PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

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.


Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Length: 236 pages
Author: Rogers Brubaker
Publication date: 2016-10
Affiliate
Amazon

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.


Please don't ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.

Thank you.


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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.