Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Transracial...Is that a Thing?

Spoiler alert: No.

I’m not writing about Dolezal; I want to discuss whether transracial is a legitimate concept.

(Disclaimer: I understand that transracial has long been used to describe children adopted by parents of another race. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use the term to refer to the idea of self-identifying with another race.)

This train of thought got started when I saw a Facebook post that said something like, “Ugh…transracial? Really?” My first reaction was to agree. But then I thought of two things. First was Caitlyn Jenner. She self-identifies as a woman; can't a white person self-identify as a black person? Second was a recent conversation I had about race as a purely social (as opposed to biological) construct.

Those thoughts led me to wonder whether I dismissed transracialism too quickly. I’m no sociologist, but I did take an introductory sociology course as a college freshman, so I’m pretty much a sociologist. As such, I understand the idea that neither race nor gender is based on genetics. Both are social constructs. Ethnicity and sex, however, are not purely social constructs.

Race and Gender—Social Constructs

As I understand it, African American is an ethnicity that refers to Americans of largely African descent. Some may narrow the definition to only those descended from slaves. “Black” refers broadly to a culture shared by African Americans who are fully assimilated into a particular subset of American culture.

Gender is a similar concept. At the risk of being accused of not giving gender its due, I’ll sum it up like this: gender refers to behaviors and attitudes that mainstream society associates with a particular sex. Boys play with trucks, girls play with dolls. Not because of genetics, but because parents buy trucks for their sons.

Simplistic (and probably flawed) definitions, but I hope that they work.

It’s a subtle distinction, but maybe this will help clear it up: I’m currently reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (great book, great author). She’s from Nigeria. If she’s granted US citizenship, she’s an African American. But she didn’t share in the experience of black Americans. The novel is about a woman who emigrates here from Nigeria and must “grapple with what it means to be black for the first time.” Her genetics didn’t change, but she wasn’t black until she got to America. It’s related to questions of Obama’s blackness. Some feel that because of his upbringing, he doesn’t truly know what it means to be black in America. He is undeniably an African American, but some question his blackness.

(Dolezal is clearly aware of the distinction. When asked by Matt Lauer whether she’s African American, she nodded her head yes and said, “I identify as black.”)

Oppression and Self-Identification

An integral part of the black experience is oppression, both historically and currently.So is it even possible for a nonblack person to truly share in, not just commiserate with, that experience?


It’s possible for a white person to get it (to an extent). But getting it is not the same as experiencing it. In America, white people simply don’t know what it’s like for society—not just individuals—to discriminate against you because of your skin color. And don't cry about affirmative action. All other things equal, you're better off in this country if you're white.

But wait. We elected Obama, so racism is dead, right? The ability to not think about race is one of the great perks of white privilege. White privilege doesn’t mean that white people get everything handed to them or that the KKK secretly controls America and keeps blacks down. But let me ask you this, white folk (courtesy of Americanah): How many times have you worried that your race would keep you from getting a loan? Have you ever worried that you’d get pulled over for being white? Do you expect to see mostly nonwhite people when you open a magazine? You can’t simply self-identify with that kind of experience. You have to, you know, experience it.

Of course, that raises the question of whether such experience is necessary for a male (sex) to self-identify as a woman (gender). Frankly, if I were a woman, I think I’d say that yes, it is. I fully support LGBT rights, but I wouldn’t hold it against a woman for believing that experiencing sexism is an essential part of womanhood. But why do we (myself included) accept the transgender concept so much more readily than that of transracial?

I think that at least part of the answer is culture. I would say that the difference in the experiences of a white man and a white woman is not as extreme as that of a black woman and a white woman.  The feminist would probably say that sexism just doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and the poor-white-people guy would say that black people just want to pull the race card, but I still think that it’s an important factor.

Oh, and that whole blackface thing always makes it pretty awkward when white people pretend to be black…

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