treats the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” in the intertwined discussion of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal as an intellectual opportunity rather than a political provocation. I situate the Dolezal affair in the context of the massive destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks, which has significantly enlarged the scope for choice and self-fashioning in the domains of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality. Anxieties about opportunistic, exploitative, or fraudulent identity claims have generated efforts to “police” unorthodox claims – as well as efforts to defend such claims against policing – in the name of authentic, objective, and unchosen identities. Instead of a shift from given to chosen identities, as posited by theories of reflexive modernity, we see a sharpened tension between idioms of choice, autonomy, subjectivity, and self-fashioning on the one hand and idioms of givenness, essence, objectivity, and nature on the other.Brubaker comments
Just ten days after a corseted Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, marking a new stage in the mainstreaming of transgender identity, Rachel Dolezal, the 37 year old president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, who had long presented herself as black, was “outed” as white by her parents. Dolezal resigned a few days later, but she insisted in a series of interviews that she was “definitely … not white” and that she “identif[ied] as black.”1 Not surprisingly, the Jenner story – and the transgender phenomenon more generally – served as a key point of reference in the ensuing discussion. If Caitlyn Jenner could legitimately identify, and be accepted, as a woman, did this mean that Rachel Dolezal could legitimately identify, and be accepted, as black? If Jenner could be recognized as transgender, could Dolezal be recognized as transracial? If gender could be chosen, could race be chosen as well?
Within hours of the breaking of the story, the hashtag “transracial” had started to trend on Twitter. The term was deployed largely as a political provocation on the cultural right, intended to embarrass the cultural left for embracing Jenner while censuring Dolezal. And it was taken as a provocation by the cultural left, which categorically rejected the “if Jenner, then Dolezal” syllogism and proclaimed that transracial was “not a thing.”
I treat the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” as an intellectual opportunity rather than a political provocation. The Dolezal affair was a new kind of “trans moment”: it marked the migration of “trans” from the domain of sex and gender to a much broader domain of public social thought and commentary. As historian Susan Stryker (2015) observed, trans narratives have become a kind of “master story for other kinds of bodily transformations that similarly pose problems regarding the social classification of persons.” Participants in the Dolezal affair were no longer just thinking about trans; they were thinking with trans. I step back from the flurry of controversy that the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” occasioned – and from efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal – to analyze what the controversy reveals about the constitutive tensions in the micropolitics of sex/gender and racial/ethnic identity and difference.
I begin by situating the Dolezal affair in its broader context, characterized by the increasing complexity and fluidity of the landscape of identities. The massive destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks has significantly enlarged the scope for choice in the domains of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality. Yet the enlargement of choice has generated anxieties about unnatural, opportunistic, exploitative, or fraudulent identity claims. And this, in turn, has generated efforts to police questionable claims in the name of authentic, objective, and unchosen identities, as well as attempts to justify unorthodox claims in the name of such identities. Instead of a shift from given to chosen identities, as posited by theories of reflexive modernity, we see a sharpened tension – in everyday identity talk, public discourse, and even academic analysis – between idioms of choice, autonomy, subjectivity, and self-fashioning on the one hand and idioms of givenness, essence, objectivity, and nature on the other.
With this as context, I turn to the Dolezal affair itself. I show how comparisons of race and gender were deployed to stake out, defend, and attack particular positions within a space of positions defined by the stance taken on two questions: Can one legitimately change one's gender? And can one legitimately change one's race?
The commonsense sociology deployed in the Dolezal affair was interesting and revealing in its own terms. Governed by the “logic of the trial” (Wacquant 1997), however, analysis was largely subordinate to efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal. I conclude by suggesting that the larger significance of the affair for the social sciences lies in the opening it provides for the development of a more nuanced and reflexive comparative analysis of the micropolitics of sex/gender and racial/ethnic identity and difference. While the participants in the controversy were “thinking with trans” in an often narrow and partisan way, the affair provides an opportunity to think with trans in a broader and potentially generative way about the micropolitics of embodied identities in an era of categorical flux.
Analyzing race and ethnicity in relation to sex and gender, as the Dolezal affair invites us to do, is not without its risks and difficulties.2 The relation between race and ethnicity and sex and gender is not just a theoretical question; it is a practical question. Analogies between race and sex have been central to the development of antidiscrimination law and practice, for example, and to the emergence of the “inclusion and difference paradigm” in biomedical research (Epstein 2007). Such analogical reasoning has been criticized for privileging comparison over intersectionality (Mayeri 2001, 1048–1051). Yet it remains important to consider both the similarities in the workings of categorical difference across domains (Tilly 1998) and the ways in which race/ethnicity and sex/gender operate as “different differences” (Epstein 2007; Brubaker 2015: Chapter 1). The Dolezal affair provides an unusual opportunity for doing so.
A final preliminary word about the scope of the argument. While some aspects of the discussion are US-specific – notably those relating to the distinctive American history of race – other aspects are relevant to a broader range of societies in which prevailing categorical frameworks of ethnoracial and sex/gender difference have been unsettled in recent decades as a result of demographic, cultural, and political changes. The scope of different strands of the argument should be clear from the context.