Transracialism and transgenderism, revisited

  • Posted on: 9 May 2017
  • By: benfell

Updates, May 9, 2017: This post has been updated for a defense of the criticism of Rebecca Tuvel's article,1 and for a response to that criticism.2

Updates, May 10, 2017: This post was edited for clarity. I strongly recommend reading Suzanna Danuta Walters' response to this fiasco, in which she unequivocally condemns the effort to silence Rebecca Tuvel.3

Apparently, an article has appeared in Hypatia which critiques the distinction drawn between transracialism, as with Rachel Dolezal, and transgenderism, as with Caitlyn Jenner. "Critics blasted the article as a product of white and cisgender privilege, said it discounted important scholarly work by transgender and black academics, and accused its author of using harmful language." A number of associate editors of the journal and other scholars have apparently signed a letter disavowing the article and expressing an apology for it; however, this apology is unofficial and the journal's actual editor and publisher both disagree.4

Last week, a flurry of outrage stormed through social media calling the article “wack shit,” “crap,” “offensive,” “violent,” and more. And its author was called “transphobic,” “racist,” “crazy,” “stupid,” and worse. Many were (and still are) calling for a retraction of the article and an apology from Tuvel. Some scholars associated with the journal posted condemnations of the article and issued apologies for it. Eventually, a group of associate editors, spearheaded by Cressida Heyes, whose work is criticized in the article, published an official condemnation of the piece indicating that the journal had made a mistake in publishing it, which of course, just makes the journal look bad. The article was vetted by reviewers and editors, and published, after all.5

At this point I have not read either this article or the 'apology,' but only the coverage of it in the Chronicle of Higher Education, portions of an ensuing Facebook discussion, and Kelly Oliver's defense of Rebecca Tuvel's article.

The controversy appears to retread much of the ground I have covered both here6 and in blog entries.7

I'm of two minds at the moment on all this. One is doubt that I really want to wade back into this. I'm very much disenchanted with the political Left at the moment and this seems to me to be a problem of the Left. The other is that, well, I did wade into this before and I ought to follow up, which would mean a journey down to the library at University of California, Santa Cruz, to retrieve the Hypatia article—I really do have other things to do.

But it does appear my initial interpretation of the controversy was largely correct. Critical race theorists attempt to distinguish between transgenderism and transracialism by arguing that Blacks endure a legacy that Dolezal is not entitled to assume. This got expressed in the Chronicle article as:

[Tina Fernandes Botts, an assistant professor of philosophy at California State University at Fresno,] said [Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher at Rhodes College and author of the Hypatia article] was correct in her assertion that both race and gender are socially constructed but had failed to understand how they are constructed in different ways. Ms. Botts argued, contra Ms. Tuvel, that race is a function of ancestry, while gender is not — which makes gender more of an individual experience. Put plainly, because race is tied to ancestry in the world, a person cannot declare being a black person trapped in a white person’s body, as Rachel Dolezal has described herself. Only someone with black ancestors can count as black.8

To me, this is an astonishing claim. Yes, I agree with Botts that there is a problem with appropriation of an identity and I think both transgender and transracial subjects owe the groups whose identities they appropriate a debt whose form I am ill-placed to assess.9 But while Blacks contend with a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, police violence, and both overt and systematic discrimination, Botts omits that women were chattel, also face continuing discrimination, and were denied the vote for even longer than Black men. In fact, the histories of the early feminist and abolitionist movements are intertwined with some dispute over how to juggle the supposedly competing goals of ending slavery and improving the treatment of women.10 Women too contend with a legacy. And as I noted, there are aspects of a woman's experience that a man can never experience, such as menstruation,11 to which I would, at least in retrospect, add pregnancy, childbirth, and a whole notion of a woman's body as a place for (often male) others, whether in pregnancy or in sexual intercourse. Botts' claim diminishes all that and, to me, thus verges on misogyny.

So yes, these social constructions may be different. But they are not so different in a way as to justify different treatment for transgender and transracial subjects, let alone the opprobrium that Dolezal has received.

In the Facebook discussion, I initially wrote (on my smartphone),

So let me see if I understand this correctly: The cases of Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner are to be distinguished because race, a social construction, is inherited from one's parents, and gender, a social construction, reduces to the father's contribution of an X or Y chromosome. Surely I'm missing something here.

I was enjoying some snark but it does very much appear that, as Tim Benson responded, "it appears the criticism of Tuvell [sic] rests on inconsistent premises. She exposed a logical inconsistency in the rejection of transracialism, which is one of the main reasons behind the furious reaction to her article." Further, it appears that neither in the 'apology' or in the Facebook discussion, were Tuvel's critics willing to supply an actual argument or even references to articles that would supply a more substantive argument. Shannon Winnubst continues this omission, claiming that "Tuvel received substantive critical feedback at conferences from scholars in critical race theory and trans studies" but failing to offer a citation and then ironically drawing on feminism to complain that "the overwhelmingly sexist, male, and white discipline [philosophy] has, once again, called out the feminists as irrational, hysterical, and immoral."12 (The latter charge, that these alleged philosophers, supposed scholars, and clearly non-feminists are "irrational, hysterical, and immoral," appears to have some justification.13) Simply repeating that Tuvel and her supporters had omitted important work on gender and race doesn't make it so, nor does it constitute anything like the "philosophical engagement" with the article that Kelly Oliver, the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, calls for.14

All this sounds to me suspiciously like Isaac Catt, the ill-fated department chair (he was both hired and, apparently, fired while I was working on my Master's degree) who turned my Communication program at California State University, East Bay, in a hard post-modernist direction. He kept saying over and over again that "if the reading isn't hard, you aren't learning anything," and when challenged on his assertions, too often responded that "you haven't done the reading." Neither Catt nor Tuvel's critics are willing to explain themselves but instead turn blame on their questioners. This is, and I posted as much in the Facebook discussion, intellectual bullying.

There are folks who really ought to be ashamed of themselves in all this and Tuvel is not among them.