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.