George Orwell said it best: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
America is a culture where people believe they can have what they want. If they fall on the right side of power, it’s possible. Scholar Lyn Weber argues race and gender as social systems that are “contextual power relationships…simultaneously expressed and experienced at both the macro level of social institutions and the micro level of individual lives.”
It is in the interaction of race and gender that reveals the socio-cultural and historical locations of power and oppressions.This is clear in the different cultural response to transgender versus transracial identity politics. Both are rooted in dysphoria, a state of dissatisfaction with the gender or racial identity aligned with the cultural prescriptions assigned to the biological and physiological characteristics exhibited at birth. Once a person expresses as transgender or transracial, the underlying genetics remain unchanged no matter the medical or psychological treatment. For example, if one identifies as male but genetically female, no matter the transition or surgical reassignment, DNA is unchanged. The same applies for transracial identity, but with accessible DNA tests, race is no longer bound by arbitrary categories like White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and so on. Genetic results can reveal a racial or ethnic make up that may not be visible. Transracial identity can in some cases be supported by genetics.
It is the unequal treatment of those who express a transracial identity that reveals how politics and power determine what is and isn’t legitimate in American culture. As transgender scholar and activist Kai Green explains, “Race and gender are not the same, but they are both bio-social-historical categories that help to facilitate and enforce the unequal distribution of power and wealth… We must ask ourselves: What are the similarities between gender and race? What does this relationship reveal to us? How, why and when does it make us uneasy?”
The unease is clear as transracial identity is condemned as fake, while law and culture legitimize transgender identity. Insurance coverage for transgender health services illustrates this. Extensive coverage is available in some cases, whereas transracial health services are non-existent. Many private insurers and government-based providers Medicare, Medicaid and Tri-Care provide coverage for transgender health. Transition services vary depending on the individual and the source of funding. The extent of services varies across states and can include the cost of reassignment surgery. Recently, the military facilitated policies to support transgender healthcare for service members, including hormone therapy and reassignment surgery. Of the approximately 1.3 million active service men and women, between 2,100 and 10,700 identify as transgender, thus the recent policy is criticized as privileging limited healthcare dollars to a few rather than the whole, especially when many service people lack quality basic care.
The most controversial issue regarding insurance coverage and liability in transgender health services relates to the treatment plan for transgender children. A requisite diagnosis of gender dysphoria precedes the possibility of receiving hormone therapy that halts puberty in trans children who often suffer bullying, humiliation and a much higher rate of suicide than the mainstream population. As HRT treatment can render the child sterile, this procedure is the subject of intense debate within the medical community, especially the question of liability if the child at 18 does not reassign.
Moreover, the controversy about hormones impacts sports. The Caster Semenya ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sports reveals the arbitrary nature of legal rulings in the case of biology and sports. She is a female runner with intersex traits and by law must now lower her biologically high levels of testosterone to compete. Likewise, male to female transgender runners must meet an equal threshold of the hormone in order to compete. Protests abound, but the the governing body of international track- the IAAF argued “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means” of “preserving the integrity of female athletics.” The rise of dominant sprinters in female track who are MTF transgender has led to resentment and lawsuits at the high school level. Despite the debates, huge strides have been made to provide equality under the law, healthcare and support for transgender people.
This is not the case for transracial people. The meaning of race, like gender, is culturally constructed, learned and specific to a cultural context. And race, like gender, is a fluid and arbitrary category. Angelica Dass’ HUMANAE project brilliantly shows the fluidity of race in contrast to rigid racial categories (https://www.ted.com/talks/angelica_dass_the_beauty_of_human_skin_in_every_color).
Two cases reveal the precarious nature in which the public engages transracial identity. When the NAACP in Spokane realized Rachel Dolezal was white, not black, she promptly lost her position. Although Dolezal lived as an African-American woman, when it came to light that she was a white woman pretending to be African-American- a “race faker”- the public crucified her. Among the most vicious attacks addressed her use of self-tanner and hair weaves to appear black, what some critics referenced as dressing in black face. Refusing to back down, she recently claimed, “If somebody asked me how I identify, I identify as black. Nothing about whiteness describes who I am.” In contrast, the treatment of Senator Elizabeth Warren (former presidential candidate for the Democratic nomination) is striking in the public’s willingness to overlook her use of an oppressed and marginalized group’s identity to advance her career- one built on the premise that she is an American Indian (her term, not mine). Although she is not a Cherokee, not only did she claim to be one on her Harvard application and on her Texas bar license, she also wrote a cookbook, Pow Wow Chow, to advance the myth of her heritage, a heritage based on a picture of a relative and family lore. Her appropriation of Native American identity gave her access in ways whiteness and womanhood did not fifty years ago, and she continues to justify her identity claim despite DNA proof otherwise.
Both Dolezal and Warren’s appropriation of a racial identity can be criticized as white privilege reinforcing racism, and yet Dolezal’s choice to be black is a far bigger no-no than Warren’s claim to be Native American. The difference: Warren gets a pass, Dolezal is out. Is it because Warren chose Cherokee instead of black as her identity? If she chose to identify as African-American, then would the outcome be different? Where is the discussion of white privilege in the appropriation of identities of marginalized groups by white women whose personal advancement stem from racial posturing? Just recently at the 2020 Diversity Forum, the author of White Fragility Robin D’Angelo was paid four thousand dollars more than a black counterpart hired in the same capacity. For a white woman who hates capitalism and racism who is now the guru of teaching white guilt seminars to the tune of 20K per gig, she’s profiting nicely off her privilege awareness and Kafkatrap of a theory.
Race is different than gender, clearly. Kai Green claims: “No, it’s not the same. But, yes there is some overlap and the discussion needs to be had. We need to put on our thinking caps (critical analysis) first. It’s not as simple as #rachelDolezal gives us Trans–racial and #caitlynjenner gives us Trans–gender. The latter we are to applaud and commend while the former we are to condemn to ‘mental illness’ and ‘inauthenticity.’ Something isn’t right here which is why I’m putting my thinking cap on.”
It is fair to say few people would have considered identifying as transracial in the nineteenth-century as Asians, Hispanics, some immigrants, and black people routinely faced legal and social discrimination (not to mention enslavement)strictly on the basis of race. Remember the Chinese Exclusion Act? Chattel slavery? Barrios? Transracialism is a recent cultural expression that is most likely tied to the success of transgender efforts to acquire access, equity, money and public policy support. Yet, for a white person- privileged simply by virtue of being white (at least this is common understanding)- to appropriate the identity of a marginalized group is considered illegitimate in American culture because they did not live the complex experience of that group yet benefit from pretending membership in said group. If this process is labeled transracial rather than inauthentic, racial appropriation, will the response eventually be acceptance? Normalization? Legitimization? Elizabeth Warren‘s base seems to have acquired this level of understanding, maybe because the transracial identity of Warren is Native American, a politically weak group in terms of identity politics, rather than a more politically charged and powerful one like African American. Racial history matters in the analysis of power, but the powerless don’t seem to impact politics or the racial justice barometer.
In contrast, transgender identity is legitimate and culturally normalized, even though MTF trans people face resistance from some feminists who see MTF as usurping the female experience. Rad Fems consider MTFs misogynists who employ extreme examples of male eroticism in their existence as women. By living as women, trans men appropriate female existence and the female body from women, and Rad Fems condemn this as seeking to have an erotic fixation indulged. Rad Fems today are lambasted as transphobic hypocrites. Wow- who knew?
How shall culture reconcile these complex differences and the complicated issues that extend from them? Scholar Patricia Hill Collins’ theory of outsider within is a cornerstone of black feminist thought. Originally, it defined the location of individuals in the border space between groups who no longer had clear membership in any one group. Collins later modified the term to “describe social locations or border spaces occupied by groups of unequal power.” Likewise, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, a foundation of critical race theory, examines overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. If there is overlap in the analysis of race and gender, and in turn common ground between transracialism and transgenderism, these theories can provide the scaffolding to identify similarities and ground dialogue about why the differences exist in the public response to these expressions.
And, move culture beyond labels and categories and make Orwell’s animals equal.