Trans: A Response from Rogers Brubaker

I hold Iván Szelényi in the highest esteem. I was therefore disappointed to find that his review of my book Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities (in the Spring 2017 issue) mischaracterized my argument.

“By emphasizing ancestry as the reason why trans-racial is unacceptable,” Szelényi writes, “Brubaker comes dangerously close to an objectivist definition of race. Thus, he explains the rejection of Dolezal and the acceptance of Jenner… as rooted in objective differences between race and sex.”

In fact, Trans develops precisely the contrary argument. Objective differences between race and sex present us with a paradox. Like race, sex is a system of social classification. But sex is also, unlike race, a basic biological category. Differences between the sexes—morphological, physiological, and hormonal—are biologically real and socially consequential, while genetic differences between socially defined racial categories are superficial and inconsequential. Sex might therefore be seen as more fixed and given than race. But the opposite is the case: it is easier and more socially legitimate to change one’s sex or gender than to change one’s race.

What explains this paradox? Not the objective differences between race and sex, but the “different conceptual and linguistic resources that are culturally available for thinking and talking about sex/gender and race/ethnicity.” One key resource is the sex-gender distinction. This makes it possible to understand individual gender identity as independent of the sexed body —as a subjective inner essence that is knowable only by the individual—yet at the same time as an objective constitutional fact that the individual, having been “born that way,” cannot control. What is choosable and changeable, on this understanding, is not one’s inner gender identity but one’s gendered self-presentation, visibly sexed body, and public gender identity.

The sex-gender distinction has no equivalent in discussions of race. This makes it very difficult to think about racial identity as an inner essence that is independent of the body and knowable only by the individual. And it helps explain why Dolezal’s claim to “feel” black had little public traction.

The second key cultural resource that explains why sex and gender can be changed more easily than race is the idea of inheritance. Although biological sex is governed by genetic inheritance, the process of inheritance begins anew with each act of fertilization; history and lineage are irrelevant. But as the philosopher Cressida Heyes has argued, history, lineage, and intergenerational continuity are central to cultural understandings of the inheritance of race. Ancestry is understood as constitutive of race (especially in North America, where any identifiable African ancestry was long sufficient to define someone as black, regardless of phenotype), yet as entirely irrelevant to sex and gender.

The cultural authority of ancestry over racial identity limits the possibilities of self-refashioning. An individual who identifies with a race to which she is not entitled by ancestry cannot legitimately claim to have been “born in the wrong body.” (Jess Row’s 2014 novel Your Face in Mine, about an individual who does make this claim and undergoes “race reassignment surgery,” reads as satire.) Even as the cultural ideal of authenticity authorizes changes in sex or gender, it stigmatizes attempts to change how others see one’s race.

Prevailing understandings of the differential malleability of race and sex are thus shaped by cultural understandings, not by “objective differences between race and sex.” And Trans does not come even remotely “close to an objectivist definition of race.” Szelényi correctly notes that Trans draws on my past scholarship. But I have consistently argued against objectivist definitions of race in Ethnicity without Groups and Grounds for Difference.

Nor is it the case that my “position reflects a U.S. view of race,” a view that Szelényi characterizes as one that “often accepts the ‘one-drop’ rule” and distinguishes between race and ethnicity by seeing “race as a biological classification of people, while ethnicity is cultural.” In fact, I have challenged the sharp distinction drawn by many American scholars between race and ethnicity. And rather than uncritically reflecting a U.S. view of race, Trans highlights the distinctiveness in comparative perspective of the “peculiar classification system” that has long structured American understandings of race.

Even as I emphasize the cultural authority of ancestry over racial identity, I also underscore the weakening of that authority. The universal condemnation of Dolezal was in some ways misleading: by focusing attention on idiosyncratic aspects of her story—especially on deception and fraud—discussions of Dolezal obscured the ways in which racial as well as gender identities have been opening up to choice and change. For many, ancestry no longer provides unambiguous answers to questions about racial identity. Increasing rates of intermarriage, the multiracial movement’s campaign for recognition of mixed and multiracial identities, and even genetic ancestry tests that report their results in terms of admixture all highlight mixedness. And mixed ancestry not only permits choice; it requires choice.

The authority of ancestry has also been eroded by the performative turn in the social sciences and humanities, which views race, like gender, as something we do, not something we have. The performative turn has its counterpart in everyday practices of affiliative cross-racial identification and in strands of popular culture – from Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live “White Like Me” skit through Michael Jackson’s racially coded self-transmutation to the reality TV show “Black.White” – that highlight the artificiality, constructedness, and instability of racial categories.

It’s important, of course, not to exaggerate the increasing fluidity of racial identity. Understandings of race as a deep and unalterable identity continue to inform everyday understandings and practices as well as racist ideologies. Opportunities for choice and change remain unequally distributed, and as the Black Lives Matter movement highlights, the black body has a distinctive vulnerability.

Szelényi’s characterization of my discussion of three forms of trans – the trans of migration, of between, and of beyond—is again somewhat misleading. It is not the case that the trans of migration—the movement from one clearly defined category to another—is “permitted (even welcomed) by gender activists.” Some very vocal gender activists—especially those who identify as radical feminists like Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys—strongly oppose such migration. They object to the medicalization of transgender (especially in so far as it promotes surgical and hormonal interventions), and they criticize the trans of migration for reinforcing rather than subverting gender stereotypes (and the binary gender order more generally).

The trans of between—the positioning of oneself between established categories, without belonging unambiguously to either one or moving definitively from one to the other – is not exemplified by “gay and lesbian identified individuals.” The trans of between is a matter of gender betweenness (exemplified by androgyny or periodic cross-dressing); it is not a matter of sexuality. This distinction is one most trans people—and most trans activists—are keen to maintain. Just as many gay and lesbian individuals argue that sexual orientation has no implications for gender identity, many trans people argue that gender identity has no determinate implications for sexuality.

Nor is it quite correct to say that the trans of beyond implies that “classification by race/ethnicity is irrelevant.” The trans of beyond may take the form of an assertion of a new category—like genderqueer, trans, or multiracial—that is not situated within the conceptual space defined by established categories. It may entail personal or political opposition to being categorized at all, or to the categorization of others. Or it may involve a normative vision or empirical diagnosis of a social world no longer so deeply organized by gender or racial categorization.

Szelényi concludes by suggesting that the politics of racial and sex-gender classification differ sharply, and he contrasts activists’ rejection of transracial with their acceptance of transgender. He is of course right to argue that “racial classification is not just a theoretical matter, it is a political one.” But the same holds for classification by sex or gender. And feminists have been much more ambivalent about transgender than Szelényi suggests. I’ve already noted their critique of the trans of migration. They are more open to the trans of between and the trans of beyond, but here too there are tensions and conflicts. Feminists who emphasize the liberation of men and women from the constraints of gendered norms and expectations are sympathetic to the trans of between and beyond. But feminists who focus on overcoming inequalities in power, authority, income, and wealth between men and women may have reservations about attempts to go beyond binary gender categories.

Beyond-the-binary agendas disturb the conceptual and political clarity of the feminist politics of equality by proliferating new categories and focusing attention on a new axis of gender inequality: the trans-cis axis. For many feminists, this is at best a distraction from the core question of inequality between men and women. But trans activists seek to highlight forms of gender inequality and oppression that feminists have largely ignored and that radical feminists have aggravated by refusing to recognize trans women as women. The result has been bitter struggles between trans activists and radical feminists over the category “woman,” access to women’s spaces, and the “trans-exclusionary” stance of radical feminists.

The emancipatory politics of both racial and gender equality, in short, are ambivalent about classification. They challenge systems of classification as oppressive, yet at the same time they presuppose stable systems of classification, if only to measure and monitor progress towards emancipatory goals. Both forms of emancipatory politics face challenges from the unsettling of basic categorical frameworks.


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