Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Uproar Over ‘Transracialism’ - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

By ROGERS BRUBAKER MAY 18, 2017, New York Times [article contains additional links.]
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The world of academic philosophy is ordinarily a rather esoteric one. But Rebecca
Tuvel’s article “In Defense of Transracialism,” published in the feminist philosophy
journal Hypatia this spring, has generated a broad public discussion[.]

Dr. Tuvel was prompted to write her article by the controversy that erupted
when Rachel Dolezal, the former local N.A.A.C.P. official who had long presented
herself as black, was revealed to have grown up white. The Dolezal story broke just
10 days after Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair debut, and the two discussions merged. If
Ms. Jenner could identify as a woman, could Ms. Dolezal identify as black? If
transgender was a legitimate social identity, might transracial be as well? Dr. Tuvel’s
article subjected these public debates to philosophical scrutiny.

The idea of transracialism had been rejected out of hand by the cultural left.
Some worried — as many cultural conservatives indeed hoped — that this seemingly
absurd idea might undermine the legitimacy of transgender claims. Others argued
that if self-­identification were to replace ancestry or phenotype as the touchstone of
racial identity, this would encourage “racial fraud” and cultural appropriation.
Because race has always been first and foremost an externally imposed classification,
it is understandable that the idea of people declaring themselves transracial struck
many as offensively dismissive of the social realities of race.

Dr. Tuvel’s cultural-­left credentials are impeccable. Her research links race,
feminism and justice for the oppressed (including animals). But she concluded that
the strong philosophical arguments in favor of accepting transgender identities
should also support the possibility of altering socially defined racial classifications to
match people’s inner sense of racial identity[.]

Dr. Tuvel was careful to point out that her “thesis relies in no way upon the
claim that race and sex are equivalent, or historically constructed in exactly the same
way.” As a philosopher, she was interested in the structure of social reasoning about
gender and racial identities, not in the lived experience of black or transgender
people. Crucially, she explicitly rejected the idea that self-­identification alone should
be the ultimate arbiter of racial identity, emphasizing also how one is treated by

Nonetheless, the argument provoked outrage on social media. The article was
deemed racist and transphobic, and one philosopher claimed that it not only
“perpetuates harm in numerous ways” but also “enacts violence.” As in other cases of
internet shaming, people who apparently had not read the offending article were
eager to display their virtue by condemning it. An open letter calling for the article’s
retraction gathered more than 500 signatories. And a majority of the journal’s board
of associate editors posted a “profound apology” on Hypatia’s Facebook page, stating
categorically that the article “should not have been published.”

As news of the controversy spread, philosophers and others pushed back against
the attacks. They challenged the criticisms of Dr. Tuvel’s article, questioned the
harms it was said to have caused and underscored the harms to Dr. Tuvel herself, an
untenured female professor. They deplored academia’s “poisonous call-­out culture”
and the practices of policing and intimidation that kept many who supported Dr.
Tuvel in private from defending her in public. And Hypatia’s editor issued a strong,
though somewhat belated, statement defending the publication of the article.

One of the criticisms of Dr. Tuvel was that she failed to engage the full range of
literature relevant to her argument. As it happens, I have published a book that
analyzes the shifting terrain of race and ethnicity through the multifaceted lens of
the transgender experience — encompassing not just the movement from one
category to another but the staking out of positions between and beyond existing

I argue that transracial is a productively disruptive concept because it can
unsettle the taken­-for-­granted assumptions about the stability and naturalness of
racial categories on which the reproduction of the racial order depends. The term
also brings into focus the ways in which racial and ethnic identities have already
become more fluid in recent decades. Sociologists have documented substantial
shifts in racial identification from one census to the next, and from one social
context to another. Ancestry, increasingly understood as mixed, has begun losing its
authority over identity. And race and ethnicity, like gender, have come to be
understood as something we do, not just something we have.

Of course, race is also — crucially — something others do to us, and
opportunities for ethnoracial re-­identification remain unequally distributed both
across and within racial groups. Yet that is not a good reason for banning the term
“transracial.” I was therefore deeply troubled by the attempt to shut down, rather
than critically engage, Dr. Tuvel’s argument.

But the Tuvel affair raises issues that go beyond the controversial notion of
transracialism. First, it invites reflection on what might be called “epistemological
insiderism.” This is the belief that identity qualifies or disqualifies one from writing
with legitimacy and authority about a particular topic. Few would argue directly that
who we are should govern what we study. But subtler forms of epistemological
insiderism are at work in the practice of assessing scholarly arguments with central
reference to the identity of the author. Does the often-­mentioned fact that Dr. Tuvel
is white and cisgender (as am I) disqualify her from raising certain questions? Is her
identity relevant to assessing her argument for according more weight to an
individual’s racial self­-identification and less weight to ancestry?

Epistemological insiderism not only stakes out certain domains as belonging to
persons with certain identities; it also risks boxing persons with those identities into
specific domains. It risks conveying the patronizing and offensive expectation that
members of racial and ethnic minorities will focus their scholarship on race and

The attacks on Dr. Tuvel also raise troubling questions about the regulation of
speech in academic settings. As claims to find speech harmful or offensive have
proliferated in academia, so have debates about micro-­aggressions, trigger warnings,
speech codes and campus invitations to controversial outside speakers. Conservative
commentators accuse universities of censorship and talk piously of academic
freedom, conveniently forgetting that it is conservative state legislatures and
appointed boards of governors who really threaten academic freedom at public
universities, through threats to defund research and teaching activities they do not

Overt threats to academic freedom, like the Hungarian government’s attempt to
shut down the Central European University, can be directly challenged. The more
insidious danger is that of self­-censorship. Will teachers avoid assigning
controversial materials or discussing controversial views in class? Will professors
stop exploring controversial topics in their research? The risks are much higher for
those, like Dr. Tuvel, without the security of tenure. But even tenured faculty may
opt to stick with safe topics. Reflecting on the Tuvel affair, the tenured feminist
philosopher Chloe Taylor wondered “if I should not write or teach on certain topics
that make me vulnerable to attack.”

Todd Gitlin’s devastating observation about the debilitating consequences of the
left’s cultural politics — “while the right has been busy taking the White House, the
left has been marching on the English department” — dates from the ’90s, but it has
lost none of its pertinence. Only now the battle lines are drawn within the cultural
left; the English department was conquered long ago. The spectacle of the left
devouring its own children — and of emancipatory liberalism turning into its
opposite — may read as farce. But in the context of the wider political emergency we
face, the obsessively inward focus of the cultural left can also be understood as

Rogers Brubaker is a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles,
and the author, most recently, of “Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled

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