“Belief in witchcraft didn’t disappear because science disproved it, but because it ultimately became something people couldn’t take seriously in the world of everyday life. Right now people take race seriously, they think it’s something that nature has bestowed.” —Barbara Fields.
“You have to actually start opposing the categories of race if you want to transcend the hierarchies and caste systems they impose.” —Thomas Chatterton Williams.
In a April 19 letter, “American Humanist Association Board Statement Withdrawing Honor from Richard Dawkins,” the AHA states that “Richard Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values.” On this basis, the AHA rescinded Dawkins’ 1996 Humanist of the Year Award.
I have not in the past been particularly fond of Dawkins and his reductionistic neo-Darwinian standpoint. (For reference, see my 2013 blog Dawkins, Liberalism, and the New Atheism, as well as a 2009 scientific presentation The Myth of Extraordinary Evil in which he is mentioned. But I have also defended him: Muslims are Not a Race. So why are Academics and Journalists Treating Them as if They Were?). However, as a humanist, I find the actions of the AHA deeply troubling.
In discussing the controversy, I necessarily delve into the substance of these matters. Your patience and tolerance is greatly appreciated. I should emphasize (even though I shouldn’t have to) the difference between, on the one hand, agreeing with a man’s thesis, and, on the other hand, defending his right to advance his thesis without consequences.
I should also remind readers (even though I shouldn’t have to) that, as a left-libertarian, I have no objection to persons identifying as any gender they wish or no gender at all. I write about these things because I am dissatisfied by the answers to the questions such matters raise. In any case, as I hope will become clear, this essay is really about race, not about gender. (I really hate it that I have to fret over this).
Humanism is system of thought emphasizing the practice of apprehending the world through rational and rigorous methods, with attention to empirical evidence and interrogating this apprehension in open dialogue. It is antithetical to humanist values to subordinate free thought and inquiry to ideology. It seems therefore that, in light of its decision to retroactively cancel Dawkins, the American Humanist Association is effectively not a secular humanist organization at all but an organization interested in adhering to a consensus reality authored by the Woke crowd and punishing those who deviate from its political-ideological line.
Attempting to cancel a biologist for addressing an issue about which he is preeminently qualified—sex is a biological matter and gender is only relatively independent of sex—is a clear indicator that the AHA is more concerned about gender ideology than about defending the principle of rational interrogation of claims made about reality. Whether its stand is because these politics have been taken to heart, or it is out of fear of the mob, it is either way an unfortunate development.
First, the AHA accuses Dawkins of using scientific discourse as a guise to demean marginalized groups. What evidence is there that Dawkins is being insincere? (I provide his tweet above for your consideration.) Second, the AHA has the matter precisely backwards. Humanism elevates the value of scientific discourse above those derived from other sources. A proper humanist would never prioritize the feelings of a marginalized group over the pursuit of the truth.
Why should the feelings of the marginalized be more sacred than the feelings of the majority? That sounds like religious dogma to me. Why is it okay for a trans person to feel erased by language denying that trans women are women but not okay for women to feel erased by language denying that there is no difference between men and women? Is this sides-taking warranted? On what rational grounds? For another thing, subordinating the pursuit of the truth to subjective feelings is a tactic used by authoritarians to silence debate and discussion.
Yet, without irony, the AHA argues that Dawkins’ “latest statement implies that the identities of transgender individuals are fraudulent, while also simultaneously attacking Black identity as one that can be assumed when convenient.” (Note that “Black” is capitalized. That is not an error. It answers the question of whether wokeness has been taken to heart. The AHA is working from decided conventions and slogans.)
By accusing Dawkins of suggesting that transgender individuals are fraudulent because Rachel Dolezal (aka Nkechi Amare Diallo), arguably the most notorious instantiation of transracialism, has been portrayed by the media and Woke activists as a fraud, the AHA is shirking the hard work of understanding Dolezal’s situation and taking on the problem of transracialism. The AHA is presuming as proved that which requires proving.
It is not difficult to provide a compelling explanation for Dolezal’s racial identification. The fact that Dolezal’s siblings (four of them) were black likely affected her own sense of racial identity. Identity is, after all, learned. Identity is the result of socialization. Dolezal came to identify more with their race than her own.
The Economist, in a June 2015 essay “Blurred Lines,” details Dolezal’s biography—her black husband, her Howard University education, her stint as president of a NAACP chapter—and concludes, “It’s hard to doubt her commitment.” Indeed. She continues to identify as black. Race is a social construct certainly no less than gender (really more so, since sex is a biological matter). Dismissing a complex matter as “fraudulent” is intellectually lazy and, moreover, presumptuous. It uncritically accepts a line of attack by those who advance the cause of race essentialism.
What does it mean to say that race is a social construct? Race is constructed by the ideology and system of racism. This operates at two levels. The first is the ideology of racial classification and the associated hierarchy. The second is social segmentation based on this ideology—or justified by it. Race does not exist apart from these aspects.
Since the system of racism has been dismantled, it arguably exists now only as an ideological entity. But one thing is for sure: race is not a natural category. It is not a discovered thing. It is an invented thing: a social and cultural imposition. Moreover race is a recent development. Emerging with capitalism, it was designed to control the working class by dividing workers.
Race was consciously created by the capitalist class in a dynamic Barbara Fields has usefully termed “racecraft.” Field’s argues that race is a classification created by racism, an ideology that supposes the human species is meaningfully differentiated based on ancestry and phenotype. Colonial powers wrote laws defining and dividing populations and developed an ideological system that rationalized exploitation in terms of innate racial differences. Given this, instead of reifying race by treating it as a fixed and objective things, one should instead ask why those who claim to be moved by the demands of social justice are so keen on maintaining the system of racial caste by mocking, ostracizing, and punishing those who seek either to identify as a different race or as no race at all.
Dawkins is pursuing a rather obvious problem prompted by his acceptance of the scientific materialist worldview: Why, if a person can deny her genotype, as in the case of asserting a change in gender or abandonment of gender altogether, and even in some cases the reality of sexual dimorphism, can she not also deny a classification developed on the basis of arbitrary and socially-selected phenotypic traits, namely race? (This is apart from the distinction between identity and identification. There is what one thinks of oneself and then there is what others think of him. And whether he passes. Dolezal passes.)
Whether citing similarities or differences between gender and race, there is a burden to show why switching or abandoning races is disallowed. It will not do to merely note opposition to transracialism by some black people. Some black people do not circumscribe speech or determine truth. Opposition to transgenderism by some women is dismissed as valid grievance. Indeed, women who oppose transgenderism are referred to a TERFs (transexclusionary radical feminists), and they—and anybody else who raises questions—risk a diagnoses of transphobia.
For the woke, Dawkins isn’t even allowed to ask the question.
An article for the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia by chair of philosophy at Rhodes College Rebecca Tuvel could have served as a warning to Dawkins.
In her article, Tuvel argues that “since we should accept transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races.” Finding that there is no objective difference between the categories—that is, neither gender nor race are biological based (an arguable assumption)—it follows that “one’s ‘actual’ race is a matter of social definition.” Tuvel determines that “we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume.” (In her article, she knocks down four arguments uses against transracialism that could be used against transgenderism: whites do not suffer racism, reckoning of ancestry, harm to blacks, and expression of privilege.)
One might have expected that Tuvel would get credit for advancing the transgender cause, but by also advancing the transracial cause, she offended transactivists. She was accused of, to use a mouthful from Nora Berenstain from the University of Tennessee (from where I received my doctorate), “egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence.” Berenstain wondered where the black transwomen philosophers were in her references (at the time, there were only around a dozen professional black philosophers in a field of more than ten thousand). Berenstain was furthermore upset because Tuvel “deadnamed” Caitlyn Jenner, and her references to male-to-female transition promoted “the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege.” A majority of Hypatia’s editorial board apologized for publishing the article, there were resignations (including the editor-in-chief), and the journal was restructured. Fortunately, Tuvel enjoyed wide support in the academic community. In the end, the attempt to cancel her failed. So will the attempt to cancel Dawkins.
I come back to this question: Why are antiracists so insistent that persons must remain identified by arbitrary classifications assigned at birth? I have several additional questions. Why do those who act as if they want to radically expand personal freedom insist on attaching to those who wish to jettison an imposed identity that risks oppression? If being white is a privileged status, as the antiracists tell us, then why deny a black person access to a white identity? Will blacks will soon be allowed to identify as white (why would they, given the way in which whiteness is portrayed as the cause of all misery in the world?), with whites not having the option because, you know, the direction of power? If race switching erases race, why would that be a bad thing? Shouldn’t humanists be for the emancipation of individuals from the oppressive system of racial classification—just as they for the emancipation of individuals from the oppressive system of religious classification? Race is, as Fields tells us, an ideology. Why would one make the desire of a white woman to be a black woman a matter of “convenience”? Given that blacks are chief victims of systemic racism, why would people choose to subject themselves to such oppression?
What if Dolezal feels that her desire identify as a black women is her authentic self? I have had it said to me that a white person could not know what it feels like to be black, that worldview is tied to skin color. As if white identity is some substance that squirts out of a person identified as whites—and that substance allows in no blackness. How could we know whether this is true? The answer is circular: because the white person is white. How about because we are our bodies? If we are secular humanists, it is not as if we subscribe to souls. Then why is this not true for gender? How can a man know what it feels like to be a woman? If a white person cannot be black because white privilege is inescapable, then how is male privilege escapable? We allow men to escape but not whites? Are those able to detect authentic selves along lines of gender unable to detect authentic selves along the lines of race? Perhaps the science of the authentic self should be specified so we can explore the possibilities.
There is a deep scientific problem here that cannot be skirted by noting that there are some who take offense to starting the problem and, as best I can tell, after weeding out the postmodernist jargon, that is the only objection. I remain open minded, but I need a rational justification. By what authority are we disallowed from asking scientific questions? The church? The Woke Church? As for the moral question, as I understand it, while struggles remain, the transgender question is largely settled. No less a power than the United States government is behind the movement. If the principle at the core of the movement is that people should be in control of their identity, then who is anybody to tell Dolezal that she is not really a black woman (or a black man) if that’s how she feels?
The attack on Dolezal was vicious. Imagine calling a man crazy for thinking he is a woman. But that’s different, we are told. Why is the race lane so fixed? What exactly is the science here? I have yet to hear a compelling reason for why a person must identify as a particular race. Is that why one is not supposed to raise the question? (For more, see Adolph Reed, Jr.’s From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much, in Common Dreams.)