Publication Date

July 13, 2015


African American, Current Events in Historical Context

This blog post is one of a three-part series on issues of gender and race identity. In the coming two blog posts, Daryl Michael Scott weighs in on race and ethnicity, and Allison Miller discusses transgender as analytic category.

The proximity in time of Caitlyn Jenner’s public declaration of transgender womanhood and Rachel Dolezal’s public exposure as a person who claims black and indigenous identities in spite of her white settler lineage provides a remarkable opportunity for comparing two seemingly similar processes of identification, embodiment, and bodily change. The conventional wisdom says we should consider Jenner’s claims to be legitimate, but not Dolezal’s. The conventional wisdom needs to slow down.

One of the most important interventions scholars can make in this discussion is to hold open a space for real intellectual curiosity, for investigations that deepen our understanding of how identity claims and processes function, rather than rushing to offer well-formed opinions based on what we already think we know. Expressing expert opinion can terminate a conversation prematurely. In this case, it can suture over and thereby simplify the truly complex contemporary conditions under which we all become, and represent to others, the particular kinds of beings we consider ourselves to be.

It is better, I think, for our expertise to guide the formation of questions regarding the comparison of Jenner and Dolezal than it is for us to imagine that our expertise can supply definitive solutions to the conundrums this comparison poses. After all, claiming the ability to define another person’s life and to set the meaning of their experiences and self-perceptions, based on whom one considers oneself to be and upon criteria that one selects oneself, is necessarily an ethically fraught act. Let us not be too hasty or too secure in our judgments, even when we are convinced we have the right answers.

Dolezal herself has claimed to be transracial in the same sense that she understands Jenner to be transgender, and the analogization of race and gender she deploys subtends the majority of public commentary on this matter. Analogy is a weak form of analysis, in which a better-known case is compared to one that is lesser known, and thereby offered as a model for understanding something that is not yet well understood.  Perhaps the very first question to pose here is how discourses and narratives rooted in transgender history and experience have come to supply a master story for other kinds of bodily transformations that similarly pose problems regarding the social classification of persons, particularly when these problems in turn raise epistemological—and even ontological—issues regarding the relationship between the classificatory schema and the nature of the person classified. How is it that transgender stories have become well known enough, relative to other claims of identity transformation, to function as the better-known half of the pair? That question in itself poses an interesting agenda for historical research.

Analogy’s rhetorical strength is to be found precisely in its ability to condense complicated forms of similarity into singularly powerful linguistic gestures and acts of speech, while its analytical weakness lies precisely in the non-identity of the things being compared. Most of us working in the social sciences and humanities have internalized the intersectional social-constructionist mantra that gender is not race is not class is not ability is not x nor y nor z, that each vector of embodied difference must be accounted for according to its own particular histories, material circumstances, operative logics, and experiential consequences. And yet, this very imperative not to substitute analogy for analysis risks foreclosing an opportunity to explore how claims of race-change and claims of sex-change might be alike, as well as how they differ.

To say that transracial is not “like” transgender merely highlights how impoverished our conceptual vocabulary truly is, for specifying modes of resemblance and dissimilarity—for clearly there are underlying similarities as well as divergences which we have yet to adequately map.  An actual point of connection between race and sex is that both name cultural processes that transform physical attributes of bodily being—phenotypes, on the one hand, and morphology and reproductive potential, on the other—into guarantors of social positionality: they are mechanisms for hierarchizing differences, methods for attempting to fix a social hierarchy in place by rooting it, through a set of beliefs and practices about the meaning of the material body, in our biological substance. It is this shared grounding in a particular biopolitical strategy for managing bodies politic through the inculcation of individual biologized identities that provides a real basis for comparing sex and race, as well as for comparing the stories we might tell about the potential for, or impossibility of, transfers and transformations of kinds and types of personhood within these categories.

Whatever “truth” we are determined to produce about the respective embodied identities of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, the cultural conversation we are having about them is in itself a rich body of evidence that provides a window into the socio-historical processes of identity formation and recognition. It is not time to settle the question of their identities once and for all—and after all, who are we to assume that we properly occupy the position of the decider?—but rather to keep the conversation going, at increasingly fine levels of nuance and detail.

is associate professor of gender and women’s studies, and director of the Institute for LGBT Studies, at the University of Arizona. She is founding co-editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.

Next post: The Problem Is Ethnicity, Not Race

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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