In 2015, a woman named Rachel Dolezal resigned as President of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Why? Because it was revealed that she was white. She’d spent a decade of her life making false claims about being black, many other aspects of her life, and several alleged hate crimes against her.
Some would say that these claims weren’t false and that this identity, called “trans-black” by Dolezal, is legit. Others would say that Dolezal’s case is obviously ludicrous and, from there, attack the notion of transness.
To find answers in this mess, we need to go back to basics.
What exactly is Dolezal’s “trans-black” identity in theory? She described it to the Guardian as a mindset. “There is a black side and a white side on all kinds of issues, whether it’s political, social, cultural… To say that I’m black is to say, this is how I see the world.”
In her interview with Dolezal for The Stranger, writer Ijeoma Oluo crushes this idea of a trans-black identity.
Oluo writes: “You can be extremely light-skinned and still be black, but you cannot be extremely or even moderately dark-skinned and be treated as white — ever.”
This brings us back around to gender. If trans-black isn’t real, then how can transgender be real? Are trans women just men who are redefining gender so they can be the centre of the universe? Are trans men just women trying to break out of an oppressive caste system?
Essentially, the answer is that the rules of gender, such as we can understand it, are different to the rules of race. Which brings us to transgender people.
Unless you’ve had some sort of accident with a mallet, a dozen rubber bands, and two wildly irresponsible physicists, you’re reading this in a time period when transgender people are no longer swept under the rug. They are, at the very least, regarded as delusional rather than simply not existing. All the same, you might be confused by all the hullabaloo if you’re not trans yourself (and, let’s be honest, even if you are).
This is because it’s a broad concept. The word ‘trans’ is a blanket term for a lot of different things. Essentially, ‘trans’ covers anyone who transgresses the boundaries of “boys have willies and girls have vagoo.”
‘Trans’ may encompass (but isn’t limited to) people who are transgender, genderqueer, agender, or bigender.
Most people will be, to put it politely, sceptical of these apparently newfangled terms. That scepticism, while understandable, is unfounded. It’s based on being taught a particular set of false ideas about gender all your life, and then have someone come in and try to explain to you the complex truth.
There isn’t an easy fix to this; it’s going to continue to be confusing to newcomers for some time, and no amount of Adventure Time moralising can work around that. But you have to understand that in this situation, the confusion of cis people isn’t the focus. It’s your responsibility to listen to what trans people have to say and take them at their word, at least when they’re talking about their own experiences.
Before too long, trying to defend the existence of transness will feel like defending the existence of the moon or sun. It’s just there, and it’s difficult to conceptualise how there could be any confusion.
The point here is that gender is a social construct, and race is a social construct, but now that I’ve explained them, hopefully you can see that they’re constructed in very different ways. You can’t draw an equivalency between them. You can’t say that the rules apply for race and Dolezal the same as for gender and trans people in the same way that you can’t start paying for your weekly shop at Aldi with yen.
Let’s finish by bringing this back to race as a social construct and individual identity. As said previously, race may not have a biological basis, but it’s real in the way that laws or the economy or sports leagues are real. However, as society becomes more multiracial and there are more mixed race people around, it’s difficult to say exactly what the nature of that social construct is.
Dolezal highlights this ambiguity. You don’t have to think that she’s black or that transgender people are delusional to see that she’s raised questions about what makes black people black. Is it culture? Is it your ancestry? Is it your experience? Is it a combination? If you’re black but pass as white and suffer less hate crimes accordingly, are you less black? If not, why not? What if a child was born to white parents then adopted by black parents (incidentally, this circumstance is the correct use of the word ‘transracial’ which Dolezal has basically ruined forever)?
There’s no obvious answer to whether someone in that situation is black, white, or something else. Asking the question opens the inherent ambiguity of the concept of race. But we can recognise this ambiguity without humouring a white woman who thinks she’s black because she’s wearing fake tan.