"Transracial" Is Not a Thing

Rachel Dolezal, born white, began identifying as black. Is "transracial" a thing, as transgender is? What's a straight white cis-man to make of it?

I acknowledge that "nothing," is a reasonable answer to that latter question. It's not up to me to define the issue or the people or communities involved. I am, however, called to discern -- tentatively, fallibly -- where to ally. Here's what I got.

The Self-Identification Rule

At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2005 in Fort Worth, there were unfortunate race-related incidents. (Including, among other things, GA participants mistaking UU youth of color for hotel staff. Stites & Walton, UU World.)

At the following GA (2006 in St. Louis), the assembly heard periodic reports from a racism monitoring team on the look-out for racially hurtful interactions at GA. One of the reports mentioned an incident in which a group of "apparently white-identified people" entered an area. I remember nothing of what then reportedly happened involving this group. What I remember, all these years later, is the phrase, "apparently white-identified people." It was the first -- and, I think, so far, the only -- time I have heard that phrase. It was coming from the dais at General Assembly, spoken by fellow UUs committed to and engaged in the work of anti-racism, so I took seriously the implication: whiteness, and race generally, are matters of self-identification, and, without getting to know a person and hearing from them directly what their racial identification is, we can only guess ("apparently") at the race they identify as.

I had already grown accustomed to the idea that gender was a matter of self-identification. More recently, I've learned the phrase, "persistent, consistent, insistent" as the key markers of a child's gender identity. If the offspring you had assumed was your daughter is persistent, consistent, and insistent in maintaining identification as a boy, then he is a boy. There may be passing phases of opposite-gender experimentation. There may be some areas where your child seems to emulate one gender while in other areas follows the patterns associated with the other gender. The child may express ambivalence about her or his gender. All of these, the wise parent can sensibly ride out. But a gender identity that is persistent, consistent, and insistent is real. The usefulness of an older sibling's non-unisex hand-me-downs is now reversed.

Self-identification is the key -- not DNA, not secondary sex characteristics, and not even primary sex characteristics. And persistence, consistence, and insistence are the criteria of genuine self-identification. That goes for gender and also for race.

For example, Lucy and Maria Aylmer are twins -- same mother and the same father -- yet Lucy identifies as white and Maria as black.
"The story of Lucy and Maria Aylmer, 18-year-olds whose father identifies as white and whose mother is "half-Jamaican" (and, we're to assume, thinks of herself as black), is just the most recent one about fraternal twins born with such dramatic variations in complexion that they're seen by many — and even see themselves — as members of two different racial groups." (Jenee Desmond-Harris, Vox)
Presumably, their respective complexions were factors in their racial identification. Nevertheless,
"other twins with the same respective looks and identical parentage as these twins might both choose to call themselves black or biracial." (Desmond-Harris)
Their race is a matter of self-identification.

When I posted the story of Lucy and Maria on Facebook, my colleague Rev. Danielle Di Bona commented:
"I am biracial (mom was Native, dad was born in Italy.) I have a twin sister (blue eyes, fair skin, curly hair) who identifies as white, while I identify as a bi-racial person of color."
Danielle is a bi-racial person of color because she self-identifies as a bi-racial person of color. Her sister is white because she self-identifies as white.

Race is, in fact, if anything, even less "real" than gender is, in the sense that racial categories:
  • are not based on facts that people can even begin to agree on. (If we can't even get a consensus that people with the same parents are the same race, where does that leave us?)
  • are not permanent. (If Lucy decides one day, like many other people with similar backgrounds, that her Jamaican mother is black and therefore so is she, who's to stop her?)
  • are not scientific. (There's no blood test or medical assessment that will provide a "white" result for Lucy and a "black" one for Maria.) (Desmond-Harris)
"Not real" would seem to mean that with race -- as with (arguably even more so than with) gender -- we have to go by sincere self-identification. And the measure of sincerity is persistence, consistence, and insistence. (Of course, "not real" doesn't mean "not important." Racism and discrimination based on perceptions of race are very real and very important.)

Transitioning vs. Passing

Indeed, there have been "transracial" people for as long as there have been racial categories.
"Racial barriers in America have always been permeable and ambiguous, even when they have been most violently enforced. A study based on information from the DNA testing company 23AndMe recently concluded that at least 3.5% of white Americans in the South have black ancestry, a legacy of black Americans light enough to pass for white seeking lives unencumbered by white supremacy. The New Deal was many things; it could also be seen as a racial transition program for millions of Italians, Jews, Irish, and other white ethnics who were, for the first time, began attaining the full advantages of whiteness. So the answer to the question “Can you racially transition?” is: Yes, millions already have. We call them white people." (Adam Serwer, BuzzFeed)
We call them white people because they called themselves white people -- supporting the idea that self-identification is reality.

Self-identifying as white may suffice for light-skinned blacks, but not for the darker-skinned:
"If you look black, you are black in America, regardless of ethnic background or how you identify; defining himself as biracial did not prevent Tony Robinson from joining the long list of unarmed young black men gunned down by police." (Adam Serwer, BuzzFeed)
Of course, genuine self-identification often requires more than just issuing declarations and checking certain boxes on forms. We may legitimately doubt the genuineness of a self-identification if it fails the tests of persistence, consistence, and insistence. For gender tranisitioning adults, the commitment to their gender identity would typically include hormone treatments to bring facial hair to transmen or breasts to transwomen. By analogy, identifying as a different race would entail skin and hair changes -- and those would be more difficult for darker-skinned blacks. (But perhaps not impossible, with skin dyes, hair straighteners and dyes, laser procedures to turn brown eyes blue, and plastic surgery to make a broad nose narrow.) It's a very long process. One cannot just wake up one morning and decide to be another race or another gender.

What Serwer called "racially transition" is usually simply called passing. And passing is psychologically quite distinct from transgendering (from what I can gather as a person who has never had strong desires to be, identify as, or present myself as, any race or gender from the one I have always been told I was). A person passing isn't driven by a sense of "this is who I really am, deep inside." They don't say things like, "I am a white person trapped inside the body of a black person." Caitlyn Jenner explained that, "My brain is much more female than it is male." Whatever objections one may have to the idea of brain differences between the sexes (or genders), this way of describing themselves is common among transgenders -- but not among those passing. We do not hear, "My brain is much more white than it is black" -- except, perhaps, from a comedian.

Passing is motivated by a desire for access to privileges of another race. Transmen, on the other hand, are not so much motivated by desire for the privileges of men as by desire to live their true sense of themselves.

What It's Not About #1: Lying

Comparisons between Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner -- and denunciations of such comparison -- have been circulating in social media. One difference is clear: Jenner is making no attempt to hide her past as a man. (Jenner's life has been so public since the 1976 Olympics that's its hard to imagine how she could.) A number of people have held this up as the crucial difference. Yes, it does distinguish Dolezal from Jenner, but does not distinguish the way that Dolezal is (she claims) "transracial" from the way many people are transgender. Many transgender people have moved to a new town in order to live their new identity, and have not let their new neighbors, colleagues, and co-workers know about their past as the opposite gender. Do we blame them? I don't think it's the hiding of one's past that is the issue.

What It's Not About #2: Lacking the Experiences

Elinor Burkett recently raised this complaint about Caitlyn Jenner:
"People who haven't lived their whole lives as women, . . . shouldn't get to define us. That's something men have been doing for much too long. . . . Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven't traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven't suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they'd forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven't had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners' checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists. . . . being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture and reacted to you as one. . . . Nail polish does not a woman make." (Burkett, NYTimes)
A number of people responded that women's experience is highly variable.
"In her [Burkett's] rendering, a woman born without ovaries or who becomes infertile because of illness or surgery is not a woman. Neither is a woman who never developed breasts to be glared at during meetings. Nor a woman who is physically stronger than the men in her life. The woman who has never worked outside the home and never negotiated a salary also fails to qualify." (Katie McDonough, Salon)

"The having-your-breasts-ogled, lower-pay-than-men, fear-of-pregnancy, fear-of-dark-streets "common" experiences are no more common than any other experience that women have. I'm 62 and I've not had all those experiences." ("MsPea," NYTimes letters)

"Womanhood is not an exclusive club. So many people are in it, and we are all so very different from one another. We shouldn’t imagine any of us hold the keys to womanhood. Yes, trans women have some different lived experiences than cis women—though fewer than one might expect. The trans women I have gotten to know share my struggles to overcome internalized sexism, and constantly confront the kind of suspicion of the feminine that trans theorist Julia Serano describes in her book Whipping Girl (required reading, truly). They face employment discrimination at rates even higher than cis women. It’s hard to imagine a trans woman who doesn’t know what it feels like to walk down the street and be afraid for her safety because of her gender. I bet I have a lot more “womanhood” experiences in common with my trans women friends than I do with the Queen of England, who has certainly never worried about birth control, gotten her period on the subway, or scraped by on half a man’s salary. Surely her brain has also been shaped by her experiences, which are very different than mine. Are we going to revoke her womanhood, too?" (Jaclyn Friedman, Dame Magazine)
No, nail polish does not a woman make, but it's also the case that:
"Periods, reproductive anxiety, inequality and weakness do not a woman make." (Ellen McLarney, NY Times)
So I think Burkett's complaint against Jenner doesn't stand. There is no set of experiences that all and only women have.

For the same reason, the criticisms of Dolezal that say she isn't black because she hasn't truly experienced what black people experience also fail. There is no set of experiences that all and only blacks have. Blackness cannot be defined genetically or biologically, nor can it be defined by having had an agreed-upon set of experiences.

What Dolezal Is About

For one thing, she apparently sued Howard University in 2002 for race discrimination against her as a white person (Smoking Gun). For another thing, she could be white again when it suits her.
But most infuriating to some is the idea that she may be able to retreat comfortably back into a white identity, leaving the racism she claims to have experienced as a black woman behind." (Jenee Desmond-Harris, Vox)
Dolezal fails the persistency and consistency tests for genuine self-identification. She has been passing, not transitioning. It seems she wanted a more privileged position in the black community than she could have as a white person.
"I don’t know Rachel but this is what it feels like to me: she’s a liberal white woman who is actually down for the cause. She’s here for Black folk and she understands the struggle (as much as any white woman can anyway). . . . Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who will have your back. She went to Howard. She teaches African Studies. She’s the head of the NAACP. But she’s weak. She’s a weak white woman who got tired of being shushed." (Rafi D'Angelo, SoLetsTalkAbout.com)
There's a deep sense of "who we are" that is tied up in many people's gender identity. There are also those who don't feel the gender categories have much to do with who they are -- but those aren't the ones who are going to go to the bother of transitioning. Racial identity, however powerful as a sociological fact, is not so embedded as a psychological fact about the identity of the self. While transgenders may feel they were born into the wrong body, a person can't feel "born into the wrong race" because no one is born into any race at all. Racial identity is solely a construction of one's society. Yes, I know, gender identity is too -- but with gender identity there's at least a dialog between society and biology. There's a starting "default meaning" presumed for two X chromosomes -- but there is no biological equivalent of X or Y chromosomes for race. Transgendering is about becoming what one was born to be. Neither white nor black is what anyone was born to be.


  1. Interesting , thought-provoking & informative discussion, Meredith. I think the "persistent, consistent, insistent" criteria is helpful, and in the case of Rachel Dolezal, the more operative term, however much she may have identified with blackness, was "opportunistic," her having swung back and forth on the racial identity pendulum depending on what best afforded her advantage. This is also where she departs from Jenner, since no one in his/her right mind would "opportunistically" subject themselves to what transgender people endure in this world.

    I'm pausing and pondering with this line, however: "Racial identity is solely a construction of one's society." I'm not sure that thought deserves the flat-out declarative tone that you give it, especially with the vast differences in skin tone we see in this increasingly multi-hued world.

    I think that sentence may be more true for bi-racial, lightly complected people, where there can be great ambiguity in readily identifiable race (the Aylmer twins you cite above), than it is for those with decidedly "white" or "black" colored skin. The latter can hardly avoid the stark fact of their whiteness or blackness. Though there may be no gene that separates the two, there is also no ambiguity about their true and dramatic difference from each other. Dark-complected blacks will, no doubt about it, live their lives as such, at least as it regards the world's response to them, with no choice or preference in the matter, however much the experiences they draw from that will be socially constructed. The culture's construction of what "blackness" represents is up for grabs, but the fact of true black color that the person brings to that culture certainly isn't.

    All of which loops back to the question: "What is race, anyway?" At least as regards skin color, we clearly see a wide spectrum, and a wide variety of cultural responses, perceptions and practices that emanate from and circulate around that spectrum. And depending on their actual color, background, temperament and a host of other factors, people self-identify on many points of that spectrum. The choice to self-identify is just much easier for lightly complected bi-racial people than it is for a Swedish blond on one end of the spectrum and a Kenyan black on the other.

    Concluding word: "Complicated." Another: "Ambiguous."

    1. Thanks, Andrew. There's certainly a lot more to be said on this topic, and I thank you for saying some of it. I know that a lot of what I said could use some unpacking -- and probably in some cases some qualifying. My own thinking about these subjects continues to evolve -- lately, on an almost daily basis!