Friday, August 07, 2009

Transrace and transgender (by Suzie)

History yields all sorts of examples of people who have taken on characteristics they associate with a different race, such as white minstrels who mimicked blacks, white teens who adopted ghetto styles, and people of color who passed as white.

For now, and for the most part, I’m going to focus on people who move from a privileged position to an oppressed one: men becoming women, and whites becoming people of color.

In her online preface to “Racechange: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture,” Susan Gubar sees various motivations for whites. In some cases, they are making fun of a different race. Other times, they get pleasure – maybe a sense of freedom or rebellion or solidarity – by doing something they associate with the Other.

In the progressive blogosphere, a man or woman can say that a woman isn’t a woman if they don’t like her politics (as happened with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin). They can criticize another man for being too much like a woman (he has no balls!). And it’s OK for a man to dress like a woman for a laugh or a drag show or the transition to becoming a woman.

A person of color can question another POC’s credentials as a member of their race (Is Obama black or black enough?) but a white liberal shouldn’t. Nor could a white liberal criticize another white by comparing him to a person of color. It’s not OK for a white liberal to put on blackface, although we do adopt aspects of other cultures that we like.

What about transitioning to another race? That seems pretty rare, with the exception of those who have fabricated American Indian pasts or taken on an Indian identity for spiritual reasons. White people (like me) can be ridiculed even for claiming Indian heritage, even if it’s true, even if we weren't the ones who hid it originally, even if we didn't make up the rules on who gets to claim tribal membership.

Consider Alice Echols’ review of Carol Cohen McEldowney’s “Hanoi Journal 1967” in the July/August 2008 Women’s Review of Books:
Before arriving in Hanoi, she admits something about Vietnamese revolutionaries “touches the most romantic stirring in me – the feeling that makes me wish to be Vietnamese (and, at other times, black).” This sort of transracial identification verges on the parodic (indeed filmmaker John Waters offers an affectionate send-up of it in Hairspray), but it was not unusual among white youth of the sixties, even if it is considered so politically retrograde today that it’s rarely mentioned in memoirs of the period.
Why would it be so unacceptable for whites to become another race, if it’s acceptable for men to become women?

Last year, an NPR piece on transgender included an interview with Toronto psychologist Ken Zucker, who specializes in gender identity issues. I have various disagreements with him, but I was intrigued by his idea of a fictitious “racial identity disorder.”
Suppose you were a clinician and a 4-year-old black kid came into your office and said he wanted to be white. Would you go with that? ... I don't think we would," Zucker says.

If a black kid walked into a therapist's office saying he was really white, the goal of pretty much any therapist out there would be to make him try to feel more comfortable being black. They would assume his mistaken beliefs were the product of a dysfunctional environment — a dysfunctional family or a dysfunctional cultural environment that led him or her to engage in this wrongheaded and dangerous fantasy.
I think the same would be true if a white child said he wanted to be another race. (See my previous post for an example.)

In another post, I argued that it would be hard to isolate cultural influences when searching for a biological basis for transgender. When a boy wants to wear a dress or play with baby dolls, how do we determine whether he’s driven by biology or culture?

Similarly, we live in a society that assigns all sorts of cultural stuff to race. It’s conceivable that a white might be born thinking like a “right-brained, subject-oriented” African who has a different meter and tonality, as described by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright last year. Some whites feel so alienated that they move to other countries where they feel more at home. How can we say there is no biological basis to that, if there’s a biological basis to gender?

Until I have more evidence, I believe race and gender are social constructs. For the most part, scientists continue to move away from the idea that different races think and act differently because of biology. But the idea that men and women have different brains seems to be quite popular these days. Maybe that’s why liberals accept transgender but would be less accepting of transrace.

Perhaps the medical response to intersexed children – in which they had to be either one sex or the other, with genital surgery determining which sex – paved the way for gender reassignment surgery among transgendered people. The same dichotomous thinking does not exist in regard to race in the medical world.

Unlike genitalia and gender, ancestry has been used to determine race, not necessarily physical attributes. Thus, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP (1931-1955), was seen as African-American because he had black parents, even though he was a white-skinned, blue-eyed blond, as was his mother.

Sexuality and gender are tightly linked. Maybe white liberal acceptance of differences in sexuality led to the acceptance for transgender. Many white liberals believe that people are born desiring one or both sexes, or that sexuality is so strongly ingrained that people can’t be forced to change. On the other hand, many white liberals would be embarrassed to say they find one race attractive and not another.

How do you make sense of all of this?