On (some of) Tuvel’s Defense of Transracialism

The professional philosophical community has been in a bit of an uproar lately following the publication in Hypatia of Rebecca Tuvel’s provocative “In Defense of Transracialism” (paywalled content, but the abstract is available).

Daily Nous has a not-exactly-unopinionated write-up of the controversy here. I’ll avoid comment on the kerfuffle for now, but I do want to say a few things about one of the paper’s arguments.

Of course, the last thing anyone wants to read is a white dude’s take on the issue of transracial identification, but I just want to briefly home in on what seems to me a couple of important sub-issues which Tuvel brushes against but doesn’t really address in the necessary detail. Personal disclosure: I admit to finding the idea of transracial identification (but not transgender identification) deeply problematic on a gut level, but I’m not sure I fully understand why. I’m trying to isolate here what might be some relevant variables.

In her response to the fourth objection to transracialism–“that it is a wrongful exercise of white privilege for a white person to cross into the black racial category, and that such crossing is therefore wrong”–Tuvel writes:

Assume for the sake of argument that it is easier for a female-to-male (ftm) transgender individual to be read [sic?] and accepted as male than vice versa. If true, we might say that ftm transgender individuals exercise an “ftm trans” privilege that mtf transgender individuals lack. If this seems of minor relevance to the ethics of ftm transitions, then it should also seem of minor relevance to the ethics of white to black transitions.

My first thought is that a more apt comparatum would be male-to-female transgender individuals, i.e., those assigned at birth to a more privileged class crossing into a less privileged class. Suppose, then (again, just for the sake of argument), that mtf individuals enjoyed widespread passing privilege while ftm individuals had hardly any at all. Now, one certainly ought to regard this disparity as a problem. Tuvel’s point, though, seems to be that it’s a largely orthogonal problem, one whose solution would involve the removal of barriers to unprivileged-privileged class crossings, not the imposition of barriers to privileged-unprivileged class crossings.

It seems to me that the particular dynamics of privilege are important here. Privilege, being typically conceptualized in a relative, comparative way, is often treated as a finite resource; for one group to gain privilege, another must give some of it up. In many contexts, this makes sense; if a company in which Group A is overrepresented makes a concerted effort to hire more people from Group B, then, eo ipso, fewer people from Group A are going to get hired (assuming, of course, a constant hiring rate). But it’s not clear to me that disparities in passing privilege like those discussed above have the same zero-sum dynamic. That is, it’s not clear that there’s any sort of connection, conceptual or causal, between reducing the passing privilege of one group and increasing that of another.

I suppose one could grant this but still maintain that transracial exclusion is a moral necessity until (and only until) such time as broader social changes would allow for equality in passing privilege. This sentiment seems to be echoed in Tamara Winfrey Harris’ claim that she would “accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.” Tuvel would likely reply that if we find this argument objectionable in the transgender case, then we ought to find it objectionable in the transracial case. But it may be worth remembering that our “transgender case” here is (very probably) fictional with respect to the huge disparity in passing privilege we’ve stipulated. To make the comparison even closer, at the cost of veering a bit into sci-fi territory, suppose additionally that in the transgender case, men outnumbered women in our society by nearly five to one. So it’s not only the case that passing privilege in this (again, I stress, hypothetical) society is granted almost exclusively to trans women but also that men have a much greater say, even independently of whatever non-numerical privileges they possess, in who passes. I suspect that at least a few trans-inclusive feminists might find themselves a little sympathetic to a transgender version of Harris’ argument if they found themselves in such a world.

Of course, this alone wouldn’t tell us whether the argument was any good. My intuition is that there’s still an important difference here in that it seems a trans woman would–even in our sci-fi society–be more harmed by a refusal of recognition than would someone like Rachel Dolezal. I’m not completely sure of the basis of that intuition, however, nor therefore of its justifiability. So let’s explore a bit.

Earlier in her paper, Tuvel cautions against making transgender acceptance contingent upon the satisfaction of biological criteria (e.g., congenital adrenal hyperplasia or androgen insensitivity), as this would inevitably exclude many trans people. The point is well-taken, but there does appear (in a group-level, statistical sense) to be a nontrivial relationship between transgender identification and various genetic and early developmental factors. It isn’t clear, for example, that there is a racial analog to gender dysphoria. True, there is a long history of black women and girls modifying their bodies to meet white beauty standards, but it’s far from clear in such cases that whiteness is being aimed at as an end in itself rather than merely a means to the greater privilege accorded beautiful white women. This distinction may not matter in terms of the amount of personal harm done by a refusal to recognize one as white, but it may matter quite a bit in terms of locating the core of the problem (is it the denial of white-passing privilege per se or is it the stigmatization of black bodies?) and bringing appropriate moral interventions.

One might additionally worry that an appeal to biology as a basis for distinguishing transgender and transracial identification will reinforce some sort of gender essentialism. But a biological account of gender identification needn’t be a reifying reduction of gender itself; it need only be an explanation as to why people feel more or less at home in one (socially constructed, let’s say) gender category or another. Such an explanation is at least in principle available with respect to transracial identification; whether it succeeds in practice would seem to me to depend upon whether the socially sanctioned contrasts between racial categories are sufficiently similar to the socially sanctioned contrasts between gender categories such that these contrasts might be reliably tracked by natural variations in personality and preference.

My hunch is that extant gender categories are better suited than extant racial categories to reflecting these natural variations, but I must acknowledge that things get very murky here. If between-group variation in some salient personality measures is higher (and within-group variation comparably lower) across gender categories than across racial categories, as seems likely, then it’s not too hard to imagine that transgender individuals might feel a much stronger need to identify across these categories than our hypothetical transracial individuals. By the same token, it’s not too hard to imagine that transgender individuals might suffer greater harm by being denied recognition as a member of their preferred gender category.

But–and here’s the murk–the personality of anyone old enough to choose a gender or racial category will never be solely a product of their genes and intrauterine developmental history. These categories come loaded with norms and expectations, and people are often socialized into them from very young ages. So there’s a further important question concerning how much of the difference in between-group personality variation across gender and racial categories is simply due to closer policing of the personality components of gender. Does society more explicitly recognize/sanction a quintessential “female” personality than it does a quintessential “black” personality? If this policing accounts for most or all of the difference, as some gender critical feminists might allege, then the above argument against transracial identification is likely foreclosed. It may well be the case that transgender individuals suffer greater harm by refusals of recognition, but here again that greater harm would be wholly contingent upon norms and practices that require broad and systemic, rather than palliative, moral interventions. That is to say the central moral problem, on this account, would not be the refusal to accept transgender identifications but the policed gender binarism that in the first place forces some people to identify across gender categories.

I suspect that such policing doesn’t wholly account for the variation discussed above (and that, consequently, the greater harm done to transgender individuals by denials of their identities cannot be wholly mitigated by “smashing” gender binarism), but I’m open to persuasion on this point and on any others raised above. And it should go without saying that these aren’t the only morally relevant factors concerning the question of transracial identification; they are simply the ones that jumped out at me most forcefully while reading Tuvel’s article.

One further consideration is whether and to what extent visible transracial identification might have a long-term beneficial, corrosive effect on race essentialism. This is no easy thing to predict, but the effect of visible transgender identification on gender essentialism (still to be assessed) could be a useful guide here, regardless of the differences, discussed previously, between the two cases.

Leave a Comment