Putting “trans” Before “racial” Scares the Hell Out of Us

If they say “Why?
Why?”
Tell ‘em that it’s human nature
Why? Why?
Why does he do me that way?
I like living this way.
I like loving this way.”
~Human Nature by Michael Jackson

These are the lyrics from Michael Jackson’s immortal ballad Human Nature, in which he responds defiantly to a curious public that has invaded his private space. In the song Michael repeats refrains of, “I like living this way. I like loving this way.” I like looking this way? It was not the only time that Michael Jackson sang back to the public’s incessant questioning about how he lived his life and how he presented himself. He belted out songs entitled Leave Me Alone and Black or White, pleading desperately for the questioning to stop. But I’ll be honest, when Michael Jackson made his radical transition into whiteness I certainly wanted to know why. Why?!?! The transformation of his body seemed like a denial of who he really was. In my eyes, the transforming of his body to deny his true blackness was a betrayal of his ancestors.

This was certainly my reaction then. But it’s now 2015 and the country has transformed. The way we talk about race has changed (key words have changed from civil rights and black power to intersectionality and #blacklivesmatter). Perhaps now, in this new climate, we should consider that Michael Jackson may have been a pioneer of a new movement we now call hashtag transracial.

In order to understand how we got to the point where we are considering putting trans next to racial, we have to credit the recent advancements in visibility that the transgender community has made. This historical moment, that was coined by Time Magazine as “the transgender tipping point,” has been reached only by the blood sweat and tears of trans activists that have fought to tell the stories of their community. Recently in the news we have seen a former Olympian who once presented himself as male begin to openly embrace a female presentation, identifying like hundreds of thousands of people in this country as transgender. At this time when Caitlyn Jenner’s dramatic and fundamental transition has become a shining example of transforming the body to become who we truly are, it has encouraged many of us to consider whether or not other social constructs like race can be trans-ified. Are people like Michael Jackson and Rachel Dolezal actually transracial?

Let’s say the rumors were true, and Michael in fact made an intentional choice to present himself as white. Why are we so upset with this? He chose to alter the shape of his nose and lips, and purge his skin of all pigment in order to transition into a white body. He underwent recurring dangerous surgeries to make dramatic but calculated changes to his physical appearance. He took an aggressive agency over his own racial identity in ways quite similar to trans-men and women who transition into more masculine or more feminine self-presentations through sexual reassignment surgery. Why do we find Michael so troubling? Why did we use language that pathologized his self-expression? We have to look at history to know why we feel so different about Caitlyn and Michael.

For a while, the tabloids covered Caitlyn Jenner just like they did Michael in the 90’s. Paparazzi flashed lights at her chronicling any notable change in her appearance. They speculated, they pathologized. But in the wake of her debut as Caitlyn she has been greeted with widespread acceptance among the politically progressive community. There is still a lot of hate and violence against trans people (especially trans-women of color). However, the response to Caitlyn’s coming out showed that a large swath of people in this country now see gender as something that is flexible. But I wonder…is there something about gender that is more flexible than race? Judging by the response of the public to transifying race, the answer is a resounding yes. Most peoBut perhaps race is only more permanent because we have CHOSEN to see it that way, and are choosing to ignore the generations of individuals that have crossed these boundaries.

Examples of racial transitioning have existed since the origin of racial thinking. Within the Black American experience it has been traditionally called “passing” and it has been thought of psychologically as the pinnacle of self-loathing. Many African-Americans passed for white in order to gain greater acceptance in American society and avoid the brutal system of oppression that subjugated black folk. Some people who had fair enough skin color to deceive the society around them could ascend from second-class citizenship to first-class. It was a career move, a strategy for advancement and social mobility.

Many historians and storytellers of Black life have described this racial shifting as despicable. We can recall the character Sarah Jane from the film Imitation of Life. Sarah is a fair-skinned African-American child who spends her entire life trying to distance herself from her Black ancestry and pass into white society. In a pivotal scene, Sarah Jane utters a heart wrenching denial to her own dark skinned mother “If by accident we shall ever pass on the street, please don’t recognize me.” In this scene you feel the despicable betrayal of someone who has denied the very flesh from which they descend. Racial transitioning, at least in the context of the black experience, is seen either as a moral failure or a psychological deficiency in self-esteem. It is an example of treason against one’s community or an act of weakness done by those that have internalized the values of white supremacy. But is this the only type of circumstance in which people transition between races?

There are instances of racial transitioning that don’t seem to fit neatly in this “passing” box. Often times people transition transracially when they will gain no societal advancement whatsoever. In these examples, people often move down the ladder of racial hierarchy. Think wiggers. In Japan there is a community of young people called B-Stylers. B is for black, and these Japanese folks darken their skin and go to hair salons owned by African immigrants in order to get braids and coarser textures of hair. These transformations go against Japanese traditional norms that value pale skin. B-stylers’ reason to become black is that they desire to embrace the cultures and aesthetics of hip-hop and global Black culture. As we know from the global exodus of hip-hop culture, youth around the world find it to be an infectious and spirit filling culture.

Hina is a B-Styler from Tokyo photographed and interviewed by Dutch photographer Desiré van der Berg. (Vice Magazine, April 2014)

B-stylers don’t necessarily want to deny Japanese heritage. These trans-black youth just feel some type of deep affinity for Blackness and the way that it is embodied in the physical form, the adornments we don, and the styles of cultural expression. But even though this group of people is not gaining any kind of privilege by their transformation (besides maybe street cred), nor do they seem to be denying their Japanese identity, many people still find it to be a bizarre and inappropriate transformation. We immediately see ways in which it seems to be cultural appropriation. This is what most people see when they see transracial people; frauds, fakes, appropriators.

The individual that has brought transracialism into the current popular discourse is Rachel Dolezal the seemingly Black head of the NAACP in Spokane Washington. Her story was uncovered when her lily white parents in Montana outed her as their estranged white daughter. Before/after pictures started hitting the web showing Rachel as a teenage white girl and then later in her life as an adult with tanned skin and natural Black hairstyles (that many Black women on twitter have admitted are flawlessly “on fleek”).

What makes us consider transracialism a fraudulent denial of who you are and transgenderism a liberating EMBRACE of who you TRULY are?

Several tweets went as far as to say the transracial experience “is not a thing.” It clearly “is a thing” if people are doing it. Do you instead think it’s an invalid or immoral way to live your life?

Many people on twitter have spoken up about why racial transitioning shouldn’t “be a thing.” Some say it makes blackness a costume. I agree that there are disgusting examples of people engaging in “blackface,” haphazardly appropriating parts of Black culture without really knowing the history or significance of the practice, and in some cases with the express reason of demeaning Black culture. Going to racially themed fraternity parties or putting on a minstrel shows is one thing. But the people that we are talking about as trans-racial are not people that view their desired race as a temporary costume at all. They have made permanent and lasting commitments to their new identity. For gods sake, Rachel Dolezal was the head of the Spokane National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an unpaid position of service to fight racial injustice. Her commitment to black folk is arguably more actualized than 99% of the Negroes grandstanding on twitter. If deep engagement with an ethnicity’s history and culture is a criteria for membership, then Rachel Dolezal is in. And a lot of folks that are “born black” should be losing their black cards.

Another thing people say is that acknowledging the transracial experience attracts attention away from the transgender movement. But can’t we acknowledge both? Race and gender are two extremely different social constructs. Many have argued that they are in fact so different that comparing them in this way is a useless exercise that gets us nowhere in attacking the hegemonies of patriarchy and white-supremacy. I disagree. Sure they are different. But carefully exploring the ways in which they are similar and different has only been beneficial in the past to theorizing about oppression and identity. These types of comparisons have brought us terms that convey their similarities “white privilege/male privilege” and “whitesplaining/mansplaining.” And it has also allowed us to understand ways in which these identities are unique and intersectional.

Many have also said that transracial people are inauthentic because they hide in the shadows, while transgender people are out in the open with their transition. In the case of Dolezal this was certainly the case. She kept her white parentage under wraps and told family members explicitly not to blow her cover. But hold on, doesn’t that sound like she was closeted? If being a transracial person wasn’t greeted with such a vehement and negative consensus maybe less people would be in the shadows. It is because of fear of judgement and dismissal that people are in the shadows or the closet. And it is our denial that these people even exist that renders them invisible.

One of the most troubling things about the collective response to Dolezal is that the public has attributed both evil intention and mental illness to her story that we have no idea about. “She has low-self esteem. She hates her own people. She’s a scheming white woman who infiltrated the NAACP for the money.” We are attributing all types of selfish motivations and mental pathology to her that we have no evidence of. And this is the insidious way that we (as humans) pathologize things that aren’t normal to us. We did it to Michael Jackson, Caitlyn Jenner and now to Rachel Dolezal. We don’t know why she did what she did so we put her in the “crazy” box.

The reason I think it’s useful to make the comparison to transgender communities is because transgender folk were considered clinically diseased, LIKE YESTERDAY. The term “gender identity disorder” was just taken out of the DSM-5 manual of mental disorders in 2013. Many people STILL look at trans folk as delusional or sick or denying who they really are. One glaring bit of history, is that in the early days of the transgender movement some of the most prominent people to pathologize trans identity were progressive activists. In the 1970s many notable feminists like Gloria Steinem threw shade at the trans community for many of the same reasons that organizers are denying the transracial identity today. She suggested that trans-women were fraudulent. They were men that knew nothing about what womanhood was about and were APPROPRIATING femininity based on stereotypes of women. Sound familiar. Take a second to let that sink in.

Why is it that the most progressive voices for social justice are often the most guilty of policing people’s identity? I think that when we belong to a particular marginalized group (women or Black folk) and then dedicate ourselves to fight on their behalf, any individuals that blur the lines between self and oppressor can be dangerous to our movement and to our concept of who we are. Sometimes it helps to have a clear enemy. Gloria Steinem soon learned that she didn’t have to deny trans-people (a population that blurred the lines between men and women) in order to keep the battle lines clear between feminism and patriarchy. Let’s make sure we are not repeating her mistakes, by at least listening to the stories of people that are transitioning.

Rachel Dolelzal has now resigned from the NAACP and we have lost out on a few opportunities to really listen to her story. I commend Melissa Harris Perry for taking an empathetic but critical approach to her interview with Rachel. In most of the other interviews that I watched, what could have been a chance to deeply engage with someone and understand their story was lost in pursuit of a “gotcha moment.” And if gotcha moments is what we were after, gotcha moments is what we received. In one of the first interviews in Rachel’s hometown of Spokane Rachel is asked an accusatory question about her parentage and is captured storming away from the camera in embarassment.

But we must ask ourselves, how would Caitlyn Jenner have fared in interviewers hunting for gotcha moments? We didn’t ask Caitlyn’s parents whether or not her identity was valid. We didn’t ask a doctor or psychiatrist to give their opinion. We didn’t ask Caitlyn Jenner how she knows that she is a woman in the same way that “real women” are women? Would she have walked away from an interview confused and ashamed if she was approached with that type of tone? To be honest when Caitlyn told us that she was a woman, we didn’t carry out any tests at all. We took her word for it. Since we believe that transgender is a viable way of being we have no reason to assume that she has crazy delusions or deceptive motives. But remember we haven’t always been so trusting of them.

When we actually started listening to trans-men and women tell their stories, we gained quite a bit of empathy for the struggles that they had with identity. Maybe we began to recognize that we (as cis-gender folk) had some of the same struggles with identity that they had, and that we are all struggling dynamically and imperfectly to navigate the limitations that society has put on us about who can be what.

Can we give the same benefit of the doubt to Rachel Dolezal? Can we see our own lies in the lie that she is living? Do we recognize that the lies that she told to protect herself are no different than the lies we all tell as we try to make ourselves into what our various social worlds want us to be. If you have ever been quiet at a dinner party during a conversation when the group voices an opinion that is not yours, then you have passed for something that you are not.

Once after introducing myself to a Nigerian dude as Kalonji Nzinga he asked me “Are you African?” In response I answered simply, “Yes” knowing that it was more complex than that. Perhaps I didn’t want to go into the fact that my parents were Black Americans that were part of the Black Power movement and identified strongly with the African continent and therefore decideded to give my sister and I African names. Perhaps I wanted to feel closer to him in that moment, and a feeling of shared kinship was more important than exploring the nuances of our stories. I’ve lied like that hundreds of times in subtle ways, by omission, and by just plain making shit up. We know that we all lie sometimes, but can we see the even bigger lie that society has been feeding us, that racial identity could ever be something stable, measurable or tangible? Racial identity is a centuries old historical fiction not just because the biological basis of race is nonexistent, but because identity itself is a fiction.

My mother (center with head wrap) leading a youth activity at the community Kwanzaa
celebration in Columbus, Ohio circa 1989. That’s me standing in front of her. When
sharing stories of my Africentric upbringing with West African immigrant students in
college I learned that many Africans thought that Black Americans were appropriating
African traditions and getting it wrong. They thought that our propensity towards
dashikis and learning Swahili to get in touch with our roots was romanticizing
traditional African practices. But I can’t think of any group of people more invested in
critically and genuinely interrogating their cultural practices than the community that
I grew up in. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

Alan Watts has said that trying to find our identity is something like trying to peel an onion. We peel back the layers of who we are and what we have done, searching for the authentic self that lies beneath. We remove layer after layer unsuccessfully, eventually realizing that this is not a regular fruit. There is no core inside, so we are disappointed. For heavens sake, are we just these endless layers of skin. Where is the core? But in fact, we shouldn’t be disappointed because the skin is the part of the onion with the substance.

We have created these terms that try to categorize what people ARE inside (black, female, white, asian, ) like deep down somewhere inside they are authentically one or the other. But what if identity is mostly just a verb, an array of deeply social acts of IDENTIFYING with beings, relating to them in various ways (or not). What if beneath our expression of blackness, beneath our stories of navigating its immense and beautiful practices, there is nothing more. What if very little is passed down in blood except superficial bodily traits, and the bulk of this thing called race is passed down in stories and experiences?

If so, there are tons of people that don’t share a recent African-American ancestor but have deep connections with the Black experience. The recent immigrant from Somalia that comes to the US fleeing civil war, who has never heard of Aretha Franklin or Harriet Tubman but seems to always get stopped and frisked by local cops. The little girl who grows up in a black neighborhood as the only white family on the block, who has all Black girlfriends and ends up speaking with the same linguistic swag as her bffs, dressing like them, coming to womanhood with them. People have always immigrated into the black experience. When deciding how we want to include or exclude our visitors, I wonder if we want to pattern the criteria of admission after the pseudo-biological logics of white supremacy.

For the past two weeks the conversation has been about whether or not Rachael Dolezeal IS Black. But as I’ve argued, blackness is a combination of millions of socially constructed ways of being. What we should have been asking Rachel is what is her relationship with blackness. Is her relationship with blackness one that is deep and full and based on an engagement with rich histories? Is it one that includes a tactful and responsible reflection about how to remove racism from our world? Is her relationship with blackness one that promotes the critical questioning of white supremacy and racial segregation? That’s what I care about personally. You can identify yourself with being a unicorn for all I care. We are all similarly delusional if we think that some word like “Black” or “White” is sufficient to describe the complex and diverse ways in which we relate to our families and communities and express ourselves through hair, adornment, sexuality, eating, writing, talking, praying. I say, call yourself what you want, but I will judge you by how you RELATE to people. I will judge you by how you relate to the familiar; to the communities that raised you and the traditions of complicated brilliance and resilience that made you who you are. And I will also judge you by how you relate to strangers; to outsiders and foreigners who have different ways than your own.

Come on folks, I’m not stupid or naive. I know that on the ground, especially for people at the bottom, race hasn’t worked like this. It hasn’t allowed for much coming and going and choosing and whatnot. To be Black meant to stay Black and die. But my entire argument is based on the hope that WE CAN DECIDE TO ALTER THE ROLE THAT RACE PLAYS IN OUR SOCIETY. IMAGINE THAT for a second? We can unlock ourselves from the chains that were created that mandate that certain bodies with certain characterstics should perform certain activities, certain labors, certain identities and must take up certain hierarchical roles in society. Isn’t that what we wanted? The ability to be who we want to be regardless of where we start out at birth. We certainly can’t do this if we commit ourselves to ideologies that make racial categories stable, uncrossable boundaries.

We must realize that it is certainly AN OPTION to keep teaching our kids to be pure Black, or American, or Muslim, or Liberal. Oh how gratifying it is to create offspring in our own image, and to stamp them with our same labels! But maybe, just maybe, we can teach them to be new things that don’t exist yet. We can teach them to acknowledge the fact that they will be inheriting traditions from various regions and communities, and we trust them to carry on doing what they find productive for humanity and to discard what they find to be violent. We can teach them to be their own founding mothers and fathers; and design their own world, even if it disregards the allegiances that their parents have made to certain old-school categories. And if someone asks them “Why such radical transformations?” I hope they reply, “To evolve is human nature.”

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Originally published at thepathspirals.wordpress.com on August 17, 2015.