP official and political activist Rachel Dolezal was "outed" by her parents as white, touching off a heated debate in the media about the fluidity of gender and race. If Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman, could Dolezal legitimately identify as black?

Taking the controversial pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” as his starting point, Rogers Brubaker shows how gender and race, long understood as stable, inborn, and unambiguous, have in the past few decades opened up—in different ways and to different degrees—to the forces of change and choice. Transgender identities have moved from the margins to the mainstream with dizzying speed, and ethnoracial boundaries have blurred. Paradoxically, while sex has a much deeper biological basis than race, choosing or changing one's sex or gender is more widely accepted than choosing or changing one’s race. Yet while few accepted Dolezal’s claim to be black, racial identities are becoming more fluid as ancestry—increasingly understood as mixed—loses its authority over identity, and as race and ethnicity, like gender, come to be understood as something we do, not just something we have. By rethinking race and ethnicity through the multifaceted lens of the transgender experience—encompassing not just a movement from one category to another but positions between and beyond existing categories—Brubaker underscores the malleability, contingency, and arbitrariness of racial categories.

At a critical time when gender and race are being reimagined and reconstructed, Trans explores fruitful new paths for thinking about identity.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sociologist Brubaker (Grounds for Difference), a sociology professor at UCLA, seeks insight into the contemporary politics of belonging through his analysis of two high-profile cases of individual identity, both of which made headlines in 2015. Expanding on an article published in the academic journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, Brubaker examines the media narratives about Caitlyn Jenner, a trans woman, and Rachel Dolezal, who claimed to be black, and suggests (not entirely successfully) that together these cases of publicly contested gender and ethnoracial identities are an “intellectual opportunity.” The author argues that the concept of transness has particular salience today, and that the way people think about transgender experiences could be fruitfully used to think about race as well. The book is organized into two sections: part one describes public perceptions of race and gender identity in reaction to the Jenner and Dolezal narratives, and part two argues for the usefulness of “thinking with trans” with regard to race. Such interdisciplinary efforts are welcome, but the execution in this case is hasty. Brubaker is reasonably well versed on the history and politics of transgender identity, but he nevertheless accepts Time magazine’s declaration of a “transgender tipping point” or a “trans moment” narrative of mainstream acceptance. Meanwhile, shifting notions of ethnoracial identity remain disappointingly underexplored. As a whole, the work leaves much room for further reflection and analysis. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Pacy and stimulating. . . . The nub of Trans's argument is that we are culturally primed to be more receptive to transgender journeys, whether male to female or vice versa, because these are framed as identity or even civil rights issues, whereas racial identities are still categorical."—Marina Benjamin, New Statesman

"The value in Brubaker's book is not in readjudicating old internet battles, but in laying out current conflicts of identity in a public, accessible way; academics have been thinking and talking about the fluidity and fixedness of gender and race for a long time, but their thinking hasn't always been part of mainstream conversations. Especially with the growing number of legislative, judicial, and cultural challenges to the role of gender in American society, sometimes, it can just be useful to lay out the terms of debate."—Emma Green, The Atlantic

"Lucid, sophisticated, and judicious, Trans is an important and timely exploration of the increasingly uncertain and unsettled boundaries of identity."—Glenn Altschuler, Florida Courier

"While the first part of Trans compares Dolezal and Jenner, the second leverages the concept of transgender to examine transracial differences. Ultimately, Brubaker would like us to recognize transracial identities in the same way we accept transgender ones. In his analysis, transracial identities generate uneasy resonances with not only the dark histories of racial passing, but also the contemporary realities of racial oppression. Still, he prods us to reflect on the new kinds of racial identities being created through interracial relations, multiracial movements and generational change. While the mainstream recognizes transgender, it remains wary of transracial. The controversy over trans identities is far from settled."Macleans

"Brubaker maintains that we are living in 'an age of unsettled identities.' Of that, he convinces me. This book is necessary reading for anyone interested in the categories of identity and how they are being invoked or subverted."—Leonard Curry, Christian Century

"This short book packs a wallop. In our era of academic hyper-specialization, where there is an ever-present temptation to bore deeper into a subject, and where identity politics can amplify that tendency by discouraging people from writing about groups they cannot claim to be members of, this comparative analysis of race and gender by a white cisgender man offers up a much-needed, fresh perspective."—Arlene Stein, Public Books

"[A] clear-eyed, eye-opening book to see ways in which transracialism may and may not be considered as legitimate as transgenderism in the modern push for fluidity of identity categories."—A. Loudermilk, PopMatters

"Brubaker . . . one of our finest analysts of the politics of difference, provides a clear and concise guide for the perplexed. He carefully lays out a taxonomy of both older and emerging classifications of 'trans,' ordering both the many meanings of transgender and the less well known and more contested ideas about transracial. . . . What is clear from this excellent book is that the cultural logic of autonomy/choice that is working itself out in our age of unsettled identities is not of itself self-limiting. Wherever it takes us as a society, it seems, we will be forced to go."—Joseph E. Davis, Society

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Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities

By Rogers Brubaker


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8323-3


Transgender, Transracial?

From the beginning, the story of Rachel Dolezal's identification as black was intertwined in public debate with that of Caitlyn Jenner's identification as a woman. Within hours of the breaking of the Dolezal story, the hashtag #transracial had started to trend on Twitter. Deployed by some to provoke, by others to persuade, by still others simply to amuse, the pairing of transgender and transracial generated wide-ranging public discussion about the possibilities and limits of choosing or changing racial and gender identities.

Before transgender and transracial were joined in the Dolezal affair, the terms had been juxtaposed only occasionally. One set of juxtapositions was initiated by the radical feminist Janice Raymond in her critique of the medical construction of transsexualism. In the introduction to the 1994 reissue of her book The Transsexual Empire, Raymond asked rhetorically, "Does a Black person who wants to be white suffer from the 'disease' of being a 'transracial'?" She went on to observe that "there is no demand for transracial medical intervention precisely because most Blacks recognize that it is their society, not their skin, that needs changing."

While Raymond used the pairing dismissively, other feminist philosophers, more sympathetic to transsexual or transgender claims, have taken the analogy more seriously. Christine Overall argued that if one accepts the legitimacy of transsexual surgery, one should accept, in principle, the legitimacy of "transracial" surgery as well. And Cressida Heyes — noting that there is in fact a demand for medical intervention to alter ethnically or racially marked bodies — analyzed the similarities and differences between changing sex and changing race as projects of self-transformation. More recently, Jess Row's 2014 satirical novel Your Face in Mine turned on a white protagonist who becomes black through "racial reassignment surgery" in response to what he construes as "racial identity dysphoria syndrome."

In the decade or so before the Dolezal affair, juxtapositions of transgender and transracial were occasionally picked up by journalists and others. A few conservative journalists sought to ridicule transgender by associating it with what they took to be the obviously absurd idea of choosing or changing one's race. And in the vast archive of ephemera that is the Web, one can find scattered — mainly humorous — uses of "transracial" (and "cisracial") that are paired with or play on "transgender" or "cisgender."

Yet these earlier pairings of transgender and transracial had no public resonance. It was the Dolezal debates themselves that joined the terms in the public realm. I begin this chapter by characterizing the field of meanings associated with transgender and transracial individually and then show how the Dolezal story brought the terms together to generate an unprecedented public discussion.

"Transgender" and "Transracial" before the Dolezal Affair

The term "transgender" has enjoyed a spectacularly successful career in the last two decades. As deployed by social movement activists to embrace all forms of gender variance, the term not only gained traction among activists but rapidly found broader public resonance, acquiring institutional recognition, legal weight, academic gravitas, media exposure, and popular currency.

As an umbrella term, "transgender" conceals a key tension between changing gender (by moving from one established category to another) and challenging gender (whether implicitly, through gender-variant behavior or presentation, or expressly, through political claims-making). Those who seek to change their gender presentation and publicly recognized gender — whether or not they alter their bodies through surgery or hormones — do not necessarily challenge the binary gender regime; they may even reinforce it by subscribing to stories about unalterable, inborn identities. The difference between trans as a one-way trajectory from one established category to another and trans as a positioning of the self between or beyond established categories will be taken up and elaborated in the second part of the book. Here I simply note that while activist and academic discussions have highlighted the transgressive and disruptive potential of transgender and have addressed the full spectrum of gender-variant individuals — "encompassing transsexuals, drag queens, butches, hermaphrodites, cross-dressers,masculine women, effeminate men, sissies, tomboys," and others — broader public discussions have focused on transitions from one clearly and often stereotypically defined gender to the other, especially those that involve surgical or hormonal remolding of the body.

Claims for recognition associated with binary transitions like Jenner's have greater public resonance, legitimacy, and visibility than claims that more directly challenge the gender binary. Transitions like Jenner's are more easily cast in a culturally consecrated narrative form. They can be narrated as stories of a tragic mismatch between an authentic personal identity, located in the deepest recesses of the self, and a social identity mistakenly assigned at birth — a mismatch overcome through an odyssey of self-awakening and self-transformation, culminating in the public validation of one's true self. It helps that these are framed as stories of individual alienation and redemption, not of systemic injustice, and that they are compatible with prevailing essentialist understandings of gender.

While the term "transgender" has come to enjoy broad public currency in recent years, the same cannot be said for "transracial." A common reaction to the pairing of the terms in the Dolezal affair was that transracial, unlike transgender, was "not a thing"; the word was treated as a pointless or pernicious neologism. In fact, the term "transracial" has a longer history than "transgender." But it has been used primarily in the specialized context of interracial adoption, where the prefix "trans" has had a quite different meaning and valence.

The formation of transracial families through adoption — in particular the placement of black children with white adoptive families — has been deeply controversial for nearly half a century. The most radical and consistent opposition has come from the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW). The association's 1972 position paper proposed a strict form of racial matching of adoptees and adoptive families; it rejected transracial adoption as an "unnatural" practice that prevents the "healthy development [of adoptees] as Black people." In testimony to a Senate committee, the association's president denounced the practice as a "blatant form of race and cultural genocide." Black children raised in white homes, according to other NABSW presidents, would develop "white psyches" or "European minds" or would otherwise have severe identity problems and be lost to the black community.

The argument for strict racial matching failed to gain broad political or legal support, but weaker forms of matching continue to be practiced by adoption agencies. Even where racial matching per se is not at issue, parents seeking to adopt transracially may be scrutinized for their "cultural competency" and for their commitment to "racially appropriate modes of parenting."

Thus while the "trans" in transgender has signaled an opportunity for transgender people, the "trans" in transracial has signaled a threat to transracial adoptees. The transgender community has celebrated the crossing of gender boundaries. But the transracial adoption community — adoptees, adoptive families, and institutional intermediaries such as adoption agencies and social workers — has problematized the crossing of racial boundaries, seeing it as portending the loss, weakening, or confusion of racial identity.

Both the scholarly literature on transracial adoption and the vernacular literature — memoirs by adoptees and adoptive families, advice by psychologists and social workers, and websites produced by and for adoptive families and adoptees — emphasize the importance of cultivating and strengthening the (endangered) racial identity of transracial adoptees. While transgender activists have sought to destabilize and even subvert the gender order, transracial adoption activists have sought to restabilize and affirm the racial order. The transgender community is invested in a project of cultural transformation, the transracial adoption community in a project of cultural preservation.

The Dolezal affair wrenched "transracial" out of the adoption context and brought it into conversation with "transgender." Given the antithetical commitments and concerns of the transracial adoption and transgender communities, it should come as no surprise that an open letter from "members of the adoption community" declared the description of Dolezal as "transracial" to be "erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous." The idea that Dolezal could change her race by inserting herself in black networks and immersing herself in black culture suggested that transracial adoptees could change their race — a possibility the transracial adoption community strenuously rejected. Their rejection of the idea of changing race, to be sure, was more philosophical than empirical. It was precisely their concern that transracial adoption could lead to changes in racial identity — in particular to the loss of one's authentic identity for want of social support for it — that underlay their commitment to strengthening and stabilizing racial identity. In a sense, Dolezal embodied precisely the danger they wished to avert.

One prominent scholar and activist in the transracial adoption field regarded Dolezal with greater sympathy. John Raible had earlier argued that transracial adoption may indeed involve a process of "transracialization," insofar as white adoptive parents and siblings, for example, may "become immersed in wider social networks populated by people of color." As he suggested in an open letter to Dolezal, much of her own experience would seem to illustrate this process. Like others in the transracial adoption field, however, Raible insisted that Dolezal was confused when she claimed to identify as black. Identifying with black people and black culture was one thing; identifying as black was another.

Members of the transracial adoption community, which had owned the term "transracial," were offended by what they considered its misuse to refer to Dolezal's experience. But they were not especially concerned with Jenner or transgender matters. They were responding specifically to the description of Dolezal as transracial, not to the pairing of transgender and transracial. Their response to Dolezal therefore stands apart from the main body of commentary.

The Field of Argument

In the broader discussion of Jenner and Dolezal, the pairing of transgender and transracial was deployed to stake out positions — and to attack competing positions — in a field of argument defined by two questions: Can one legitimately change one's gender? And can one legitimately change one's race?

Combining the two questions yields four positions, which are depicted in the diagram on p. 22. (The positions — the diagram's quadrants — are numbered counterclockwise.) Quadrant 1, at the top left, represents the essentialist position that gender and racial identities cannot legitimately be changed. Quadrant 3, at the bottom right, represents the diametrically opposed voluntarist position, according to which both gender and racial identities can legitimately be changed. While essentialists and voluntarists emphasized the similarities between Jenner and Dolezal, and more broadly between gender and racial identities, others highlighted the differences. Quadrant 2, at the lower left, represents the combination of gender voluntarism and racial essentialism, and quadrant 4, in the upper right, the inverse combination of gender essentialism and racial voluntarism (which, for reasons I discuss below, was conspicuously missing from the Dolezal debates).

The labels are shorthand simplifications. "Essentialist" stances include both the view that gender and/or racial identities are grounded in nature and the view that they are grounded in history. "Voluntarist" stances include those that assert that gender and/or racial identities can be chosen, as well as those that assert (particularly with respect to gender) that public, socially validated identities can be changed even if — on some level — the core personal identity is understood as unchosen. In either case, "voluntarism" highlights choice and agency: even where the core identity is understood as unchosen, voluntarist stances emphasize the choice of self-presentation and public identification.

"If Jenner, Then Dolezal": The Argument from Similarity

Essentialists and voluntarists used quasi-syllogistic reasoning to underscore the similarities between changing gender and changing race. If we accept that Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, they argued, then we must accept that Rachel Dolezal is black. The syllogism cut both ways. Addressed to an audience inclined to accept the legitimacy of transgender claims, it could be used to legitimize Dolezal's claim to identify as black, or at least to argue that her claim deserved a respectful hearing, not a derisive dismissal. But when it was addressed to an audience inclined to dismiss changing race out of hand, the syllogism worked in reverse; it served to undercut the legitimacy of Jenner's claim (and of transgender claims more generally).

The latter, reverse working of the syllogism was much more common than the former. "If Bruce Jenner Is a Woman, Then Rachel Dolezal Is Black," read the headline of a blog post on the site of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, a branch of a national association devoted to "standing up for traditional Judeo-Christian values." From the perspective of the association and others on the cultural right, Dolezal's claim to be black was so palpably absurd that it needed no refutation; this assumed absurdity was then used to assert or imply that Jenner — and by extension others following similar trajectories — could therefore not be legitimately recognized as a woman.

Much of the essentialist commentary was expressly partisan. Commentators on the cultural right gleefully seized on the Dolezal revelations as a weapon in the culture wars; they lambasted the mainstream media, "liberals," or "the left" for embracing Jenner while censuring Dolezal. Some added that Dolezal's claim might well be considered more reasonable than Jenner's, since differences of race are much more superficial than those of sex or gender. The conservative commentator Steven Crowder, for example, argued that "as opposed to sex, which differentiates humans by their organs, reproductive functions, hormonal profiles, bone-density, neuropsychiatry and physical capabilities, many of the delineations surrounding race are merely cosmetic." And a contributor to Glenn Beck's website observed, "My whiteness is far less hardwired and far more difficult to define than my maleness." If one rejects racial reidentification out of hand, these commentators suggested, one has an even stronger case for rejecting transgender claims.

Essentialists assailed the cultural left not only for its inconsistency and hypocrisy but also, more fundamentally, for its subjectivism — for letting "self-identification trump objective truth," according to the National Review, or, more colorfully, for "solipsism" and the "end of reality," as a website devoted to "traditional Anglicanism" put it.It was this climate of subjectivism that enabled both Jenner's and Dolezal's claims. To this anything-goes subjectivism essentialists counterposed a seemingly no-nonsense acceptance of "objective reality." An article on the culturally conservative Charisma News and Christian Post sites, for example, argued that "skin color is verifiable. It is not based on perception. It is not based on feelings. It is based on provable data. The same is true when it comes to gender (... putting aside the question of how to best help those with biological or genetic abnormalities)."

Everyday essentialism was even more prevalent outside the professional commentariat and the blogosphere. In response to a Spokane newspaper's reporting of the Dolezal revelations, one commenter — among more than a thousand — wrote: "If we (not I) feel gender choice/identification is up for grabs, allowing anyone to choose and declare their gender (note, the current number of supposed genders is now over 50) ... then why not allow one to chose [sic] their color/ethnicity? How can our society have it both ways? We either look for truth ..., or we allow anything goes and deal with the fall out ... which can be very destabilizing and tension producing." A similar sense of the destabilization of the cognitive and moral order was expressed on a Catholic message board: "The world is upside down. If Bruce Jenner can claim he is female, regardless of the fact that he is not, then I don't see why a white person can't be black."


Excerpted from Trans by Rogers Brubaker. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Rogers Brubaker is professor of sociology and UCLA Foundation Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles. His recent books include Ethnicity without Groups, Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town, and Grounds for Difference.

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