Shame On You: The Dreadful Case of Rebecca Tuvel and the Rabid Identitarians
Socrates had his hemlock and Seneca slashed his wrists.
Dr. Rebecca Tuvel…wrote an article in an academic journal.
Who would be a philosopher these days?
Montaigne, taking up Cicero, said that “philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to die.” “Study and contemplation,” ponders Montaigne, “draw our souls somewhat outside ourselves.” Estrangement from soul enters one into a “state which both resembles death and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it.”
The father of the essay was, to borrow Ben Jonson’s immortal praise of Shakespeare, not for an age but for all time. A little tinkering with the pith and quip of Montaigne will show us just how unwittingly prophetic he was. Revising the nomenclature for our time, we might paraphrase Montaigne: “Philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to commit career suicide,” to which we might add, “Study and contemplation draw our professional reputations somewhat outside our own control,” after which we might conclude that it is all a “state which both resembles annihilation of academic credibility and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it.”
With only some minor retooling of Montaigne’s 500-year-old meditative meta-philosophy, our editorial work is complete: Montaigne presages the predicament of Dr. Rebecca Tuvel. To philosophize, for her, would not only be to tarnish her own name and fledgling credibility as a scholar, but would also be, above all else, to submerge her own head in a bucket of seething tar and await the torrent of feathers rained down from the rarefied heights of the Ivory Tower.
You won’t be blamed for having never heard of Tuvel, to say nothing of the controversy of which she currently finds herself a victim. I had never heard of her either, and had certainly never ventured into the heady pages of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, the well-regarded academic journal dedicated to feminist philosophy, and the one in which Tuvel recently published an article entitled, “In Defense of Transracialism.” Tuvel’s article has all the hallmarks of a logically sound philosophical assay: it speculates toward a claim, grounds an argument in support of this claim, anticipates objections, refutes those objections, and then concludes the argument by enumerating its implications. In one sense, in fact, Tuvel’s article doesn’t do what philosophy has long required of its practitioners, and is so much the better for it: it doesn’t obfuscate an argument with opaque jargon strung out over impenetrable sentences. In other words, it’s easily followed as a straightforward assertion. If her argument traces intelligibly from point A to Z, then its opprobrious backlash is doubly unintelligible. Tuvel’s thesis appears totally unambiguously. I’ll therefore broach the gravamen of her claims by the end of this writing, if only to unpack their flaws. At the very least, I’ll have made an attempt to do what none of her attackers will, and I won’t even need the rhetoric of shaming to do it.
In skeletal form, her contention comprises the following: the explanatory theory in defense of or advocating for the gender identity of Caitlyn Jenner is equally valid as a theory in defense of or advocating for the racial identity of Rachel Dolezal. Her thesis, as any persuasive thesis should be, appears unobstructed: “In this article, I argue that considerations that support transgenderism extend to transracialism” (264). Just as we’re correct to honor the gender identity of Caitlyn Jenner, we’re equally wrong to deny the racial identity of Rachel Dolezal. In fulfillment of this argument, Tuvel confronts four common rejections of transracialism: one must have grown up with a racial “experience” (“black experience”); societal race structures preclude racial transition; claiming another race for the purposes of self-identification is insulting to members of that race; white privilege (268).
The errancy of Tuvel’s argument will be apparent enough. Setting that aside for the moment, we should be able to first acknowledge this paradigm of identity for what it is not: A theory formulated to disparage the conceit and subsequent social implications of gender fluidity by way of careless analogy. Tuvel is at pains to iterate and reiterate this in conciliation, it seems, to expected remonstrations:
“Importantly, I am not suggesting that race and sex are equivalent…My thesis in no way relies upon the claim that race and sex are equivalent.” (275, emphasis mine)
Dr. Tuvel’s proposition qualifies as an acceptable analytical premise. It’s moreover a provocative and fruitful one with which to engage. Read the article published in the most recent issue of Hypatia, and it will be obvious (to the charitable reader who reads closely and in good faith) that Tuvel’s article was rightfully accepted as a work of earnest scholarship. It pains me to report, however, that we’re dealing with no scarcity of reactionary readers who will abandon close reading once their misguided sensibilities suffer effrontery. What little reading they do concede, post-offense, is categorically not offered in good faith. Rather, reading from offense, they lead the donkey by the tail straight into a labyrinth of intellectual dishonesty. The only way out of this is not through counterargument but counterattack. So it goes with the fallout from Tuvel’s article.
Since publication, the young scholar’s been subjected to a coercive reeducation campaign reminiscent of an old Maoist struggle session amid the tumult of the Cultural Revolution. Vanguard backlash has been swift and merciless, with theorists in the relevant field penning a letter of protest that earned 520 signatories. The missive is aggressively censorious, and therefore worth quoting at length:
“As scholars who have long viewed Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy as a valuable resource for our communities, we write to request the retraction of a recent article, entitled, “In Defense of Transracialism.” Its continued availability causes further harm, as does an initial post by the journal admitting only that the article “sparks dialogue.” Our concerns reach beyond mere scholarly disagreement; we can only conclude that there has been a failure in the review process, and one that painfully reflects a lack of engagement beyond white and cisgender privilege.”
The hive-mind has reached its verdict and adjudged accordingly: the article as found in the recondite pages of an academic journal is “harmful,” as is the initial retort from the journal that the article holds merit in its “sparking dialogue.” The only possible explanation for this vile hate crime is a “failure in the review process,” as it’s otherwise inconceivable that such a philosophical rumination as Tuvel’s, summarily reducible to her privileged “white cisgender” identity, would ever besmirch the hallowed contents of Hypatia. Undeterred by even the faintest deference to reasonable discourse, the academic hit squad marches on:
“A message has been sent, to authors and readers alike, that white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes without broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism.”
Were I only to have read Tuvel’s article, and not happened across her likeness while researching this travesty of academic ethos, I would have had no way of knowing of her disqualifying position as a “white cis scholar.” Too bad; I wouldn’t have wasted my time reading her work. Strangely enough, I somehow managed to glean from her article a thorough and thoughtful analysis of related scholarship. I’m further aware that no scholar of any stripe, in any discipline, is obliged to “broad and sustained engagement” with fellow theorists because their “lives are most directly affected by” anything, as the effect of this rank, sanctimonious pre(o)scription would be to hobble scholarship to the point of paralysis. What’s more, philosophical abstraction owes nothing to the affects and experiences of anyone, anywhere. With the Tuvel transracial episode, this gate-keeping mentality officially surpasses insidious to achieve institutionalization. The Academy Politburo now wields a weaponized identitarianism to suppress the work of academics whose identities don’t check the right boxes. Sound the final proclamation of “you can’t know unless you’ve lived it,” the familiar coda of anti-intellectualism, and to hell with the potential compromising of objective reality wrought by anecdotal, subjective reality.
As if it weren’t enough, the academic vigilantes go on to “urge that Hypatia immediately acknowledge the severity of these concerns,” before leveling a list of requirements to which the journal must “commit immediately.” There’s even, in the distinct tenor of disappointed parents, a demand for an apology. Yes, these professional scholars, all 520 of them, “deserve and demand better,” though to their credit they do acknowledge their own fallibility; they’ve been remiss in “not nam[ing] anti-blackness directly” in their outrage manifesto. Let’s agree to forgive this egregious oversight, in the spirit of Hypatia’s craven capitulation to this frontal assault on philosophical inquiry. Rather than stand by Dr. Tuvel’s article, accepted by the journal after extensive peer-review, the journal’s editorial board cowered and slobbered all over itself in a ghastly 1,000-word mea culpa, unmoved by the astonishing dishonesty of hundreds of academics who have almost definitely not read the article in question having attached their names to a petition enjoining retraction. Behold: a virtuosic example of piteous self-loathing:
“We, the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors, extend our profound apology to our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy, especially transfeminists, queer feminists, and feminists of color, for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.”
The harms? You have my attention:
“We recognize and mourn that these harms will disproportionately fall upon those members of our community who continue to experience marginalization and discrimination due to racism and cisnormativity.”
Mourn? Did I hear you say mourn? Tuvel’s article must have caused someone a fatal aneurysm.
Surprisingly, the journal’s editor, Sally Scholz — who is, from the looks of it, not insane — wasn’t privy to the cowardice of her own editorial board. She fired back a contrary salvo of her own, deeming it “utterly inappropriate for editors to repudiate an article they have accepted for publication (barring issues of plagiarism or falsification of data).” Scholz says, “Professor Tuvel’s paper went through the peer review process and was accepted by reviewers and me.” It’s her duty as an editor, she says, to “stand behind the authors of accepted papers.” Indeed she had better, lest she see Hypatia’s 30-year legacy of groundbreaking scholarship dissemble into a cacophonous echo chamber under her watch. Should she not, then Scholz and the whole discipline of feminist philosophy could find itself abdicating discursive leadership to the likes of, say, Dr. Nora Berenstain, who let fly with a breathless diatribe of drivel in reaction to Tuvel’s article. I take her jargoned rage to be representative of the collective disapprobation:
“(1) Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” (2) She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” (3) She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. (4) She refers to “a male-to- female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege,” promoting the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege.”
“She uses phrases like ‘male genitalia.’ ” Quelle horreur!
Ignoring the falsity of Berenstain’s accusations, note once more that a piece of analytical philosophy in a scholarly journal is capable of enacting violence and perpetuating harm. There can be no more effective way of strangling an argument than by accusing it of inflicting violence. Berenstain’s preposterous accusation does succeed on one front though, in that it affects the apotheosis of the dreaded microagression. Once we’ve accepted that articulated benign ignorance is a form of aggression, all bets are off and words have become sticks and stones.
Berenstain’s non-rebuttal, while betraying an impoverished reading of Dr. Tuvel’s work, also introduces the lexicon of pervasive victimhood. There is a kind of cloying patronization in the martyred heroism of intercepting an argument before it, god forbid, comes in contact with those it would harm. Victim identity (if victim isn’t yet formally classified as an Identity by these experts, surely it should be) turns on a politics of low expectations and infantilization; certain identity groups aren’t equipped to confront an argument for they may be subject to harm. I am therefore very virtuous in my protecting them from this argument and the consequent harm that would befall them.
This latest outbreak of the scourge of orthodoxy sniffing and public pillorying of those who do not pass the smell-test has, thankfully, been repudiated by other philosophers. Suzanna Danuta Walters, herself an editor of a feminist journal, points out the masochism of waging a war of slander against a feminist colleague whilst we all find ourselves spiraling in the “midst of the Trumpean apocalypse.” Even with hatemongers like Ann Coulter prancing and preening about, more emboldened than ever in their retrograde vitriol, it’s a “a feminist academic whose body of work is clearly on the side of progressive and social justice” that’s “making scholars hyperventilate in outrage.” Worse still, it’s a feminist academic who, having been shamed and browbeaten into submission, felt compelled to recapitulate her sympathies in unequivocal terms. “I wrote this piece [In Defense of Transracialism],” bleats Tuvel, “from a place of support for those with non-normative identities, and frustration about the ways individuals who inhabit them are so often excoriated, body-shamed, and silenced.” This wholly unwarranted justification comes after an onslaught of what Tuvel described as “hate mail and anonymous expressions of disgust.”
The upshot of this darkest chapter in academic censure chills inquiry. If a collectivized outrage, fundamentally ad hominem and never so much as feigning pretense at rigorous engagement with a scholarly argument, can twist the arm of scholarship until it acquiesces in eating its young; can maybe elicit retractions of published articles by dint of strength in oppositional numbers, then the consequences for higher education are no less than dire.
Against “In Defense of Transracialism”
Just what is it, exactly, that is so insufferably offensive about Dr. Tuvel’s article? I am no professional philosopher, but I have struggled with Tuvel’s theory, which is evidently more than I can say for her colleagues (although this might be true for anyone who’s done any more than skimmed her piece). The only thing I find offensive about her work is its thesis, which strikes me as bogus.
Tuvel’s argument is laced with fallacious or otherwise ill-considered conceptions, all predicated on a fatally flawed premise tethered to a zero-sum logic: if argument x will/won’t work for thing a, then it will/won’t work for thing b as well. Fellow feminist philosopher, Cressida Heyes, dubs this “the analogy thesis,” whereby if it’s true for gender identity, then it must also be true for racial identity (267). Rejecting transracial identities will simultaneously imperil those of gender.
Tuvel uses the familiar social-construct model of race, which is now standard practice among philosophers. (Heyes 270). Race-as-social construct implies there are “no necessary or sufficient physical criteria (especially genetic criteria) that can determine an individual’s membership in a racial category” (Heyes 270). Race and therefore racism are, as Tuvel writes, a “malleable” construct (267). Any racial minority can at any time be objectified and subjugated by a ruling majority. We need only turn to our own history to see that even certain European ethnicities (Irish, Germans, Italians) were once persona non grata. Now Caucasoid Europeans enjoy implied white racial identity; such racism is no longer structuralized, ergo the malleability of the social structure (“Social” Haslanger 66). Yet while the apprehension and interpretation of any racial identity will evolve alongside other social mores, any race, per se, will not. Italians are still Italian, Irish still Irish, Germans still Germans, independent of and a priori to conscientious societal stratification. In other words, one’s race is part empirical reality, part arbitrary categorization. Tuvel’s argument, then, strikes me as a surprisingly incomplete when she says the implications of transracialism
“impl[y] that although ancestry is a particularly valued determinant of race in American society, it is no more predictive of one’s ‘actual’ race than any other determinant, because one’s ‘actual’ race is a matter of social definition.” (267, emphasis mine).
On the contrary, one’s “actual” race comprises a set of ancestral-biological factors which are construed and ranked by institutional powers into a structural narrative inscribed in the verbiage of a “social definition.” In the words of Cressida Heyes:
The social negotiation of racial identity is circumscribed — although not entirely dictated — by the body’s visual cues…These visual cues, in turn, are not independent of racial hierarchy (272, emphasis mine).
When put in more technical terms, “visual cues” become “phenotypic features.” (Dupre 47; Feldman & Lewontin 97). Phenotypes have long been manipulated by racial imperialists to cloak racial superiority/inferiority in pseudo-scientific terms, a practice only further demonstrative of the empirical falsity of racial hierarchy, to say nothing of the atrocities arising thereof. While at times indulging in utopic fantasies of a grand human-genomic commons definitively illustrating the objective wrongness of racism once and for all (the polar opposite of pure social constructionists) (Reardon 304–319), scientists have discovered genetic markers endemic to racial populations. Consider philosopher of science, John Dupre, who reports that while there is no single, Mendelian gene for race (think of the perennially racist “one drop rule,”) scientists can now administer “a genetic test [that] can give results that very reliably predict whether Americans categorize themselves as African American, white (or European American), or Asian” (49). These tests, though “apparently disturbing to some,” reveal “whether a person has ancestors who came from a particular geographic area” (Dupre 49). Through genetic sampling, scientists can isolate single genetic markers like the Duffy null gene, a “functional locus” of the genome which, according to Dupre, is “the best correlation with West African ancestry in the US populations” (49). The gene, significant for its near total inoculation against malaria Plasmodium, “occurs in a very large majority of sub-Saharan Africans but is rare in Europeans” (Dupre 49–50).
While there seems to be a scientific consensus that genetic variation within any single racial group exceeds that of the same between racial groups, that, as Dupre puts it, “racial categories group together highly diverse groups of people on the basis of multiply evolved and trivial surface characteristics,” heritable traits endure as a fraction in the racial equation (Tuvel 267; Dupre 39, 52). Tuvel nods in this direction when she considers, briefly, the implications of a “biological account of race,” which, if true, “might pose a problem for the possibility of changing one’s race” (267). To evade this problem, Tuvel then claims that while “some biologists insist there are genetic differences between human groupings, the human groupings they have in mind do not result from our current racial categories” (267). I’ll admit, I don’t understand what she means by this but, as I hope to have shown, it would appear that certain intransigent biologists are motivated by “current racial categories” (Dupre 39–55). For their part, evolutionary biologists, Marcus W. Feldman and Richard Lewontin, calculate just how miniscule a genetic variance produces phenotypical diversity: of the 0.1% of the extant variance in the human genome, some 3–10% is traceable to geographic ancestry (94–96). Given that the human genome shows 99.9% genetic commonality across humankind, it now seems indisputable that, as Feldman and Lewontin conclude,
“Genes underlying the phenotypic differences used to assign race categories are atypical of the genome in general and are not a reliable index to the amount of genetic differentiation between groups.”(96)
Translation: we’re all made of the same stuff.
Yet it holds true that we can’t discard of genetic ancestry entirely, a recalcitrant fact complicating Tuvel’s contention that:
“Given that one’s race relies on features deemed relevant by a given society, then it is at least theoretically possible to change races.” (267)
Tuvel’s only half-right (half-wrong): if “features deemed relevant by a given society” are read in racial terms, which they are, it doesn’t follow that it is “theoretically possible to change races,” because such features are localized within certain groups and not shared within society at large.
Tuvel leans on Sally Haslanger’s analysis to buttress her case, a curious choice, for me, since Haslanger seems to provide a cogent refutation of transracialism. To reemphasize the point, we acknowledge the social constructivist nature of racializing forces, yet racial groups are not delimited within a vacuum. Certain qualifying factors remain intact as the foundation upon which societal frameworks are constructed. As Haslanger’s persuasive explanation goes:
“Races are those groups demarcated by the geographical associations accompanying perceived body type when those associations take on evaluative significance concerning how members of the group should be viewed and treated.” (“Social” 65, emphasis mine; Tuvel 273)
Haslanger goes on to supply one critical “association” when she posits a conception of “color”:
“Color” is more than just skin tone: racial markers may include eye, nose, and lip shape, hair texture, physique, etc.” (“Social” 65)
Thus one’s morphology, irreducible and indicative of nothing beyond itself, becomes material for the arbitrary “coloring” of a racial spectrum. Moreover, according to Haslanger, it is “virtually any cluster of physical traits that are assumed to be inherited from those who occupy a specific geographical region or regions that can count as ‘color’” (“Social” 65).
Call these “colors” what you will — “visual cues,” “racial markers,” or “phenotypical” traits — these compose the bones of the racialized body, the ligatures of which grow from a capricious and discriminatory hierarchy:
A group is racialized…if and only if (by definition) its members are (or would be) socially positioned as subordinate or privileged along some dimension (economic, political, legal, social, etc.)…and the group is “marked” as a target for this treatment by observed or imagined bodily features presumed to be evidence of ancestral links to a certain geograhical region. (“Social” Haslanger 65; Tuvel 273).
What features, then, is Tuvel referring to? All those required of “assum[ing] a black physical appearance” (270). A “black physical appearance” makes obvious reference to phenotypical externalities; “visual cues.” This is precisely why transracialism does not obtain as identity change; ancestral-genetic inheritance cannot be painted on at the cosmetologist or implanted at the hairdresser. It is “heritage and morphology” that “interact in complex ways to capture racial meanings” (Heyes 272). Rachel Dolezal has neither heritage nor morphology. Her prolonged “exposure to black culture, experience living as someone read as black, and her self-identification” (Tuvel 267) confers neither heritage nor morphology.
Heyes’s “visual cues,” or, more specifically, “non-white markers,” are, as I have argued, the objective parameters through which racial structuralists interpret and translate racial identity into a formal regime of legally codified racism, which is, in turn, legitimized and justified through prevalent social discourse. As Sally Haslanger perceives, “the term ‘race’ picks out a social type, i.e., the objective type that attracts our reference is unified by social features rather than natural ones” (“Social” 64).Visual cues are, moreover, endemic to racialized groupings, insofar as they’re used to taxnonomize racial order. Owing to her phenotypical latitude, unavailable to black populations, Ms. Dolezal may invite and dis-invite herself from this order at her leisure. The luxury of her racial play is a benefit of “whiteness,” as Heyes comments, that “maintains the privilege of neutrality,” since “the pale-skinned can in theory have almost any mixed heritage, while non-white markers tend to over-determine racial reception” (272). To paraphrase: a white person may choose to present as black, but African-Americans (a term Tuvel conveniently avoids) do not enjoy the same performative flexibility. They have been “colored” into blackness by those ensconced “within the privilege of neutrality.”
The most immediate rebuttal to this, for an exponent of transracialism, is the historical phenomenon known as passing (or crossing). Yet this argument conveniently ignores historical contexts and connotations. Passing is properly understood in terms of “phenotypically ambiguous individuals” (Heyes 272) who pretend to another race out of social and political exigency. Passing, then, is decidedly not transracialism; racial transition is a voluntary exercise of freedom of identity, while passing, as seen in proper historical context, entails a coercive negation of one’s identity. As Heyes expounds,
“Transracialism…cannot be understood outside the historical frame in which racial crossing has typically been a matter of political expediency or survival” (272, emphasis mine).
Rachel Dolezal is not even passing as much as she’s playing with appearances.
The transracial subject, writes Heyes, will have no choice but to “inflect race through changes to their bodies,” a condition that doesn’t necessarily apply to gender. (Heyes 273). Rachel Dolezal would have fooled no one had she not darkened her skin-tone and adopted any one of various hairstyles, all of which were strategically selected to signal phenotypical affinity with the operative “visual cues” declaring racial identity. Yet such “cosmetic modifications,” are not “race-altering body modifications,” and certainly do not undertake overhaul of identity in the same way gender transition does (Heyes 273). Bronzer and innovative hair measures do not initiate transition to another race; they superficially transform the skin and hair. They are therefore chosen phenotypical synthetics which are otherwise never chosen but given at birth. In other words, race is socially delineated at birth, which is why we are right to decry the cruel stupidity of a violent animus directed at an inherited identity apropos of nothing, and conversely so wrong when we cling to the essentialist notion that one’s gender is equally inherited when it is clearly not. There is no such thing as gender ancestry. To interject Heyes’s epigram, “I am not a woman just because my mother is a woman” (276). We may supplement this edict in racial terms: “I am [X race] because my ancestors were,” to which me might add, “Society ‘colors’ me as [X race] because it ‘colored’ my ancestors as [X race].”
Changing the racial identities (white to black) in question renders Tuvel’s argument for transracialism even more untenable. Consider, for instance, the implications of a white-to-native transition. Suppose Bob may “identify” as Lakota Sioux. In initiating this transition, Bob first invokes Tuvel’s argument dismissing the centrality of ancestral inheritance. Next, Bob may dispense with genetic composition because he knows that genetic variance among and between races is infinitesimal; that we all share the bulk of our DNA with everyone else and they with us (Tuvel 267). Not unlike Rachel Dolezal’s fabricated countenance, Bob-the-aspiring-Sioux may then grow out his hair, braid it, bronze his skin, perhaps have a facial reconstruction to heighten the cheekbones, and there you have it: welcome to the Sioux nation, Bob. Not exactly. In fairness to Tuvel, Bob won’t complete the transition by mere skin-deep alteration. Rather, in conjunction with hair and makeup, Bob must be Lakota Sioux all the way down to his very “core identity” (Tuvel 270). The deciding question is whether Bob experiences his Sioux-ness within the very depths of this core identity. As long as Bob’s “genuinely identifies as [Lakota Sioux] and feel[s] that [he’s] [Lakota Sioux] [then] [he] [is] not pretending to be [Lakota Sioux]” (Tuvel 270). Just how do we define something as subjective as “core identity?” How do we know Bob really feels Lakota Sioux? It seems time is the only way to separate the sincere wheat from the appropriative chaff. The authentic transracial individual will “more likely try to live as a [race] person, day in day out, year in year out, in perpetuity” (Tuvel 270). Tuvel suggests no parameters on when the transition solidifies; a year? five years? ten? Suffice it to say, the Dances with Wolves controversy has been resolved for good, and Bob can rest easy in the knowledge that his racial identity is no one’s business but his own. Anyway we must also remember that Bob has grown up with siblings adopted from the Sioux reservation; is estranged from his white parents; has fathered a child with his Lakota Sioux wife; and calls a Lakota Sioux man “Dad” (Tuvel 265; Dolezal’s biographical details, adopted for this hypothetical). If this isn’t being Lakota Sioux, then what is?
My example of Bob raises the question of why Tuvel stakes her case exclusively on white-to-black transition. Perhaps her idea of transracialism is better understood as “transblackism.” Why, then, is black racial identity available for transition and not that of indigenous peoples? Within race itself, if transition to one race is unacceptable, would it not be unacceptable to all others as well? Following Tuvel’s reasoning, we can infer that one reason it might be acceptable, indeed enviable, is that volunteering for another race is not only a repudiation of white privilege, but also a way of making a non-white race more desirable. When it comes to Rachel Dolezal, she
“Could perhaps be viewed as affirming blackness instead of insulting it, insofar as this suggests it is desirable to be black.” (Tuvel 270).
Such is the white women’s burden to introduce desirability to the black race. This is good because:
“In a world where the worth and value of blackness is routinely denied, perhaps Dolezal’s transition could therefore be viewed in a positive light.” (Tuvel 270)
Indeed, where would black women be but for a white woman pretending to be one of them?
Tuvel’s argument is, at its best, an ironic failure of fanatical identity politics. She, and others like her, would stretch identities so thin as to empty them of any self-sufficient meaning. If one can pick another race at random (provided they can account for the mandatory core identity), then what, if anything, is left of human identity?
For Tuvel’s abortive endorsement of transracialism, we owe a debt of gratitude to the post-modernist, academic pestilence of disavowing objective reality. For these luminaries, objectivity has long been code for power. Only he who is in a privileged position may determine what is or is not objectively true, and will only do so to solidify a tyranny of knowledge. Therefore down with objectivity, up with changing race. Up with “otherkin,” or “self-identifying as non-human.” Do you “believe one of [your] limbs is not part of [your] body?” Congratulations on your new “transabled” identity! (Tuvel 272–273). Good for you for not fetishizing and trivializing the real-world challenges that disabled people must navigate every day!
While Tuvel rejects both of the above as valid forms of identity, the subjective question of core identity remains, and that is a question that seems impossible to answer.
Who are we to judge?
If anything, I suppose we are conscious creatures gifted (or cursed) with the tools of empirical assessment. I therefore accept that you may call yourself Booby the Blue-footed booby. I accept that you are entitled to strapping on a beak and big blue flippers and waddling about telling people you are not a human being but are actually Booby the Blue-footed booby. I may even comply with your request to please address as you Booby, as common courtesy comes at no cost to me. What I will not do is be made to believe that transmuting into a tropical bird is in any way ontologically feasible. What I will not do is concede Blue-footed boobyness as an empirically valid mode of human-being.
Tuvel is right to abjure such fantastical and grotesque claims to identity. If you do not have a disability, you are not disabled. Likewise, you cannot transition species. With regard to the former, there is, in remote relation to race, an element of societal definition; the disabilities of today may not have been disabilities in the not-so-distant past. This does not diminish their objective existences until they’re left novelty acts of personal identity. Point being, we can, and should, simultaneously accept both the social fluctuations and the concrete truths of disability. We can view race and gender accordingly.
As it pertains to metaphysical realities, Sally Haslanger assuages a viral distrust of “objective types” that are “grounded in ‘nature’ or are based in ‘the way the world really is.’” (“Feminism” 124). Haslanger, contra Judith Butler, mitigates wholesale rejection of typic categorization when it comes to sex-gender. Her intention is to reclaim an unmediated, objective metaphysical reality as compatible with the social-structural subjectivity of gender identity. As she puts it, “ontological realism is compatible with the feminist insight that oppressive regimes mistakenly justify themselves by claiming that their political arrangements” extend from a positivist realism. (“Feminism” 124). Thus “feminist doubts,” as she puts it, “need not lead one to an anti-realism about types” (“Feminism” 124). Put another way, certain people may use terms like “male genitalia” without having to fret over inflicting an epistemological hegemony.
The distance between biological sex and gender should be obvious to even the most casual of observers. Clearly, gender extends from sex in myriad forms. This is intuitively so. Suppose there is, for example, John Wayne hard-boiled masculinity on one end, and androgynous, purple-velvet, makeup wearing Prince on the other. Who decides which is a “man” and which is not? Says Haslanger: “gender is the social meaning of sex” (“Social” 65). Yet, as opposed to racial identity, gender is a universally-experienced state of identity, transcending ethnic-racial boundaries. Gender fluidity is, in fact, ancient history. Unlike Rachel Dolezal’s self-willed racial choice, gender identity is a unique and discrete felt experience. As Heyes writes, gender is, over against social mores, a “property of the individual’s body” (269). There is no overarching communal experience attached to gender identity. The same cannot be said for race, which, while enfolding an endless array of experiences independent of race per se, nevertheless coheres around a shared identity. Racial identities, after all, are inflected by tradition and culture, both of which have long been valued as indispensable in pluralist society. We necessarily decry (though we make a shibboleth of such when we go too far) cultural appropriation as trespassing on the sanctity of others’ revered cultural traditions. Still apart from culture and tradition, what of experience? What presumptuousness would it take for a white person to make a mascot of blackness after reading the words of, say, DuBois?:
“Then amid all crouched the freed slave, bewildered between friend and foe. He had emerged from slavery, — not the worst slavery in the world, not a slavery that made all life unbearable, rather a slavery, which, so far as human aspiration and desert were concerned, classed the black man and the ox together.”
No argument, academic or otherwise, will justify masquerading as an heir to a particular heritage. African-Americans are not uniformly bound up in a heritage of violent oppression, of course, yet structural subjugation that shapes race in our time begins with the slave trade, continues through Civil Rights, and maintains into the here and now in new and ever-evolving forms. It is neither possible nor ethical to try all of this on as a trifle of “identity.” If Tuvel is correct that all of this is only incidental to race, then she needs to explain why, for instance, black Harvard graduates would hold their own commencement, commemorated by the donning of a stole made of kente cloth.
Despite assertions to the contrary, one cannot simply change into a new identity that’s mixed inextricably within the sediments of heritage and history.
Perhaps the best we can do is to voice our opposition to inequitable and inhumane structures of marginalization. A whimsical lark to co-opt the experiences of others will only achieve the opposite effect, voiding identities of their subjective significance and naively denying the time-tested rigidity of uncompromising and unjust societal limits. If we may transgress such limits at our leisure, we risk deluding ourselves into believing they no longer exist.
Likewise, if we obstinately refuse to confront ideas, opting instead to assault their purveyors through purposeful mischaracterization and dishonesty, then perhaps ideas will no longer be worth their trouble; then perhaps Montaigne was right all along, and not only is to philosophize to learn how to die, but also to “shit in your hat and put it on.”
Dupre, John. “What Genes Are and Why There Are No Genes for Race.” Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP. 39–56. 2008.
— Haslanger, Sally. “A Social Constructionist Analysis of Race.” 56–70.
— Feldman, Marcus W. and Richard C. Lewontin. “Race, Ancestry, and Medicine.” 89–102.
— Reardon, Jenny. “Race without Salvation: Beyond the Science/Society Divide in Genomic Studies of Human Diversity.” 304–320.
Haslanger, Sally. “Feminism in Metaphysics.” The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Philosophy. Eds. Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 2000. 107–127.
Heyes, Cressida. “Changing Race, Changing Sex: The Ethics of Self-Transformation.” Journal of Social Philosophy, vol. 37, no. 2. 2006. 266–282.
Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defense of Transracialism.” Hypatia, vol. 32, no.2. 2017. 264–278.