In Defense of Rebecca Tuvel: A Just Society

Rob Imbeault
Sep 14, 2019 · 8 min read

In the concluding paragraph of her controversial essay In Defense of Transracialism, Rebecca Tuvel claims that “a just society should reconsider what we owe individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with another race” (275). In other words, if a just society is one to which we aspire then we ought to consider accepting an individual’s choice to change race. To argue this point, Tuvel presents for comparison Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner, born a male and a heralded athlete, who now identifies as a woman was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine thus “signaling a growing acceptance of transgender identity” (265). Dolezal, a woman who was born white who identifies as being black, presented herself as such for over a decade until it was revealed that she had no black ancestors. While society has been seemingly growing to accept Jenner, Dolezal was criticized for her deception and her self-identification was publicly denounced, which Tuvel presents as unjust. Central to Tuvel’s argument is that “if some individuals genuinely feel like or identify as a member of a race other than the one assigned to them at birth — so strongly to the point of seeking a transition to the other race — we should accept their decision to change races” (264). That is, in Tuvel’s comparison the same considerations that led to the societal acceptance extended to Jenner’s transgenderism ought to also apply to Dolezal’s transracialism in a just society that values freedom of choice. To deny an individual’s freedom simply because of our personal unease jeopardizes important discourse. Tuvel challenges objections made in opposition to transracialism and offers for comparison the evolution of acceptance for transgenderism. But it is her essay’s powerful undercurrent of a Millian world in which we are perfectly free to do whatever we wish, as long as we harm no others, that is her most persuasive argument. Tuvel’s arguments are compelling and morally sound not because the objections she raised were overcome, nor is it the power of identity over biology; Tuvel’s argument is sound because, as she implies, we aspire to be a just society.

Tuvel presents for examination an objection against an individual’s choice to change race that states that society’s current understanding of race, one’s ancestry as an unchangeable defining element, prevents an individual’s attempt to change race. The problem with this argument, Tuvel maintains, is that once society’s categorization of gender was based solely on the biology of the individual, and has in recent years changed to respect the individual’s self-identification of being another gender. Tuvel argues that to say that it is unacceptable to change races because it is just how our society currently operates would be “a very poor reason to the person asking how racial categorization should operate” (269). The same way we adjusted our definition of gender might be made to fit an individual’s change in race.

Our culture’s openness to change to accommodate the freedom of choice in defining one’s gender, and potentially defining one’s race, is a hallmark of a just society but a theme not new to us. In 1859, John Stuart Mill argued that “[w]hen a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself […] there should be perfect freedom […] to do the action and stand the consequences” (147, 148). That is, the individual should be given absolute freedom as long as he harms no one else, and if he acts in a manner unconducive to society he will face the social consequences. To answer whether or not Dolezal is harming anyone we will examine the objection Tuvel raises which “holds that it is insulting or otherwise harmful to the black community for a white person to identify as black” (269). Tuvel points out the distinction between someone mocking to insult a race and someone who identifies with a race to the point of wanting to become someone of said race. Tuvel continues by asserting that “someone who genuinely identifies with blackness could perhaps be viewed as affirming blackness instead of insulting it, insofar as this suggests it is desirable to be black” (270). Dolezal, and presumably any individual who identifies with a race to the point of wanting to be in that race is not harming others by their change and may even increase its value. With respect to consequences, transgenders have had to endure social ramifications of their position for decades, perhaps more, and only now is society inching towards acceptance, although still not without controversy. An individual who is trying to change their race in a society where the idea is still new may have to endure the same until society eventually concedes. If living her life as black is the only identity she knows, Dolezal may have to withstand society’s denial and hesitancy until we come around. Alternatively, she can accept the race she was born into and choose to learn how to live her life as a white woman, similar to how transgenders were forced to, and sometimes still do, “experience isolation, confusion, and a feeling of not belonging”, an experience not emblematic of a just society (265). Both transgenderism and transracialism seem to meet the requirements laid out by Mill.

Shifting focus, in a Tuvelian and Millian world where individuals have the freedom to choose their gender and race and whatever other options we may find along the way, will we become paralyzed with choice? Psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that “there comes a point at which opportunities become so numerous that we feel overwhelmed. Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope. Having the opportunity to choose is no blessing if we feel we do not have the wherewithal to choose wisely” (104). There are two reasons this doesn’t apply to the argument in favor of transracialism. First, is that to self-identify may not be a choice. Dolezal grew up with four adopted black siblings, married a black man with whom she had a child and has a father-like relationship with an older black mentor who she calls “Dad”. Second, choices are not created equal. Some choices are less significant like ordering from a menu at a restaurant while others impact the rest of your life such as whether or not you should get married. In the case of race, we are only faced with the choice when we self-identify with a race we weren’t born into, and thus arguably sits among the most important choices in one’s life.

Schwartz’s claim that too much choice may decrease the happiness in the choices we make, as well as diminish our happiness overall, is inarguable however this discussion is not about happiness. It’s about the right to choose and a just society will allow its members to make choices that may make them unhappy. Serendipitously, and thanks in part to Schwartz’s work, simply knowing about the downfalls of choice have allowed us to let go of some of the decisions we once stressed over. The tide is turning. Mill’s utopia is evolving further than he could have predicted from a society who needed choices to one who can recognize when they have become too many, and act accordingly.

Columbia Professor Sheena Iyengar echoes Schwartz’s argument in stating that “[w]e frequently pay an emotional tax for the freedom of choice” (254), however, “trying to spare people from difficult choices by removing them may produce adverse effects” (243). In other words, society simply cannot remove choices and to try may exacerbate the issue. Mill states that “all errors which he is likely to commit […] are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him” (149). The evil of limiting choice is an argument Tuvel ignores but should be examined insofar as a just society ought to consider what would happen if measures were taken, whatever they might be, to eliminate an individual’s right to choose.

Although Iyengar and Schwartz warn of the perils of too much choice and the potential disaster if society denied it, both introduce the idea that the dangers that may result from too much choice can be mitigated. Schwartz affirms that “if ‘constraint’ sometimes affords a kind of liberation while ‘freedom’ affords a kind of enslavement, then people would be wise to seek out some measure of appropriate constraint” (113). For example, in a method he dubs second-order choices, Schwarts points out that “by using rules, presumptions, standards, and routines to constrain ourselves and limit the decisions we face, we can make life more manageable, which gives us more time to devote ourselves to other people and to the decisions that we can’t or don’t want to avoid” (Schwartz 114). Iyengar also presents approaches either by the individual or through government programs. Iyengar assures that “[t]here is, in fact, no way to completely avoid choice: No matter how you answer the question ‘To choose or not to choose ?,’ you always make a choice. But that choice need not leave you feeling tortured” (255). In light of Schwartz and Iyengar’s proposed mitigation strategies, this leaves us with the only option that satisfies all parties and comes in the form of one more choice; the choice to not choose. Society is already on the path to accepting an individual’s choice illustrated not only by the budding acceptance of Jenner but also by Dolezal’s example. Dolezal identified as black for over a decade, changed her appearance and was recognized by her community as such. Her deception aside, Dolezal was an active and contributive member of her community and race of choice to the point of holding a leadership position in an organization whose sole purpose is the advancement of that race. In the same way, society is beginning to accept transgenderism it seems already ready to accept transracialism which, as Tuvel points out, is a sign of a just society.

Although the objections Tuvel raises fail to hold up to her scrutiny, they shine a light on larger issues that the acceptance or denial of individuals’ right to define one’s race cannot solve. But the objections also provide society a new lens through which to examine these issues that stimulate discourse, arguably the most valuable element in a righteous society. As an example of this discourse, Tuvel quotes MIT Professor Sally Haslanger who, in her book Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique, writes, “rather than worrying, ‘what is gender, really?’ or ‘what is race, really?’ I think we should begin by asking (both in the theoretical and political sense) what, if anything, we want them to be” (246). Perhaps we should be thinking about how we preserve each others’ right to choice and less about whether or not we will allow it. Tuvel’s defense of transracialism based on the burgeoning acceptance of transgenderism hits the nail on the head when she points out that society has changed its understanding of what gender is and there’s no reason why, over time, we couldn’t do it again with respect to race.

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Author of upcoming memoir (Feb 4, 2020), Volunteer, Self-Examiner. Ramblings on life, health and happiness.

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