Saturday, May 27, 2017

Transgenderism, Transracialism, and Academic Bigotry

Transgenderism, Transracialism, and Academic Bigotry
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Rebecca Tuvel’s well-written article called “In Defense of Transracialism” published in the philosophy journal Hypatia spawned quite a bit of ruckus in May 2017. The abstract of this philosophy article contains, “Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism [e.g. a white person self-identifying as a black person].” It’s interesting stuff, but because this is such an emotional issue for many and some people are quick to demonize, I feel it’s good to have the following disclaimer.


When people practice and believe a religion I think is silly, I still think we should not bully such religious people or discriminate against them. I mention this because I think transgender people should enjoy the full civil rights and privileges of people who practice religions I disagree with, and I hope that people who find the transgender beliefs and practices silly can get on board with this sort of tolerance. People who disagree with the transgender lifestyle should do so without malice or bigotry, just as one might do with people of a different faith.

A Plea for Civility

With that disclaimer said, the fact that we should tolerate a belief or practice does not make it immune to criticism. My religion should not be immune to criticism, and atheists should be free to think and say my religion is silly without being branded a bigot, because tolerance is not the same as agreement. I look at transgenderism (e.g. an adult biological male self-identifying as a woman and wearing women’s clothing) the same way a tolerant atheist might view my religion; the practice seems kind of crazy to me, but I believe in civil rights and tolerance for such people. For pro-transgender folk who disagree with people like me, I ask that you show the same civility towards me that I show tolerant atheists who think my beliefs and practices are crazy. It is possible for people to think the intellectually opposing side is a little nutty while still getting along. If we can be tolerant and respectful of people of different religions, I think both sides of the transgender issue can show the same tolerance and respect towards each other.

Transgenderism and Transracialism

Remarkably, Rebecca Tuvel is herself on the pro-transgender side. Yet one philosopher’s modus tollens is another’s modus ponens. Tuvel believes that “since we should accept transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races” whereas someone else might reason, “Since the transracial lifestyle is a crazy idea, we should also find the transgender lifestyle a crazy idea.” Instead, Tuvel concludes that “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.” We can summarize Tuvel’s logic as follows:
  1. If we should accept transgender individuals’ gender identity when it differs from their biological sex, then we should also accept transracial individuals’ racial identity when it differs from their biological race.
  2. We should accept transgender individuals’ gender identity when it differs from their biological sex.
  3. Therefore, we should also accept transracial individuals’ racial identity when it differs from their biological race.
Tuvel’s article is worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll summarize some points Tuvel makes in her article before commenting on the academic bigotry that ensued here. Part of Tuvel’s paper is that arguments against transracialism could be used against transgenderism. Consider the case of a biologically white woman wishing to self-identify as a black woman. (Tuvel seems to have chosen this example because Rachel Dolezal made headlines as a biologically white woman claiming the black identity, though in the paper Tuvel expresses skepticism on whether Dolezal’s claim to black identity is legitimate.) Unless otherwise mentioned, all quotes are from Tuvel’s paper.

Objection: A biologically white woman “cannot identify as black because she did not grow up with the experience of anti-black racism.”

Rebuttal: Tuvel points out that “it remains unclear why one's past experience with racism is required for one's current status as black.” Moreover, “this objection would also apply to trans women [biological males who self-identify as women] who transitioned later in life but did not grow up knowing what it was like to experience sexism.”

Objection: A biologically white woman “cannot identify as black because of the way society currently understands racial membership.”

Rebuttal: Tuvel invites us to “imagine a transgender person born in a country today where such forms of identification are not tolerated, because the understanding of sex-gender identity is firmly restricted to the genitalia one possesses at birth.” Would that invalidate the transgender person’s claim? Moreover, “if we hold the legitimacy of a particular act hostage to the status quo…it is difficult to see how we can make any social progress at all.”

Objection: It is “insulting or otherwise harmful to the black community for a white person to identify as black.” Consider for example the nineteenth century American white people who engaged in blackface to mock African-Americans.

Rebuttal: Racists nineteenth century white Americans engaging in blackface to denigrate African-Americans is very different from someone who genuinely identifies as black. The former “is appropriately deemed pretense because it relies on the fact that this person's core identity is not who she publicly and permanently purports to be.” We must be careful to distinguish such pretense from sincere conviction and non-nefarious intent, because if we don’t, “then by parity of reasoning, transgender men and women are just pretending to be men and women.” Also, “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.”

Objection: It is “a wrongful exercise of white privilege for a white-born person, such as Dolezal, to cross into the black racial category.” A white person self-identifying as black could become white again and enjoy white privilege.

Rebuttal: Regarding “the point that a white-born person could always exercise white privilege by returning to being white, I note that the same argument would problematically apply to a male-to-female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege” and yet “the fact that a person could potentially return to male privilege does and should not preclude their transition.” Also, “it is difficult to see how giving up one's whiteness and becoming black is an exercise of white privilege.”

How’s the Paper, Maverick?

I won’t pretend the paper is perfect but Tuvel raises some good points worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. I have found it awfully arbitrary that self-identifying as a gender different from your biological sex is socially acceptable but self-identifying as a different race isn’t. It’s nice to see someone on the pro-transgender side recognize the problem even if I disagree with her conclusion.

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