Is race a choice today?
Recently, in the feminist journal Hypatia, philosopher Rebecca Tuvel argued that what allows people to change their gender (transgenderism) also allows them to change their race (transracialism). More specifically, she argued, the same reason that society has to recognize that people can change their gender should make it recognize that they can change their race.
Tuvel’s article produced a firestorm. Hundreds of academics signed an open letter of protest. This list included academics from top shelf schools such as MIT, Oxford, and Princeton. Hypatia’s editorial board stated that the article should not have been published and apologized for the harm it caused. University of Tennessee philosopher Nora Berenstain went a step further claiming that the article was discursive violence toward trans people.
The board’s statement and apology are a troubling break from philosophical tradition. Traditionally, philosophers respond to arguments they disagree with by refuting them, not by denouncing the author and publisher and then demanding an apology. Attacking philosophers, rather than engaging their ideas, is an ominous sign for philosophy.
Tuvel begins her article by noting that Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner transitioned from being a man to a woman and then graced the cover of Vanity Fair. Tuvel compares Jenner to Rachel Dolezal. Until recently, Dolezal was the head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash. In 2015, Dolezal resigned after she was outed for presenting herself as black when her parents are white. One can see why Dolezal might have seen herself as being black. She had four adopted black siblings, was married to a black man with whom she had a child, had a black father figure whom she called “dad,” and attended Howard University, a traditionally black university.
Tuvel asserts that in order to successfully change one’s gender (for example, from male to female), a person must identify with a sex other than the one she was born into and her society must accept that she is a member of the group with which she identifies. Oftentimes trans people do this by changing their appearance, sometimes via surgical transformation. Tuvel then argues as follows. People can change their gender. Gender and race are similar. Hence, people can change their race. Just as Jenner can go from male to female, Dolezal can go from white to black.
Tuvel faced the objection that gender and race are dissimilar. The idea is that gender involves changeable features (consider, for example, secondary sex characteristics, hormones, or identification). In contrast, the objection goes, race involves an unchangeable feature, specifically, one’s genetic ancestry. Citing Charles Mills, Tuvel responded that race is changeable because it is a function of factors such as culture, experience, identification, how one thinks about her ancestors, and how others think about her ancestors. Because some or all of the factors are changeable, she concludes, race is changeable.
A second objection Tuvel faced is that even if gender and race are similar in that they are constructed and changeable, society should not recognize that people can change races because it is insulting and harmful to allow white people to become black. She notes that Dolezal’s adopted black brother claimed that her transition was like a white person appearing in blackface. Tuvel responded that changing from white to black need not be insulting. It might be affirming in that the transition in effect suggests that it is good to be black.
The problem with the argument is that sex (biological categorization) is not socially constructed and gender (the way in which society views men and women) is not entirely socially constructed. Contrary to Tuvel and her fellow travelers, gender tracks sex. Sex depends on some combination of genetics and secondary sex characteristics and the concept of gender depends on the concept of sex. Just as we think that what makes a rhinoceros male or female does not depend on how a rhinoceros thinks of herself or how other rhinoceroses think of her, the same is true for human beings.
The fact that there are intermediate cases of sex and gender (consider hermaphrodites) does not mean that there are not paradigmatic cases of men and women (or male and female) and that these cases are independent of what society thinks or values. By analogy, the fact that there are cats that are part lion and part tiger (ligers and tigons) does not mean that there are no lions or tigers or that what makes something a lion or tiger depends on how others think of them. Genetic makeup and sex characteristics (breasts, vagina, etc.) can diverge because of, for example, hormone insensitivity. At most, this tells us that the concept has unclear boundaries or, perhaps, that secondary characteristics take priority over genetics.
Race is also not socially constructed. There are evolutionary lines that have produced different biological groups (whether groups of killer whales or humans). Again, neither the degree of similarity in most psychological and physical features nor the existence of intermediate (mixed race) people, prevents these ancestral lineage being what makes someone white, Asian, black, and so on. For example, Pygmies are a distinct evolutionary line.
Basic kindness tells us that people who want to be treated as if they changed their sex or gender and make a serious effort in that direction should be treated as if they had successfully done so. The same argument applies to those who want to change their race and make a serious effort in that direction. The suicide rate among trans people is truly alarming and we should do what we can to make their lives less traumatic.
The real problem for this argument isn’t that it caused harm. It is the implausibility of the claim that people can change their sex, gender, and race. A problem for the feminist brigade is that if people could change their race, then the many and sizable affirmative-action and diversity-related benefits could be more easily seen. This is not something that those pushing hard to discriminate against whites, Asians, and sometimes men can afford to let happen.
Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org