Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, and the Shifting Boundaries of Identity

Transracialism may and may not be as legitimate as transgenderism in the modern push for fluidity of identity categories.

June 2015, well over a year and a half ago: Rachel Dolezal, then president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, was outed by her own parents as white. The scandal went viral, prompting a broad public discussion about both the inauthenticity of Dolezal’s claims to be black and the presumed illegitimacy of transracialism in general. Also that summer, the public affirmed Caitlyn Jenner’s transition from male to transwoman, helping to mainstream transgender as an identity category.

The concurrence of the Jenner and Dolezal affairs constituted the first time that mainstream media and the public directly compared transgenderism and transracialism, summarily concluding that the latter is “not a thing”. Sociology professor Rogers Brubaker, an expert in systems of classification and how they change, takes on this “unusual moment of vernacular sociology” in his new book, Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities, published by Princeton University Press.

Dolezal has recently made headlines again for two reasons. First: She legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, drawing from the Nigerian and Fulani languages. Second: She claims to be practically homeless, a social exile who must now rely on food stamps. The timing is conspicuous, considering the 28 March release of Dolezal’s memoir. Its title alone — In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World — has encouraged little but mockery. A firestorm of sarcasm will surely accompany the memoir’s release. Before assuming all over again that “trans-Rachel” and transracial are two sides of the same plug nickel, read Brubaker’s clear-eyed, eye-opening book to see ways in which transracialism may and may not be considered as legitimate as transgenderism in the modern push for fluidity of identity categories.

Keep in mind that Trans does not focus a cultural-critical eye on Jenner and Dolezal themselves, as media-constructed icons in pop culture, nor a biographical eye on them as private individuals. Readers are provided with thorough accounts of each story’s development but in service of a sociologist’s objective: making sense of gender and race as the stories overlapped, particularly making sense of how the public has made sense of gender and race in an age of already unsettled identity categories. Brubaker therefore spends a healthy amount of page-time clarifying various terms, their origins and evolutions. For example, I did not know that “transracial” stemmed from a growing potential for interracial adoption, first used to describe families composed of more than one race — specifically black and white. The term had a negative connotation in the early ’70s, as both blacks and whites were largely against transracial families.

Brubaker structures his book around three forms of trans experience, a progression at once conceptual and generational. What he calls the Trans of Migration constitutes a problematic “unidirectional trajectory” from one sex or race to another, a never-look-back transition that for various reasons proved compulsory until the late ’80s. An increasing number of people coming of age in the ’80s and ’90s, however, embraced the Trans of Between, as defiant of male-female and white-nonwhite binaries as trapped in reference to them. Think of early-’80s androgyny, or so-called “wiggerism” in the ’90s. Category-resistant millennials have tried to surpass the binaries altogether, cultivating a Trans of Beyond through anti-categorical categories like queer and multiracial as well as the gender neutral they/them pronoun option.

Each of these three forms gets a central chapter in which it is broken down into another three forms or types, reading a bit like a college course — and a worthwhile one, I should say. What doesn’t fit into his compact 151 pages is addressed in 30 pages of endnotes or cited in the 45-page bibliography. Brubaker’s academic precision is much aided by his dexterity with qualifiers and open-endedness. That he often leads with gender and follows up with race may seem conspicuous or unbalanced, but it’s done to the degree that the scholarship has unequally developed.

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So much more has been written about transgender experiences than transracial, and the public has come into more complex (if inconsistent) ways of talking about gender performativity and the fluidity of gender identity. Brubaker is careful not to equate race and gender, or even to examine race through the lens of gender, per se, instead encouraging “thinking with trans” in a wider manner, an awkward phrasing but it means that “the fluidity and artificiality of gender can be leveraged to highlight aspects of the fluidity and artificiality of race.” Where gender and race diverge — in the policing of identity claims, in the reasons for trans migrations, in the relevance of ancestry, in “the cultural logic of authenticity”, and in the politicization of Jenner versus Dolezal — is even more profound than where they overlap. By identifying the divergences so astutely, the book does its most important work.

The takeaway, as revealed by the Jenner-Dolezal moment, seems at certain angles paradoxical: “[D]espite the evident biological basis of sex differences — a biological basis that is utterly lacking for racial differences — it is more socially legitimate to choose and change one’s sex (and gender) than to choose and change one’s race.” Contemporary understandings of gender identity, as with sexual orientation, tend to draw upon born-this-way-ness and a rejection of biological destiny: “[C]hanging one’s gender does not mean changing one’s gender identity; it means changing the way one is recognized and is classified.” For the moment, however, “our conceptual and linguistic resources for thinking about race make it nearly impossible to imagine racial identity in a similar way.”

Looking back at the summer of 2015 and the public debate over Dolezal, Brubaker sees a missed opportunity. It was too easy to get caught up in the snarky dismissal of Dolezal, a dismissal not unwarranted considering how she deceptively presented an older black male friend as her biological father. More important, at any rate, are the challenging questions that readers of Brubaker’s Trans will be asking themselves about how they individually make sense of gender and race, identity categories and fluidity, nature and choice.

RATING 8 / 10