**DISCLAIMER** In no way is this post intended to excuse or defend the actions of Rachel Dolezal. The purpose of this is letter is to provide my personal perspective as it relates to the possibility of a transracial experience and the parallels drawn with the trans experience.
When it comes to Rachel I find her actions problematic for a whole host of reasons. However, there is no shortage of published essays explaining why.
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Joanna Cifredo. I am a 28 year old writer, feminist, aspiring journalist and unapologetic trans latina.
Recently you had a segment on Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP Chapter president that posed as black despite her European ancestry. Since this story broke, many people have drawn parallels to the trans experience. I know your desire was not to make a comparison between trans experiences and this particular case; but more to adopt the language of ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ in order to try to discuss a possible theory of transracial identity, so I would I like to give you my thoughts on the matter.
It seems to me that there are two separate conversations going on in the public sphere. One about Rachel, about her specific actions; and another one about the possibility of a transracial experience.
When it comes to these parallels I will concede and say that I can understand where people could possibly draw a comparison. In spite of this, I do think that these comparisons are a false equivalency and I will explain why. However, I acknowledge you posed an interesting question and I’d like to unpack that with you.
First off, there is the element of deception. This is an accusation that has followed trans people since trans people have existed—in other words since forever. Many cis people feel a sense of entitlement about having the right to know and investigate the legitimacy of your identity. It is believed that they have the final word about whether or not you are a “real” man or woman. Disclosure of one’s trans identity is a deeply personal one. Issues like safety, intimacy and desire must be taken into account when considering whether to disclose or not one’s trans experience. It must also be noted that having the option of disclosure is a privilege.
As your guest Allyson Hobbs mentioned on your show, similarly to cases of racial passing, passing has often been routed in a sense of survival or to gain access to certain privileges. The question is then, when presenting yourself to the world as how you want them to see you, do people have the right to investigate? Is there a line (and if yes, where is it?) between consciously and strategically misrepresenting yourself for the purpose of acquiring benefits reserved for (and hardly fought by) a historically marginalized population; and actually feeling a profound gap between your inner sense of self and your physical or anatomical traits?
I am afraid Rachel’s case fits into the first category. That of consciously and strategically misrepresenting yourself for the purpose of acquiring benefits. Unlike with trans people, here, I belief, we can actually speak of an element of deception. Not only because she actively engaged in an attempt to erase elements of her history and rewrite them to feed her narrative, but because in doing so she coerced educational boards to grant her scholarships that were reserved for women of African American descent and assumed positions of power on oversight committees that were held for African Americans. The question then becomes: What is the greater transgression, assuming an identity or accepting limited resources allocated to that identity? Specially when you come from a position of privilege.
Our social hierarchy works in one direction with Heterosexual, White, Cisgender, Males sitting at the top of that social ladder. It seems that when those who sit closer to the top of that ladder “choose” to “descend” it is viewed as a severe societal offense. Here is where I can see overlap to the trans experience. In the 60’s and 70’s during the women’s liberation movement many feminist fell into our culture’s limited view around gender. Saying things like “you cannot ‘choose’ to be a woman, you’re born a woman”, “the fact that you choose to be women is a sign of your ‘male’ privilege”, “gender is biological”.
In being part of a legacy of women who have historically been denied the authenticity of their truth, it gives me a greater sense of skepticism in denying the possible existence of transracial identity. After all, the reasons given in denying trans women their truth sound very similar too: “you cannot choose to be black, you’re born black”, “the fact that you choose to be black is a sign of your white privilege”, “race is biological”.
**Again I want to be clear that, no, transgender and transracial are not the same thing. However, I can see why people are drawing comparisons, and it may be a productive conversation for all of us as a society.**
There is another component to this comparison and that is the question about ‘Nurture vs. Nature’. The question of ‘Nurture vs. Nature’ is one that is slowly beginning to fade away from the trans community as more evidence and people arrive to the conclusion that you are in fact born trans and that there is no cognitive choice that one makes as it relates to one’s gender identity. We do not choose our gender identities if we subscribe to one at all and people do not choose to be trans, people do however choose to transition.
In affirming a nature stance we absolve the individual from all responsibility because, well, ‘You didn’t choose this, you were born this way’. Nurture is viewed as a learned behavior and if it is learned behavior, therefore is can be unlearned. This is where I think things get a little messy. When it comes to nurture I believe there are behaviors that can be unlearned and others that cannot. For example, as humans we are hardwired with the ability to learn language but we are not genetically pre-designed to a specific language. So a Korean baby who is adopted by an Italian family will grow up to speak Italian, as they were nurtured to do. That language is now hardwired into their brain as an adult they cannot unlearn Italian. Racism is also a learned behavior. I do not believe babies are born racist. I believe that family, culture, media, life experiences make someone racist. Can that behavior be unlearned? I believe so. Which leads me to this point.
I was a baby that was born in Puerto Rico and identified as female since the age of 4. Had I been adopted by a European family this would’ve been the case. Had I been born 100 years ago this would’ve been the case. On the show you asked: Could it be that you are born one way and strongly identify with a different racial group? I ask, if Rachel had been born in rural Scandinavia with no access to black culture or visual representations of black people, would she have identified herself as black?
As a trans woman of color when I choose to disclose my trans status in spaces with a majority women of color, I am often welcomed with open arms into a sisterhood. A sisterhood that is rooted in a shared struggle of marginalized womanhood. My gender identity is usually not viewed as an insult or a threat to my cis sisters identity as women. This welcoming embrace can not be said for when I disclose to men of color. The reactions are often very hostile and gender-policing, similar to the racial policing we have seen recently on social media surrounding Rachel.
You ask, if it is true that race just like gender are social constructs, why is it that we police its boundaries so harshly? Why is there a difference in the reaction I receive from women of color when it comes to gender, than Rachel when it comes to race?
Maybe you’ve already answered that question in Sister Citizen. On page 83 when citing a study of black women political attitudes you wrote: “research suggest that ‘race remains the dominant screen through which black women view politics’.”
At this moment trans movements are deconstructing our ideas around gender and actively posing the question, what makes a woman and what makes someone a man? It took us decades to ask these questions around gender and begin to forgo our outdated ideas around it.
So is transracial a thing? I don’t know. I admit that there is more that I don’t know, than what I know. It’s not my narrative. For as much as I’ve grown up around black culture, for as much as black culture has influenced my sense of self, for as much as i feel at home in black spaces and for as much black women have informed my identity as a woman; I have never shied away from owning that I am a Latina. So I don’t feel I have a place to argue neither for nor against it.
In a time when communities of color are subjected to the constant trauma of viewing the maimed bodies of black men and women on the streets of our nation, a time when young people have to proclaim with their hands held in the air that Black Lives Matter, a time when we see black feminine bodies tossed down on the street and assaulted we also see a woman assume a racial identity that—for as much beauty it carries, it also— carries a heavy burden. Therefore, it is thought-provoking, and needs to be acknowledged, that unlike the people mentioned, this particular woman has the ability to walk away from this identity. These are triggering times to say the least.
Are we ready to deconstruct what it means to be white or black? Are we ready to re-imagine our ideas around race when we can’t even come to the consensus that there are legitimate differences between the black and white experience in this country?
I think you’re right, our response to Rachel says more about us. And what I think it says is that, we may not yet be ready for that conversation.
The Struggle Continues, Joanna Cifredo
Btw I love that your show makes me think.