Stepping into Oppression

“The opposite of courage is not cowardice. It’s conformity.” —Earl Nightingale

“We become what we think about.” —Earl Nightingale

In his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud argues that, when a solitary person or small group of persons believe some impossible thing that depends entirely on faith, that is, a feeling and associated belief that cannot be empirically demonstrated to actually exist, such as souls or angels, the person or group is delusional. A delusion, to crib from the Internet, is “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.”

However, if millions of people believe this impossible thing, it becomes something different (but not really). It becomes an illusion. Such illusions often appear in the form of religion, where such things as the soul or angels become articles of faith that must be believed.

Since such illusions are, as with their corresponding delusions, contradicted by rational argument or what would otherwise generally be accepted as reality (if but for the illusion), it is imperative to silence those who, like the small boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 parable The Emperor Has No Clothes, who not only contributed to the mutual knowledge of the emperor’s subjects but also, not yet indoctrinated into habitual practice of denying to the obvious, had to say what everybody already knew: the emperor was naked.

To be sure, the purveyors of the illusion will try to make what appear to be arguments to persuade those around them that their worldview is the true one. The arguments will of course be circular and nonfalsifiable. The power to compel belief ultimately rests on some capacity to command the social machinery (culture, economy, and politics) and thus control people. For Freud, given human nature, such control was probably for the best. Here is where I depart Freud’s company.

* * *

A 2019 blog by Verve blogger and “child empowerment” advocate Chanju Mwanza about transracialist Rachael Dolezal concludes with this: “There is a difference between transitioning into a new gender, which doesn’t harm anyone else, and choosing to live a lie to the detriment of other people who form the oppressed group that you’re so desperate to be a part of. The whole transracial concept embodies white supremacy and the fact that white people can continue to steal from the oppressed, even by pretending to be part of the community itself.”

Similarly, Braden Hill, an aboriginal Australian at Edith Cowan University, writes, “There is a difference between affirming your gender as a trans person and choosing to live and appropriate another culture.” (See “Members can identify as black, disabled or female, university union insists,” The Times.)

Whenever I see attempts to differentiate two phenomena that the author recognizes are intuitively similar, I do a word substitution to see if the argument still works the other way around. In this case, it would look like this: There is a difference between transitioning to a new race, which doesn’t harm anyone else, and choosing to live a lie to the detriment of other people who form the oppressed group that you’re so desperate to be a part of. The whole transgender concept embodies male supremacy and the fact that men can continue to steal from the oppressed, even by pretending to be part of the community itself.

A reader might object that girls and women also adopt new identities, many of them choosing to identify as boys and men. Indeed (and Freud would have something to say about this). And what about those who choose to identify as no gender at all?

Before any reader feels moved to make this objection, know that it ignores that blacks have passed for white in an attempt (some successfully) to escape their oppressed category. Moreover, there are blacks who wish not to identify racially at all.

On this last point, consider Kmele Foster’s argument for racial abolitionism. Glenn Loury puts Foster’s position this way: “Kmele Foster, a ‘Black man’ in terms of what you’d think when you saw him, refuses to call himself a Black man or to think of himself as a ‘Black man’ and abjures the very idea that we’re gonna see each other in these racial terms. He’s for abolishing the categories of race altogether.”

Foster’s argument is indebted to that of historian Barbara Fields and sociologist Karen Fields who, in their book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, argue that the practice of racism, which involves reifying racial categories, produces the illusion of race.

What about this claim that transitioning to a new gender doesn’t harm anyone else? There are feminists across the West who are making the case that allowing trans women, who remain male, to enter women (female)-only spaces, such as bathrooms, domestic abuse centers, dressing rooms, locker rooms, and jails and prisoners, is harmful to women, as men use women’s dress as a ruse to put themselves in a position to prey on women (and children). Moreover, trans women use their new status to take advantage of opportunities and draw upon resources traditionally reserved for women in order to advance their own life chances and personal power.

(A growing body of evidence suggests that transitioning to a new gender can harm the individual undergoing the transition. See Episode 138 of Blocked and Reported, “Jon Stewart and John Oliver are Wrong about the Evidence for Puberty Blockers and Hormones” for an in-depth account of the harms associated with transitioning.)

Mwanza makes a number of arguments in her blog. None of them work very well. And, no, I did not pick her blog because it serves as a straw man. I have scoured the Internet for better arguments and have found none.

The so-called “transracialists” have appropriated the word “transracial,” Mwanza claims with some accuracy. Mwanza notes that, originally (and exclusively, in Mwanza’s view), transracial “refers to the act of adopting a child of one race or ethnic group and placing them into a family of a different race or ethnic group.” “Transracial,” she asserts, “speaks to the millions of children who are denied an intimate knowledge of their birth cultures and are constantly torn between their multiple identities by being raised in an environment different to their own racial or ethnic backgrounds.”

This is an odd argument given that ethnicity, defined as a demonstrably but relatively cohesive cultural and linguistic category, is learned. One is not born with an ethnicity (or a religion, etc). To the extent that we can say there are such things as “black” and “white” ethnicities (there is likely a category error here), then black children raised in white neighborhoods by white parents learn white ethnicity.

As for race, is this not a social construct? Are the really such things as races in natural history? Like Foster, Barbara and Karen Fields say no. So does Rachel Dolezal. To be sure, the black child looks different from the white parents, and this is the result of ancestry. But should we define ancestry in terms of race? Is the one-drop rule still in effect? Are we still applying blood quantum rules? (I have written quite a lot on this subject. See, for example, my recent blog What Lies Behind the Popular Reracialization of the Human Population? See also “Race Finished” by Jan Sapp.)

Skirting these important matters, Mwanza assumes that race and ethnicity are rooted in ancestry and therefore cannot be chosen. “Unlike gender, which is assigned to you at birth,” she writes, “your race or ethnicity is rooted in ancestry. You can’t inherit your gender but you do inherit your race. The fact that these people believe that they can pick and choose parts of the ethnicity they want and later decide to revert to their whiteness is white privilege at its worst.”

Sex or gender, whichever term you prefer, is a constellation of genotypic and phenotypic traits with which one is born. But what about blacks who have passed for white and chose or choose to do so? Is that opting into white privilege? Is it also an attempt to escape the oppressive category of blackness?

Given what I noted earlier about race and ethnicity, points on which anthropologists and sociologists generally agree, if ethnicity is cultural and race a social construct, how are these inevitably inherited given the phenomenon of transracial adoption? Race could only be assigned in the continuing presence of what the Fields describe as racecraft.

Moreover, is gender really assigned at birth? Or is it identified by the physician helping to deliver the baby with near 100 percent certainty based on objectively-ascertainable sex characteristics? We have to be careful not to allow the way activists and ideologues put things shape our grasp of reality. It’s not “It’s a boy!” because the physician assigned the label. It’s a boy because the physician, with all her experience, recognizes what it is—and is rarely wrong (as in almost never).

Mwanza claims that the new transracialists enjoy (if we let them) “the option to decide when to carry the burdens and discrimination felt by other races whilst also reaping the ‘benefits’ by taking money from organizations created to empower and help black communities.” She notes that Dolezal benefited financially for her “decision to go through adult life as a black person.” (Can a man benefit financially for his decision to go through adult live as a woman? Somebody should ask Dylan Mulvaney.)

How, if being black is an oppressed category, does a white person benefit from identifying as a member of an oppressed category? Would this not be stepping into oppression? Did Dolezal step out of privilege into oppression? Or did she step into privilege. Others, Mwanza argues, have “benefited financially from the publicity gained by coming out as ‘transracial’. They literally robbed black people of the money they deserved, and yet had the audacity to say it was fair because they ‘felt black’.”

Literally? Money deserved on what grounds? There’s an assumption here. There’s another assumption at work here, as well: that a white person cannot “feel black.” How does Mwanza know that? “Black isn’t something you can just decide to be,” she asserts. “You can’t … put on some makeup and perm your hair and assume that you’re now navigating the world as a black person.” Why not?

How does a man know what it feels like to be a woman? Or a boy a girl? Since we are our bodies, wouldn’t feeling like a woman require the experience of being one? If a woman is an “adult human female,” which has been the objective and noncircular definition in usage for millennia, then an adult human male cannot have such an experience. Knowing what it means to be a woman can only be in his imagination (even if the thought of it is enough to physically arouse some men). To be sure, he can dress like a woman, even surgically alter his body to appear as one (which rarely works), but he cannot be the genotype he isn’t. There’s no alchemy in the world that makes that possible.

Mwanza argues that trans people “don’t choose to be trans, they’re born that way.” (Is there evidence for this?) “Transitioning as a trans person [by which the author presumably means transgender person, since there are many trans category] is a violent, painful and difficult process that can result in job-loss, isolation and rejection.”

Ask Dolezal whether the transition to a black person has been a difficult process, one that resulted in job-loss, isolation, and rejection. Ask Malaika Kubwa, aka Martina Big, a German model and actress known for her “artificial transformation from a caucasian woman to a black woman,” to quote Wikipedia. What Kubwa is going through must be a painful and difficult process.

Rachel Dolezal a trans black woman

For those readers wondering, “Who is Rachel Dolezal?” If you don’t remember her, that’s the white woman who claimed to be a black woman. She still claims to be a black woman, as far as I know. (I have written about Dolezal in the past. See Racecraft and Witch Hunts. The American Humanist Association Tries Cancel Culture and The Strange Essentialisms of Identity Politics for two examples.)

At the time the Dolezal story broke back in 2015 I didn’t think about this piece of it, that, by claiming to be black, Dolezal is able to claim for herself the existential position that she is the victim of racial discrimination and oppression that blacks uniquely suffer as a class (not that other racial minorities do not suffer in their own unique way)—or that this comes with privileges. At least some would say she could claim this or that this was her aim.

As a white person, so the woke ideology goes, Dolezal cannot experience race oppression. But as a black woman, Dolezal steps into oppression. She is at least trying to be an oppressed person. Why? Because, according to Mwanza, there are benefits to being black. I wonder to what extent the benefits of being oppressed was a motivating factor for Dolezal? Claiming the oppression of others on either or both expressive and instrumental grounds does seem to be a possible motive.

But there’s another form of oppression Dolezal steps into. To the extent that people don’t believe Dolezal is really black, she can also claim to be the victim of discrimination against transracial persons, which is a growing phenomenon across the West. Denying the concept of biological race, Dolezal does claim to be “transracial.” (See Adolph Reed, Jr.’s “From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much.”)

* * *

I looked today for more about how Dolezal sees these matters and found an interview from March 2017 in Contexts by Ann Morning. Asked about the constant question put to Dolezal about how she identifies, Dolezal said, “I get fatigued by the overly simplistic race labels… Yes, Black is the closest descriptive race or culture category that represents the essential essence of who I am, and I stand unapologetically on the ‘Black side’ of the racially constructed Black/White divide. But, if I could choose a more complex label with my own terms, it might be ‘A pro-Black, Pan-African, bisexual artist, activist, and mother.’

“Most people on the street would likely feel that description is more confusing than helpful, so finding where I fit amid the binary language of our current race-based society, I could say ‘A Black woman born to White parents,’ or, if I was allowed to use a newer term (also since my parents don’t define me), I would prefer ‘A TransBlack woman.’”

Clearly, Dolezal sees herself as transracial in the new (or fallacious, according to her critics) meaning of the term. She describes her feeling as “instinctually” black and finds that feeling as “beautiful and inspirational.” “I didn’t know how to articulate that this was ‘me’ except in my drawings and playtime as a child,” she explains; “and from there I learned what was—and wasn’t—socially acceptable about how I felt.”

In describing her transitions, she says, “It felt like a long journey home. I started far away, and it just kept calling to me until I found my way fully there. Of course, feeling like I was then evicted in a sense in 2015 was painful. But it’s still home to me.”

“I connected the idea of race as a social construct with the philosophy of leaders like Dick Gregory who said that ‘White isn’t a race, it’s a state of mind.’ I knew White wasn’t my state of mind, and this gave me permission to stop repressing and be exactly who I am,” she tells the interviewer. “Whiteness feels foreign to me. It was, awkwardly, how people saw me when I was a child and how some people see me now, so I have to interact with that disconnect at times. The very idea of Whiteness, upon which the worldview of race was built, established the propaganda of White as righteous, pure, and superior. I reject this worldview and am not a member of, as James Balwin called them, ‘people who think they’re White.’”

Here is a useful exchange from the interview:

AM: Do you think there is a parallel between your racial self-identification and the gender self-identification of Caitlyn Jenner, who was heavily featured in the news at the same time as you were?

RD: Inasmuch as we were both categorized at birth as something other than what we felt—and some people will always see both of us as our birth category and nothing further—there is a parallel. I think courage and some degree of harmonizing the outer body with the inner self so people visually identify us, how we identify ourselves would be a commonality as well. There is absolutely no parallel when it comes to financial resources, which are a real factor for cushioning a nontraditional self-identity; there we part ways as super-rich versus single mom barely surviving. And there’s the difference of stigma, with gender fluidity being more widely accepted than race fluidity at this moment in history. Mainstream media didn’t shame Caitlyn in the same way I was shamed. My son, Franklin, asked me how race didn’t become fluid first, with science proving time and again it is not a biological reality. It’s a good question.

AM: What do you think of the term “transracial”?

RD: I think the former use of “transracial,” describing kids who were born with a different race label than the family they grew up in (usually via adoption) wasn’t widely known enough before 2015. So, with the spotlight on Caitlyn Jenner and then me in short succession, many people began using it to describe me, as if “transracial” was a new word and I was the front-runner of a movement. In a literal sense, I don’t like the word, because it would be like saying “transhuman” to anyone who accepts that race is fiction. And yet, if that is a term that helps people understand or is useful in creating awareness and empathy for people with a plural race identity, then I’m fine with it as a starting point. I really don’t feel like it’s up to me to decide what the word should or will mean.

The Rachel Dolezal case is an interesting case sociologically. It’s not the only case. Besides her and Kubwa, there are, among many others, Jessica Krug, a woman born to white parents who passed as black, Ja Du, a trans woman who was born to white parents and identifies as Filipina, and Old London, a white person who identifies as Korean. One wonders whether the public shaming of such individuals will deter others from following this path. I expect it won’t.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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