"In Defense of Transracialism"

Jenner and Dolezal
Tuvel began writing the article after noticing the contrast, in 2015, between the reception given to Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as a trans woman in April and that given in June to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identifies and had been passing as black. Jenner became one of Glamour magazine's Women of the Year and appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, while Dolezal lost her position as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Spokane, Washington, and became, in her view, unemployable. Tuvel was not interested in the details of the cases but in their structure. She set about writing an argument in support of the position: "Since we should accept transgender individuals' decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals' decisions to change races."

Tuvel suggests that "generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume." As an example, she offers conversion to Judaism. Assuming there is no reason to block the conversion, such as the rabbi doubting the seriousness of the commitment, transition to the new identity will be accepted. Self-identification and social recognition of the new identity are the two components needed for a successful change.

Tuvel then argues for "an account of race that allows for racial membership on the basis of social treatment and ... self-identification". She maintains that race is a malleable social construct and that, while ancestry--a feature external to the body--is a highly valued determinant of race in America, its value varies elsewhere. In Brazil, for example, Tuvel suggests that Dolezal's exposure to black culture, self-identification as black, and living as someone society had accepted as black, would be enough to deem her black. From a genetic standpoint, there is no matter of fact, no "real race", Tuvel writes.

Four objections to transracialism are addressed and rejected. The first is that a claim to be black cannot be accepted without the experience of having grown up with the suffering anti-black racism causes; Tuvel quotes the journalist Touré, who called this the "one thing that binds black people" That trans women are not raised with the suffering caused by sexism is not reason enough, Tuvel argues, to reject their identification as women. Following this argument, Dolezal's experience of racism while living as a black woman would be sufficient exposure.

The second objection holds that Dolezal cannot identify as black because of the importance placed on ancestry (in America, at least). No matter the genetic facts, there is intersubjective agreement that ancestry matters; it is crucial because it is regarded as crucial. Tuvel argues that this position--espoused by Cressida Heyes, the associate editor who posted the apology--holds the possibility of change "hostage to the status quo". How racial categorization does operate is not necessarily how it should operate.

Third, there is an objection that the black community is harmed when a white individual seeks to enter that category; several commentators compared Dolezal's passing as black to the harmful practice of blackface. Tuvel distinguishes between what she calls problematic and unproblematic identification. Dolezal's self-identification is not based on a change in physical appearance alone; there is nothing obviously insulting about it; her change does not appear to be temporary; there are no questionable ends; and there is no reinforcement of harmful stereotypes. It is therefore an example of unproblematic identification, Tuvel argues.

A fourth objection holds that Dolezal is engaged in a "wrongful exercise of white privilege". This argument holds that a white person can restore their white privilege whenever they need it; a black person is denied this ease of movement. Tuvel quotes the writer Tamara Winfrey Harris: "I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her." Tuvel writes that the same argument applies to trans women, especially before surgery; that someone could return to male privilege should not preclude their transition. She argues further than the exercise of privilege is a separate issue. That more men than women get jobs as philosophy professors does not mean we should get rid of philosophy professors; instead, we should address the inequality. Similarly, if society comes to accept transracialism, it could be made easier for all races to transition. Tuvel adds that it is hard to see how Dolezal could be accused of exercising white privilege by choosing to give it up.

Finally, Tuvel asks whether, if we accept her position, we are obliged to accept any and all self-identification, such as individuals who identify as nonhuman. She repeats that two components are necessary for a successful change: self-identification and social acceptance of the new identity. It is reasonable to ask that social acceptance depend on it being possible for individuals to imagine what it is like to exist and be treated as a member of the category they seek to join. Without that, there is "too little commonality to make the group designation meaningful".

The paper thanks J. Baird Callicott (UNT), Andrew Forcehimes (NTU) and David Gray (UofM) for having read earlier drafts and Rhodes College for having given Tuvel a grant to fund the research; before the controversy she had intended to write a book about the ethics of changing race. Tuvel submitted the article to Hypatia on 12 February 2016, and on 26 February she presented it to a conference at the University of Waterloo. The manuscript was revised on 24 September and accepted for publication on 10 October 2016, after the standard double-anonymous peer review by at least two reviewers.

On 4 January 2017 Tuvel presented the paper to the American Philosophical Association (APA) Eastern Division, during a meeting chaired by Verena Erlenbusch (UofM). Scheduled commentators at the APA meeting were Kris Sealey (Fairfield), one of Hypatia's reviewers in 2016, and Tina Fernandes Botts (Fresno State). Sealey responded with a detailed rebuttal, including that the biology of race "is really about a relationship between actual genetic ancestry (on the one hand), and the cultural and social signification of that ancestry (on the other), which then allows ancestry to mean certain things, in certain contexts, for certain groups of people. Hence, the role and predicative force of ancestry, in my racial identity, is not biological at all, but rather, social (or cultural)." She argued further that "the white person who attempts to shed her white identity becomes blind to the racial privilege that she cannot opt out of", and that, while Dolezal's racial identity might be approached differently in Brazil, that does not mean that a Brazilian context can be applied to the United States.

Botts was unable to attend, but she submitted a couple of paragraphs in reply to Tuvel and the panel members, arguing that the contemporary understanding of race in the United States in the 21st century is that it is an "identity marker based in ancestry", which unlike gender is not changeable; she called race "externally derived" and gender "internally derived". She received no response to her submission. She presented a more detailed position at a meeting at Fresno State in early March, and at the April 2017 Res Philosophica conference at Saint Louis University. Hypatia made Tuvel's article available online on 29 March 2017 and published it in their spring issue on 25 April. Botts was at the Res Philosophica conference when Tuvel's paper was published. There was support at the conference for both Botts' and Tuvel's positions. According to Botts, the "view was articulated" that Tuvel's ideas were out of step with recent scholarship, but that she might be onto something in calling for the right to reject one's designated race.