Trans Identity–Sex Changes, Race Changes, Drag, and Passing

This is one of those essays I’ve been meaning write for a while. Let me start by making an observation: I think political progressives are more accepting of transgender identities than they are of transracial identities. If fact, the only time I ever read or hear the word transracial it is connected with adoption. It’s almost as if “queering” gender lines (blurring them for people who are not into queer theory), is hip and cool in some progressive circles, but I get the impression transracial identities are not. Now I should say that I do not think either transgender or transracial identities are accepted by the larger culture, but I definitely think there is a difference between how the two are treated among progressives. I understand that this is probably a controversial position, but the whole notion of a transracial identity hasn’t even been theorized in most of the literature I have read.

Race and Gender Drag Shows
One way of blurring/queering gender and racial lines is the use of drag. Drag tends to be a temporary thing used in performance. The person in drag changes their identity for the purpose of performance, but does not change their identity in all aspects of their lives. I first started thinking about this when the show Black.White came out. The show was roundly criticized by the blogs that I regularly read (Mixedmediawatch.com, Reappropriate, Blackademic). I watched the show, and I tend to agree with many of the criticisms cited by these bloggers. Personally, I am very uncomfortable with many aspects of racial and gender drag when they are used as a technique to get people to understand what it is like to be the other. I’m not so sure that dressing in race or gender drag can really teach people. It would be really interesting to compare and contrast contemporary racial drag and gender drag to see which one is more likely to be used to entertain and which one is used to teach. I get the sense that in this era gender drag is more likely to be used as entertainment, and racial drag is more likely to be used as a teachable moment. It seems that gender drag shows invoke gender stereotypes to entertain, and many people seem to think of gender drag as hilarious. In contrast racial drag invokes stereotypes, to entertain, but in many cases, like Black.White, it is viewed as entertainment plus education. Now I am not speaking in absolutes…I have seen cases where gender drag is used to teach, such as pregnancy suits, and I have seen racial drag used purely for entertainment purposes, such as most of the early Black face performances. However, I am particularly interested in how contemporary progressives view this issue, and my sense is that one type of drag seems to be treated in a different manner than the other.

Transgender and Transracial Identities
Unlike drag, transracial and transgender identities, are more permanent. If people are transracial or transgender, they are altering the gender or racial identity on a long term basis and integrating this view of identity and everyday life. (It should be duly noted that Microsoft word is marking transracial as a misspelling). In most of the literature I read transracial identities are referred to as racial “passing,” and passing is generally referred to in negative terms. Transgender identities are also viewed negatively, but more recently there is a move afoot to accept the transgender, and part of this movement (not all of it) seeks to explain transgender identities through a medicalized view of the “problem.” (I use the term problem here loosely because I personally don’t see it as a problem, but I think the medical profession does.) What I wonder about is what would happen if we started treating racial identities in the same way. To some extent it is already happening, according to research by Maggie Hunter. Hunter found that many textbooks used to train plastic surgeons tend to medicalize the eyes and noses of Asians describing them as in need of repair, although a similar trend does not seem to appear for Whites. But I wonder, will it be a matter of time before we talk about race reassignment surgery? And I wonder how the medical profession would frame this? I think people cold learn to accept and celebrate transgender identities and transracial identities without using a medicalization framework, but I digress from my primary point, which is that there does not seem to be an organized movement to accept transracial identities. So I wonder, what would such a movement look like, and is a movement necessary?

What Do You Think?
I think one of the fundamental differences between race and gender is that the notion of racial mixture or multiracial identity is much more widely accepted than the notion of a mixed gender identity or multigender identity. My sense is that progressives have started to embrace transgender identities as a way to acknowledge such as multigender identity. However, mixed identities are not “trans” identities.

My sense is that progressives have started to embrace transgender identities but don’t even have a conception of such a concept when it comes to racial identities. In fact, many progressives have been critical of racial drag, and transracial identities are often called racial passing or cultural appropriation. My sense is that term term gender passing is something used in transgender subcultures, but the term passing seems to refer to behavior not really an identity.

I’m not firm in my views on this, but there does seem to be a fundamental difference is how transracial and transgender identities are approached (especially among progressives), but comparing how these two identities are theorized (and experienced), raises many questions for me…Why are transgender identities the subject of discussion among progressives, but the concept “transracial” seems to be virtually non-existent? Why do you think there is a movement among progressives to accept transgender identities, but no such movement to accept transracial identities (assuming you accept the premises of the question)? What differences do you think there are between trangender and transracial identities, and do those differences affect how you view each? If you are comfortable with one and not the other, why?

Oops, this is also posted over at my blog Rachel’s Tavern.

This entry posted in Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer issues, Race, racism and related issues, Transsexual and Transgender related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

50 Responses to Trans Identity–Sex Changes, Race Changes, Drag, and Passing

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  6. 6
    Dianne says:

    Rachael: Sorry to be slow, but I’m a little unclear on what transracial means. Does it refer to people who feel that they were born the wrong race in the same way that transgendered people are sometimes described as feeling that they were born the wrong gender? A person is usually described as “passing” when they are of mixed race and describe themselves as belonging to only one of those races (usually the “higher status” race.) Can one be transracial in a race that one does not belong to genetically at all?

  7. 7
    curiousgyrl says:

    >

    nobody belongs to a race “genetically.”

  8. 8
    Dianne says:

    nobody belongs to a race “genetically.”

    Insofar as the concept of a “race” makes sense, how is it defined except genetically? I’m not a big fan of the whole concept of race because it falls apart if one looks at it too closely, but some people are more closely related to each other than others and that relationship can be determined genetically (ie similar mitochondrial and somatic polymorphisms), phenotypically (ie by looks) or culturally (ie by how people act.) Do you prefer a phenotype based definition? Or maybe a cultural one? (Hope this doesn’t come across as snarky: I don’t mean it that way, but asking this sort of question often sounds snarky. My apologies if so.)

  9. 9
    Jay says:

    Hi Rachel,

    Very thought provoking.

    I have found affinity with transracial folks as we discuss approximate experiences between my gender identities and their racial identities, so personally I like the term and have used it myself. I’ve also been fortunate to be privy to conversations among transracial folks as they discuss various terminologies/words, etc to describe themselves. Some use biracial, other multiethnic or multiracial.

    I have also sat through conversations where public figures like Tiger Woods are reviled by progressives because they claim he is denying his african-american heritage when Woods claims his asian heritage.

    Personally I’m wondering if the discomfort around transracial in progressive circles may have historical antecedents in the one-drop-of-black-blood practices in the u.s. Don’t know.

    Another wondering: maybe progressives respond negatively to transracial because trans implies moving beyond something. Progressives struggle with race in so many ways. Perhaps the use of trans creates an unthinking response based on the misperception that transracial implies that race therefore does not exist.

    Thank you for making me think this early Thursday morning.

  10. 10
    curiousgyrl says:

    its not about what definition I prefer. Of course some people are more closely related to one another etc, but race is not genetic. there is no race gene or causes of genes. the fact that we can even ‘see’ race phenotypically is a figment of social construction. But sticking with the gene thing, for instance, just the basic rules of race in the US undermine the idea that there is any genetic basis for race. for example, white women can bear black babies but black women cannot have white children. There is no way that sitution makes sense from a genetic perspective.

    I’m intersted in why this transracial identities things came up. I guess i dont know what progressives think aobut this, because i’ve never run intoa self-identified example of transracialism or heard it talked aobut by progressives at all. what are you talking about, rachel?

  11. 11
    humbition says:

    Gender and race are both examples of categories to which people are generally assigned by others or by society in general, rather than by their own agency or self-definition. This is opposed to some kinds of ethnic belonging which may be based on a larger component of “self-chosenness.” The act of “trans-” ing, so to speak, is an attempt to insert agency and self-definition into categories which socially don’t seem to be founded on these.

    Ultimately I think progressives have a hard time imagining a world without gender, but think we should have a world without race. Why should we bother inserting agency into a self-definition of race, when we should be abolishing racial categories in the first place? Doesn’t this lend race a kind of perverse legitimacy that it shouldn’t have? Whereas in the case of gender it is hard to imagine a world without it, and therefore it still feels “legitimate” that people will define themselves by gender even when these definitions have lost their tie to oppression or inequality. (This is a speculative analysis, not a personal view — I’ll have to figure out what the personal view is once I get through the analysis. I’m thinking out loud really.)

    It is interesting that those whose definition of gender is closest to that of race — those who see it as an inevitably hierarchical category inextricably linked to oppression and inequality, and therefore wish it abolished — are the least friendly to “trans-” ing it, to using it as a field for individual self-definition. Or so I gather; if I’m off base here please let me know, as I’m describing a point of view that isn’t really mine and I might be caricaturing it somewhat, or describing a possible view that isn’t really the one people hold. (By the way, by self-definition I don’t mean to imply some kind of lightly undertaken whim; I just mean that the direction for the definition comes from the self instead of being imposed by others.)

    As for passing, it comes from a hierarchical imagination and shouldn’t really have any meaning in a truly egalitarian society.
    The idea of passing which makes it socially condemned is that the person is daring to self-define (in particular, to gain privilege) when she should be accepting her “natural” category.

    In a truly egalitarian society, would race be race? Actually I think that is a big part of the problem. If or when African-American became as inconsequential a category for a person as, say, Irish-American, no one would much object to “passing” one way or the other. Or “trans-” ing.

    I’ll let everyone else play with the implications of the latter regarding gender.

  12. 12
    piny says:

    This is a really interesting post.

    Transgender identities are also viewed negatively, but more recently there is a move afoot to accept the transgender, and part of this movement (not all of it) seeks to explain transgender identities through a medicalized view of the “problem.” (I use the term problem here loosely because I personally don’t see it as a problem, but I think the medical profession does.)

    Can you expand on this, please, particularly the “it” part? I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

  13. 13
    April says:

    Good post. Ultimately, this is a question of what is natural and what is not. For transgendered people, a MTF or FTM is natural for them contrary to what the majority in society would agree with. Evidence of this dissenting opinion from the majority can be found both individually and institutionally.

    When I looked up transracial on the internet, two definitions came up load and clear in relation to transracial: racial transformation and transracial. Racial transformation has to do with changing one’s physical characteristics as to match our cultural definition of race. Transracial means adopting a child that is different that the adopter’s race.

    I cannot speak for all progressives, but I can offer my two cents on why it is that some may be more comfortable accepting transgenders as opposed to transracial. In your post you appear to be addressing both definitions and so I’ll go ahead and address both.

    Racial transformation in relation to identity is less pliable than gender transformation. There are many more connotations that are difficult to match with regard to changing into another race than there is when changing to another gender.

    Being involved in a transracial relationship gets even trickier. People have the choice of whether or not they want to create a child that is socially assumed to be of another race than them (usually determined by physical appearance) or the adopt a child (or children) that are racially different from them.

    Choice #1, getting busy in a interracial relationship is supposedly not the most natural way to go. And why is this? Because interracial relationships are taboo in the U.S. and in many other countries. Choice #2, adopting a child (or children) of different race is more accepted. Why? Because it does not necessarily involve an interracial relationship.

    So, to answer your questions:
    ——-
    Q: Why are transgender identities the subject of discussion among progressives, but the concept “transracial” seems to be virtually non-existent?

    A: Because these same progressives are sheltered and cannot even fathom racial transformation or transracial relationships as a comfortable topic that is easily understood. In addition to this, they either cannot see the widespread affect that racial transformation and transracial relationships play in society or choose to ignore it because it does not peak their interest.

    ——
    Q: Why do you think there is a movement among progressives to accept transgender identities, but no such movement to accept transracial identities (assuming you accept the premises of the question)?

    A: The reason for this is because being “transgendered” is probably considered something that in the long wrong will work out. For many people, there is a reason why racial transformation and transracial relationships are taboo: because they figure it just won’t work out in the end.

    ——
    Q: What differences do you think there are between trangender and transracial identities, and does that affect how you view each? If you are comfortable with one and not the other, why?

    A: The difference between transgender and transracial identities is that being transgender is more of a personal conviction as opposed to being transracial MUST involve consention. The difference between being transgender as opposed to racial transformation is a big one. Racial transformation is actually more related to being a transvesite. Being a transvestite does not require being transgendered.

  14. 14
    altaego says:

    The question posed is why are progressives more accepting of gender drag vs. racial drag? It is not something I ever thought of before. My guess is that there is an assumption that what motivates transgendered people is something sexual and thereby primal and personal. Whereas, when Michael Jackson has surgery to look white it seems like the sad result of social prejudice and pressures.

    Plus, people can and do adopt cultural markers–food, clothes, music, language– from other races without being “in drag.” To go further by trying to actually changes one’s race seems extreme. But gender roles are fairly rigid; if a little boy likes pink or wants a doll it is often a big deal. I think a progressive reaction to this rigidity is to be supportive of people trying to break out of the confines of traditional gender roles. Personally, though, while I’m all for loosening up rules about gender identity, I do question people who go through gender identity reassignment with hormones and surgery and wonder why they, like Jacko, aren’t happy with being themselves.

  15. 15
    Rachel S says:

    Piny,
    The word “it” means “A notion of a transgender identity.”

    I realize that could be interpreted as me calling a transgender person “it.” I definitely don’t mean that.

  16. 16
    piny says:

    >>Piny,
    The word “it” means “A notion of a transgender identity.”

    I realize that could be interpreted as me calling a transgender person “it.” I definitely don’t mean that. >>

    I didn’t think you did at all. I’m just confused by what exactly you mean by “a notion of a transgender identity.” “Transgender identity” has been used to refer to any number of different things. Do you mean people who identify beyond “male” and “female”? Do you mean people whose affiliations with those terms are complicated? Do you mean people who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth, including transsexuals who might reject the term transgendered or insist that their post-transition gender/identity is wholly straightforward? Or transsexuals who might not believe those things?

    They all mean different things wrt “trans-ing,” and have different relationships to the medical community.

  17. 17
    brynn says:

    Interesting discussion.

    One crucial difference I perceive between transracial and transsexual identities from the examples you cite (Tiger Woods claiming his Asia-American identity to the rejection of his African-American identity, and plastic surgery to alter non-white facial features to appear “more white”): both involve a rejection of one identity perceived to be “lesser” for another more privileged. This is a charge sometimes leveled at transsexuals, but the transsexuals I know (myself included) do not change our lives to gain privilege. On the contrary, a male-to-female transsexual who doesn’t “pass” well actually loses status and puts herself at risk of physical assault, job loss, and other tribulations. Even female-to-male transsexuals, who generally pass quite well, risk losing friends, family, partners, children, jobs and, if found out by the wrong people, their lives. (RIP Brandon Teena, Dec 1993.) Moreover, we’re not rejecting our birth-assigned gender, as much as we’re trying to harmonize our external reality with our internal reality.

  18. 18
    piny says:

    >>Moreover, we’re not rejecting our birth-assigned gender, as much as we’re trying to harmonize our external reality with our internal reality.>>

    Well, but the former does end up being suborned to the gender with which we identify. I get what you’re saying about not transitioning in order to reject our assigned gender, but I’m not sure you could attribute that to Woods either.

  19. 19
    April says:

    Oh, and one more thing I wanted to comment in regard to the last question I addressed. Being transgendered is difficult to predict as opposed to a transracial relationship.

  20. 20
    Rachel S. says:

    “Do you mean people who identify beyond “male” and “female”? Do you mean people whose affiliations with those terms are complicated? Do you mean people who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth, including transsexuals who might reject the term transgendered or insist that their post-transition gender/identity is wholly straightforward? Or transsexuals who might not believe those things?”

    You know I’m not sure exactly what I mean by either transgender or transracial. As I was writing I was think about the term multiracial or biracial, which I don’t think of as transracial. I think of that as interracial or multiracial. On the other hand, with transgender I was generally thinking of people changing their gender identity from what is was at an earlier point, but then I started thinking about the intersexed, and in reading your post a while back I think you used the term cisgender (SP). Those two terms were the closest I could come to a notion of intergender or multigender identity.

    Generally, I tend to think of transexuals as a subset of the transgender population. The subset who decides to go through surgery as part of the process of transing. I’m not sure how popular that terminology is in the trans community.

    Of course, the notions of androgyny and racelessness should also be injected into this discussion as well.

  21. 21
    Rachel S. says:

    Whoa these comments really have me thinking!! I know this is a very heady theoretical discussion. LOL!

    Jay, I wanted to pick up on a few things you said.

    Jay said, “I’ve also been fortunate to be privy to conversations among transracial folks as they discuss various terminologies/words, etc to describe themselves. Some us biracial, other multiethnic or multiracial.”

    I’m curious beyond biracial or multiracial people. Do you think there are other groups of transracial folks? Let’s say for example (a very bad example I know) Kevin Costner’s Dances wih Wolves character in. I’m just curious if/how you see those as different from say a Tiger Woods.

    Jay said, “I have also sat through conversations where public figures like Tiger Woods are reviled by progressives…..”

    That is exactly what I was thinking of…well not that particular example, but that kind of reaction.

    Jay said, “…the misperception that transracial implies that race therefore does not exist.”

    So are you saying here that we have been fighting so hard to challenge colorblindess, and insisting that race and racism are real that the notion of transracial identities may be used (along with the one drop rule) to promote colorblindess. If so, that is a great observation. In some ways it shows how we(progressives) back ourselves into a corner of sorts. We have to refiy to challenge racism. I struggle with this frequently.

  22. 22
    Rachel S. says:

    “I’m intersted in why this transracial identities things came up. I guess i dont know what progressives think aobut this, because i’ve never run intoa self-identified example of transracialism or heard it talked aobut by progressives at all. what are you talking about, rachel? ”

    I guess that’s my point, but it does exist. I can think of a case of a White woman, who was an orthodox Jew and married a Black man. She was consequently disowned by her family, and went to live in a predominantly Black community with her husband. When the husband died, she continued living in this community and was accepted as an African American. Her children only learned much later in life that she was “white.” There are of course, numerous stories of people defying the one drop rule and “passing for White.”

    Since I am a social constructionist, I tend to see race and gender as social categories. Of course, I’m not sayng that genes don’t determine whether or not you have a penis, or dark skin, and so on, but I think these features are assigned cultural and social meanings that can be changed and are often changed.

  23. 23
    Rachel S. says:

    humbition,
    Those are some very good points. I’d like to add my two cents.
    humbition said, “The act of “trans-” ing, so to speak, is an attempt to insert agency and self-definition into categories which socially don’t seem to be founded on these.” I think that is a good point. I also think this can be done without transing, so people can challenge the notion of acting Black, White, manly, womanly and on even if they stay in the assigned category. I’m not really disagreeing just elaborating.

    humbition said, “Ultimately I think progressives have a hard time imagining a world without gender, but think we should have a world without race.”
    I think that is a really good point, and it is related to Jay’s point.

    humbtion said, “It is interesting that those whose definition of gender is closest to that of race … those who see it as an inevitably hierarchical category inextricably linked to oppression and inequality, and therefore wish it abolished … are the least friendly to “trans-” ing it, to using it as a field for individual self-definition.” I think so. This is an empirical question, but I have a strong sense it is the case.

    humbtion said, (By the way, by self-definition I don’t mean to imply some kind of lightly undertaken whim; I just mean that the direction for the definition comes from the self instead of being imposed by others.)
    Oh most definitely with transracial or transgender identity.

    humbition said, “If or when African-American became as inconsequential a category for a person as, say, Irish-American, no one would much object to “passing” one way or the other. Or “trans-” ing.”
    The concept wouldn’t even exist.

  24. 24
    Rachel S. says:

    April, what I think separates your post from the others is that you very explicitly connect a transracial identity to relationships. In many ways, transracial identities imply some sort of interracial relationships be they friendship, dating, marriage, other family relationships.

    It is interesting that you thought of that because many other people seemed to view racial “transing” as an individual sort of choice, that may be influenced by society. I wonder how your own experiences, which are very close to what some people are calling tranracial, inform your view of this. The way you connect this issue to relationships is dramatically different from others. I think it reveals how strongly a tranracial identity is connected to family, dating, and marriage. I guess we could say the same for transgender identities, but I just get the sense that this is one areas where they are different.

  25. 25
    Jay says:

    Rachel,

    I’m curious beyond biracial or multiracial people. Do you think there are other groups of transracial folks? Let’s say for example (a very bad example I know) Kevin Costner’s Dances wih Wolves character in. I’m just curious if/how you see those as different from say a Tiger Woods.

    Instead of Kevin I will use myself as an example. What I (and KC’s character experienced in DWW) experienced living in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, I describe as a third culture experience. Being an a white American living in another country, sometimes speaking the language, sometimes not, I, along with other white americans (there were african-americans, and latinos and asian americans, too, and they formed their own communities) formed a kind of third culture, white american-in-japan (for example).

    This culture is different from white american culture and very different from japanese culture. I, along with military kids, foreign service kids, all of us got called third-culture kids. I can attest that I experienced tremendous culture shock, in some ways worse than when I moved to Asia the first time, upon reentry to the u.s. I can also attest that I thought u.s. culture strange.

    That’s what I see happening in DWW and me. But I do not feel I had a transracial experience, though I hadn’t really thought of it in this way before.

    With Tiger Woods, his cultural experiences are a result of his birth heritage, not as a result of moving to and living in another country. Having said that I don’t know where to go with it just yet.

    So are you saying here that we have been fighting so hard to challenge colorblindess, and insisting that race and racism are real that the notion of transracial identities may be used (along with the one drop rule) to promote colorblindess. If so, that is a great observation.

    Yes, and thank you.

    In some ways it shows how we(progressives) back ourselves into a corner of sorts. We have to refiy to challenge racism. I struggle with this frequently.

    Yes! I struggle with this too.

  26. 26
    brynn says:

    but the former does end up being suborned to the gender with which we identify. I get what you’re saying about not transitioning in order to reject our assigned gender, but I’m not sure you could attribute that to Woods either.

    Good point, and I agree. I have no certainty (1) that Woods does so identify and (2) if he does, why.

    Asian-Americans, however, are sometimes referred to as a “model minority.” I know this description is problematic and offensive and I’m not condoning it, merely mentioning it to indicate that to some, being Asian-American is seen to carry more status than being African-American. Which begs the question, if if Woods does so identify, is his motivation distancing from a more out of favor minority? This question occurred to me because the second example (plastic surgery to look more “white”) definitely seems to be status-related.

    Female-to-male transsexuals (FTM’s) are sometimes accused of seeking male privilege, a charge I find ludicrous considering the risks and costs of transitioning and the fact that many FTM’s aren’t socialised to want male privilege or know what to do with it.

    I guess my point is, I know of no transsexuals who transitioned as a way to distance from a gender of less-status to one of more.

  27. 27
    Jay says:

    Brynne,

    I do not know if Tiger Woods disavows his African-American heritage. My guess is he does not.

    What I was speaking of is conversations among certain progressives who revile him because he has claimed his Asian heritage. One person I recall hated that he called himself “blackasian” as she felt that he was making a roundabout reference to himself as “caucasian.”

  28. 28
    Dianne says:

    How does a person with more than one ethnic background identfiy with one without denying the others? Or is it not possible to do that?

  29. 29
    Rachel S. says:

    Dianne, “How does a person with more than one ethnic background identfiy with one without denying the others? Or is it not possible to do that?” That is a great question…..I wish I had more time to answer it. I’m sure at some point I’ll address it over on my blog because it requires a really long answer.

  30. 30
    Bitch | Lab says:

    Rachel,

    In the mid90s, people were doing lots of work on the rhetoric of passing and racial drag, particularly in slave autobiographies — some of this work was coming out of the Berkely English Dept and some essays on the toplc were included in the Bad Subjects ‘Zine. I know that it was a frequent topic of discussion as well as approach to analysis on the old Bad Subjects Discussion list since it was the dissertation focus of anot a few people connectted with Bad Subjects.

  31. 31
    Rachel S. says:

    Bitch|Lab, Oh, that’s interesting. I haven’t heard much about this. It may be a disciplinary issue–I’m reading too many social scientists.

    I know the who transracial adoption and multiracial identity stuff is really popular, but I have to look into this area.

  32. 32
    tigtog says:

    This idea of “transracial” is fascinating to me because over the last 10 years my sibs and I have become more and more convinced, as we watch certain phenotypical markers display in our progeny and our cousins, that at least one and possibly both of our maternal grandparents were of Australian-aboriginal descent but “passed” as white.

    However, it appears that they were so successful at passing that my mum can’t conceive of the idea (and my dad was absolutely horrified when my sib tried to bring the topic up), despite the fact that her brother and one of his sons were very dark-skinned, but the family story was that this came from a (I kid you fucking not) “Black-Welsh” heritage. (I haven’t blogged on this because my parents read my blog, but they’re not net-savvy enough to follow me through comments threads)

    So for the first 30 years of my life I totally thought of myself as white, and that is my major racial identity. But I’m now pretty sure that I’ve got indigenous ancestry, but because of generational denial/ignorance I have no idea whether that ancestry is Koori, Murri, Luritja, Yolngu or Torres Strait Islander or what. I have a friend who performs in Aboriginal dance troupes but could “pass” for white if she wished to, and I’ve been discussing some of this with her, but as she grew up openly acknowledging her aboriginality she can’t fully relate.

    So, as I feel in transition from a mono-racial to a multi-racial identity, am I trans-racial?

  33. 33
    Bitch | Lab says:

    Rachel — i’m a social sciences person too, but I forced myself to expand my horizons when I wanted engage in critiques of postmodernist/poststructuralist thought. Kinda have to read them to criticize them. As it turned out, though, I had some misguided ideas about what literary theory is, so I learned a lot when I encountered more folks from the humanities at the Bad Subjects list. I still sometimes get territorial about the disciplines and think they ought to stick to their own turf — but that’s on my bad days. :)

  34. 34
    nexy jo says:

    i just thought i’d add that i think gender and race are not at all analogous in society. i’ve encountered quite a bit of analogies between the two, in my travels irl and on the net, and i somehow find the analogies inaccurate at best, and offensive at worst. not that i discourage the use of each as a comparison with each other – both are clearly indicators of societal class. but from my personal experience as a white jewish transwoman who also has enjoyed quite a bit of economic privilege, i just don’t see very much common ground.

    carry on.

  35. 35
    Cynthia says:

    Regarding “medicalised”, I can tell you one thing: If you were a little girl growing up with a penis and testicles between your legs, you could be pretty bloody sure that it was a medical problem. You have not experienced horror if you have not gone through the wrong puberty.

    Regarding “transexuals”, I can tell you another thing: It is pretty offensive to define people by a medical condition. Do you call people “cripples” or “club foots” or “cleft palates” or “single eyes” or “birthmarks”? Are not the people you describe in fact men or women? I’d comment on “transgenders” but I have no idea what that means, but it doesn’t sound very flattering.

    Regarding who is more accepting, I can tell you one other thing: Liberals like to congratulate themselves on how progressive they are in “accepting” people who are different. It takes some hard experience to learn that acceptance is not doled out according to political views. Most of the time, what one encounters is not acceptance at all but only tolerance. Tolerance is not acceptance. The only difference between progressives and conservatives is how violently the intolerance is expressed. As for acceptance, let us be clear, there is precious little of it any where.

    Patronising dissertations that attempt to lump together all forms of “gender variance” under one term tend to not help. I do not believe you had untoward motives, but it all smacks of “those people”, does it not?

  36. 36
    Diane says:

    Race, though a controversial topic, is not identified with sex. Gender is automatically identified with sex, and in this culture, sex is identified with shame.

  37. 37
    azbballfan says:

    Rachel S.

    Thanks for the post. To be brief, I was the only white kid in a lower middle class, predominantly black community until high school. Then we moved to an upper middle class community with opposite color ratios but was heavily jewish.

    I found it was easier to assimilate into the particular black community I lived in than the jewish community. I think this had something to do with the cerimonialy exclusive nature of the Jewish community in question.

    I also noticed some of the parents were insulted by my knowledge and understanding of the social norms, coloquialisms and beliefs of lower middle class blacks. Some parents were protecting their kids by teaching them to fear lower middle class blacks.

    During the assimilation into my new community, some of the kids poked fun at me for knowing this and using the slang from time to time. I also created a bit of the problem for my new public school because most of the material in the classes I was in were one or two years behind what my private lower middle class school taught me. So unfortunately for some of the parents, they couldn’t point to me as a “stupid” kid from a lower middle class community.

    As it was, one of the very, very jewish kids in the advanced program befriended me and really enjoyed learning what I knew. He began to explore the black community, attending community forums and reading up on black culture.

    Eventually he became a transgender. He completely changed his dress and appearance to look black. He found a black wife who was born in Africa and moved into the lower middle class community to provide research on education in economically depressed areas. He has his PhD and at our last reunion claimed I was one of his inspirations. I hope I didn’t disappoint him by telling him I was not an inspirational leader trying to break down racial lines. I was just a kid trying to get some friends.

    All that said, I think you’ll find significant geographic influence on this issue. I’m from Los Angeles, which I’ve found to be one of the more progressive trans racial metro areas.

  38. 38
    A. J. Luxton says:

    humbition wrote:
    Ultimately I think progressives have a hard time imagining a world without gender, but think we should have a world without race. Why should we bother inserting agency into a self-definition of race, when we should be abolishing racial categories in the first place? Doesn’t this lend race a kind of perverse legitimacy that it shouldn’t have?

    I think you hit the dot on the nose, so to speak. Uh, that, and there’s something else big in there: the social status divide in much of America between people of color and white folks has grown to be much more obvious and gigantamous than the social status divide between women and men. There has been a notable amount of catching up on the sexism front; not so much with racism.

    “Women should be WOMEN! Because that’s good and special!” stuff was more prominent some generations ago, same time as when the idea of a transgendered person was almost unthinkable. And some of the we-embrace-you-if-you-embrace-your-culture stuff falls in the same basket. That kind of gender/cultural policing comes from both inside and outside the gender or culture, and maybe it has something to do with the frustration of people who’ve *tried* to use the paradigm of the higher social status category and had it fail for them because of prejudice against their physical signifiers.

    I mean, there’s some nasty whispering about trans people in parts of the feminist community, too. Sometimes the reaction to an FTM transition is something along the lines of “You’ve sold out”, and sometimes the reaction to an MTF transition is “Stop appropriating my identity!” Compare, respectively, African-American people “acting too white”, and the anger frequently expressed against white kids with dreadlocks. It’s the same, “Don’t steal my place in my large pond / Don’t get into my small pond” thing.

  39. 39
    A. J. Luxton says:

    One more thing. None of my commentary is meant to dismiss the validity of these problems. Race as a socially enforced quality is problematic; same with gender. Dealing with this social enforcement from a fatalistic model (“We/they are stuck in this position, so must lay claim to and defend our/their territory”) is one end of the spectrum; dealing with it from a “blind optimism” model (“There is no race, there is no gender! They are all social constructions! We must enforce against the social enforcement!”) is the other end of the spectrum. There’s a lot in the middle. The social enforcement is problematic and must be dealt with, but if there were a single, thoroughly applicable answer to that problem, blogs like this wouldn’t exist, no?

  40. 40
    Les says:

    Gender and race and both socially constructed. However, gender is related to a biological fact of sex. Gender, while being constructed and mutable, has a biological basis. Race has no such basis. Race is biologically connected to the amount of sunlight in places where people have lived for a long time, but is not genetic in any meaningful way.

    To put it another way, there existed a time in recorded human history in which there was no concept of race as skin color. There has never existed a time without the concept of gender. Gender is a human universal fundamental going back to the dawn of time.

    Of course, race exists now as an inescapable part of modern culture. It is closely linked with ethnicity. Being black is therefore not just a skin color but also an ethnic identity. I think this is an important distinction. A person who is visually black is recognized as such whenever she deals with anyone. A black-l0oking person is identifiable as such before she moves or opens her mouth. It is not an invisible identity. However, somebody who has been accepted into the black community may have black ethnicity. This person would be an invisible minority in the same way that gay folks are. The person who is visually black is going to have a different experience than somebody who is only ethnically black.

    I think it may be problematic to confuse racial and ethnic identities. And I think the comparison to transgender people may also be problematic.

  41. 41
    humbition says:

    I’m going to mince some words here, not to be PC, but to illustrate the difference I see between race and ethnicity, because this gets obscured in the U.S. Actually I’m agreeing with Les on a main point but illustrating it by highlighting what might seem to be a minor disagreement in usage.

    I would never refer to the “black ethnicity” or “black ethnic identity.” But I can understand it when people do, only when they can take for granted that they are situated in certain parts of the U.S. where there is only one Black ethnic identity, which is African-American.

    Because I take it that there are other Black ethnic identities — Ibo, Yoruba, Zulu, Haitian, West Indian, Afro-Cuban, etc. What kind of identities are these if they are not ethnic?

    Racially a member of any of these ethnicities will be classified, willy-nilly without any choice in the matter, as part of the Black race in the U.S. context. And this may matter more to how they are treated than any self-definition of theirs which is ethnic or cultural.

    Ethnically I think there may be more freedom to join with a Black ethnic category even if one is not Black, except of course that a common experience of racial oppression or colonization has perhaps become an ethnic binder and source of solidarity over the centuries within many Black ethnic groups.

    Even so, the ethnic identity is to my mind the collective property of the members, who have the right to determine membership by criteria they choose. This has gotten muddled with Native Americans, perhaps precisely because the issue of who is a Native American has gotten caught up in racial thinking (i.e. within U.S. Federal law) not merely ethnic thinking. Racial identity is unambiguously imposed from without, by the larger system in which some groups are relatively dominant and may have historically imposed the terms.

    This distinction can impose clarity. Maybe too much clarity, because people in the U.S. meld race and ethnicity by not making this kind of distinction, and therefore insistence on a clear distinction is probably a bad way of understanding how U.S. Americans define themselves!

    Analogies to gender — not too many. But we can ask questions by analogy. Analogous to the racial question: how are people who deviate from normative gender seen/described/termed by the larger society? What are the externally imposed categories which define the social landscape they have to navigate? Analogous to the ethnic question: how do they form communities? What are the distinctions among themselves (or from normatively gendered people) which they use to define themselves into communities? What are the criteria by which people are accepted or not accepted into these communities? (not that such criteria are stable or anything — which goes for the original ethnic example too)

  42. 42
    Rachel S. says:

    humbition, I’m not so sure the distinction between race and ethnicity is so clear, but your larger point is well taken. I think ethnicity and race both have a degree of ambiguity in them, but they are frequently conflated in this culture.

  43. 43
    Edith says:

    This is a very interesting post. Although race identities are accepted more often as “mixed” than gender identities, “transracial” is not nearly as accepted as transgender. This paints us into an uncomfortable corner: do we accept “transracial” as readily as “transgender” or do we decide not to accept either as truly legitimate? And as a feminist, if we accept transgender but not transracial identities, are we saying that gender is more fluid than race? And if we say that, are we somehow saying that racial oppression is more specific and less “escapable” than gender oppression?

    In other words, is drag the same as blackface? To be honest, I tend to think it is.

  44. 44
    curiousgyrl says:

    I am unclear on the operative definition of ‘transracial’ here. It seems to refer mainly to(what has long been called) interracial marriage and adoption, and to ‘multiracial’ people whose parents are ‘interracial’.

    I think it would be demonstrably incorrect to assert that ‘progressives’ are more uncomfortable or oppse to interracial marriage or adoption or multiracial identites than with transgenderism. I can only think of one progressive organziation which is opposed to either interracial marriage or adoption–the National Association of Black Social Wokers. They do not seem to have any position on transgender issues of any kind.

  45. 45
    piny says:

    In other words, is drag the same as blackface? To be honest, I tend to think it is.

    You think, then, that there are certain presentation cues that male-assigned people do not have the right to display, such that they are commonly understood to be associated with women? Because that’s what this comparison implies.

  46. 46
    touhou says:

    There is a brilliant journal article on the analogy between transracialism and transsexualism you might want to read.

    Cressida J. Heyes
    “Changing Race, Changing Sex: The Ethics of Self-Transformation”
    Journal of Social Philosophy June 2006 – Vol. 37 Issue 2

  47. 47
    Rachel S. says:

    touhou,
    Thanks……that sounds interestsing.

  48. 48
    Changeseeker says:

    This post and thread resulted in my posting here. Interesting stuff!

  49. 49
    Rachel S. says:

    Hey, I’m going to add that to my Bunch-o-links at RT.

  50. 50
    Rachel S. says:

    Coming back to this a year and half later……LOL!

    Piny said, “You think, then, that there are certain presentation cues that male-assigned people do not have the right to display, such that they are commonly understood to be associated with women? Because that’s what this comparison implies.”

    No I don’t think that’s what it means–at least not too me. I have trouble with many gender drag shows, particularly those where people perform as women because they often involve some of the most insidious stereotypes of women–that we only care about our appearance, that we are defined by our bodies and not our minds, that a woman is more “real” if she has a certain physique, and probably some other things that I’m missing. I think this has been the problem with racial drag shows too.