Transgender / Transracial: Why is one “courageous” and the other “outrageous”?

The transition of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner and the”outing” of Rachel Dolezal who is of Czech, German and Swedish ancestry but strives to be perceived as a black woman are particularly interesting in terms of the similarities between transgender and what is now being called transracial.  A number of authors called Caitlyn Jenner’s transition courageous while the condemnation of Dolezal’s transition has been almost universal.

Here are links to a few articles that we find of particular importance:

“You can’t ‘feel’ race but can you ‘feel’ female? On Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner and unspeakable questions” by Meghan Murphy:

[B]ecause masculinity and femininity are categories males and females are forced into, the fact that transgender people exist is unsurprising. Many cultures recognize a “third gender” and, in fact, the gender binary is not natural or something that feels comfortable for most people. Rather, it is hugely restrictive. Women and men alike perform masculinity and femininity yet I doubt any of us absolutely relate to either category. These performances are learned and we engage in them for our own survival, as well as because it is what we know and have known our whole lives. People like to claim that girls gravitate towards dolls and boys towards trucks or that women are “naturally” more nurturing than men, thereby “proving” a “female” or “male” brain exist, but this has been disproven time and time again. We have no idea what a world without gender roles would look like, though feminists have been working towards one for some time. …

At Huffington Post, Zeba Blay argues that what Dolezal did “plays into racial stereotypes and perpetuates the false idea that it is possible to ‘feel’ a race.” While Jenner may have transitioned for her own survival, the notion that one can “feel female” remains problematic for similar reasons that the idea of “feeling” a race is. It perpetuates the stereotype that femininity is something that exists deep within us — in our souls and minds. If it didn’t, to say that one “feels female” would mean nothing but “feeling human” or “feeling like a human that has female body parts.”  …

Beyond the question of a “female brain” or a “male brain” is the larger one of social categories and hierarchies that oppress entire groups of people. I cannot, for example, simply identify my way into the upper class. I also cannot simply choose to start living as an Indigenous woman. The context for my existence, history, and life experience is attached to the fact that I was born a working class white female in Canada.

So it’s difficult, when we see race and class as categories that one cannot simply identify our way in and out of, to know what to make of someone like Jenner, who lived her whole life as a rich, white man, until recently. She may believe she felt like a woman on the inside and will likely learn what it is like to move about as a woman, now, but she was treated and socialized, for her whole life, as a man with a great deal of privilege. …

There is no need to compete at the game of who-is-most-oppressed with regard to these issues; there is a great deal of oppression and suffering in this world, whether it be through patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, or capitalism — enough to go around, you might say. Certainly we should be able to acknowledge that sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and transphobia all hurt people, but also acknowledge and understand that women’s particular experiences in this world are shaped by a particular kind of oppression that begins the moment we emerge from the womb and that this oppression is not “natural.” …

At the same time, it matters to be trans in a world that has created a binary wherein there is only “masculine” or “feminine.” That room must exist in between and outside those categories is necessary if we ever dream of living outside their confines. What I’m asking is not that the suffering and real lives of transgender people be ignored, but that we acknowledge that context, history, and socialization are real and also matter. That when little girls are taught to be pretty and polite, to not take up space, to spend their lives on a diet, to be desirable but also that they will be punished through that desirability, those experiences matter and happen to us because we are born female. That we learn to understand our sexualities only in relation to what men want matters. That we learn our bodies are not ours, but public commodities, matters. That we learn our boundaries are “rude” and that they will be violated matters. That we must fear those we depend on (or even love) for our survival matters. That we learn to put ourselves last and to “sit down and shut up” matters. That we learn solidarity with men will get us further than solidarity with women matters. We aren’t fighting against trans people, we are fighting for our lives and the right to speak about our lives, bodies, history, and oppression, as a class. We are also fighting against the notion that either femininity or masculinity are innate parts of our beings, an idea that reinforces male power and female subordination.

When Jenner — a wealthy, white Republican — came out as Caitlyn, the pressure women felt to embrace her sexualized, objectified performance of femininity as something vaguely liberating and empowering was hard to swallow for many of us. Jenner likely has suffered in ways that I cannot understand, but I and my feminist sisters who were raised and socialized as women and are fighting against the very notions of femininity we are told to celebrate have suffered because of the ways Jenner’s (and, of course, many celebrity women’s) image is being presented and in ways I’m not sure she understands. Simply, femininity and objectification aren’t “good” for women.


An African-American Woman Reflects on the Transgender Movement by Nuriddeen Knight:

If I had gone to my parents begging them to be white, I think they might have laughed, cried, comforted me, and worried what they did wrong as parents. But what if I had told them not only that I wanted to be white but that I actually was white? What if I had declared that the race of my body simply didn’t match that of my mind? I think they would’ve been deeply troubled.

The Bluest Eye

The famous Toni Morrison book, The Bluest Eye, parallels this idea. The main character, Pecola, is a dark-skinned girl who desperately wants blue eyes. By the end of the story, she has blue eyes—or at least, she believes that she does. We, as the readers, don’t applaud this. In fact, by the end of the novel, we think Pecola has lost her mind. We know that it’s not really blue eyes she wants, she wants something much deeper—love, acceptance, respect, honor . . . the intangible human desires we all crave but are not equally given. We know that she has not received this, but instead is a victim of perpetual abuse, and there is no easy solution to her problems.

But what if it were really possible for me to become white or for Pecola to acquire blue eyes? Would that be the end of the story—the happily ever after? Would changing our physical appearance magically erase all our issues of self-esteem and self-worth?

No, of course not. The eyes and the skin color were never the problem: racism and abuse were. We would only be putting a Band-Aid on the real issue.  The many men and women who “passed” as white during America’s shameful Jim Crow era may have gained the social privileges bestowed by being white, but they also lost their heritage, their family ties, and their integrity, thanks to the lie they were forced to tell every single day.

Race, Sex, and Gender

But what if, instead of wanting to be white, I wanted to be a man? What if, instead of crying to my parents that I was really a white person, I told them that I was really a man and that I desperately wanted to change my body to match my mind? If, in this scenario, you think that my parents should applaud my courage, accept my new gender identity, and run to the nearest surgeon, please ask yourself: “Why?”


Rachel Dolezal’s identity prompted this analysis from Jamelle Bouie at Slate:

…[B]lacks who chose to pass, and blacks who could but abstained, illustrate the porous reality of race and more crucially, how it’s distinct from ethnicity. On one hand, “black” is a statement of identity. It describes a certain culture and a certain history, tied to the lives and experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants. It’s a fluid culture, with room for a huge variety of people, from whites, to blacks, to people of Latin American and Caribbean descent.

On the other hand, however, it describes the bottom rung in the American racial hierarchy. It’s a construct, but it was built from physical features, as colonial Americans took Africans, made them slaves, and made them “black.” It designates the people who could be enslaved; the people who had to live under Jim Crow; the people who could be denied mortgage loans and crammed into ghettos; the people who can be plundered by petty municipal authorities. 

She says she’s black, but we don’t know if she’s always black. Is she black when she’s purchasing a home? Talking to the police? Or is she black only when vying for a role where lived experience would help her odds?

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