If someone can identify as a different gender, can the same happen with race?

In April 2015 Caitlyn Jenner revealed her true identity to the world. While her body, her cells, her DNA said one gender, her mind was screaming another; she was female, and needed to live as such in order to be her “authentic self”.

Of course, there were – and are – those that decried Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner as “unnatural”, that – as Barry Humphries so delicately put it – she was nothing more than “a mutilated man”. But for the most part, we accepted the former Olympic decathlete’s right to undertake that transition as a transgender woman. Pronouns were replaced, awards given, endorsement deals signed, magazine covers graced.

But around the same time, a white American woman named Rachel Dolezal claimed to be black. Her body, her cells, her ancestry said one race but, in her mind at least, she was African American.

The reaction to her revelation was anything but congratulatory.

what is transracial
Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. Images: Getty and NBC.

It's the distinction between the response to these women that a US philosopher named Rebecca Tuvel pointed out recently in an hugely controversial article for feminist-philosophy journal, Hypatia.

Titled 'In Defense of Transracialism', the April piece led to a ferocious backlash that ultimately saw it scrapped by the publishers and debated by media around the world.

But what exactly is transracialism, and why is everyone so fired up about it?


What does transracialism mean?

Transracialism, in this context, is the theory that someone can identify with a race other than that with which they were born.

It uses the idea that race is a social construct - that it's something we perform or 'do' rather than something we have - and holds that it's therefore possible for someone to change races.

The term transracialism is actually traditionally used in relation to cross-racial adoptions, that is when a child of a certain race is raised in a family of another and denied intimate knowledge of his/her birth culture. Members of the Stolen Generation are an example of this.

But Dolezal shifted that definition when she referred to herself as "transracial" during a 2015 interview with the US Today Show to explain her racial 'transition'.

What's the deal with Dolezal?

Quick refresher. Dolezal was a former branch president of the US's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who was “outed” as a white woman in 2015 after years claiming she was black.

She argued on the Today Show that she wasn't 'pretending', that she'd always identified as a black woman. In making her point, she famously told the interviewer that from the age of five she would draw herself "with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon".

Why are people so offended by transracialism?

Firstly, it suggests that someone can understand the lived experience of another race.

In the case of Dolezal, that she could know what it means to be part of a community that's endured slavery, the civil rights struggle, modern-day racism, police brutality.

Others argue that, in this case, it's no more than blackface. There's no doubt that a Caucasian woman tightly curling her hair and darkening her skin is uncomfortably similar to the 19th century minstrel tradition, in which white people would dress up and perform mocking, offensive caricatures of African Americans.

Transgender teen Georgie Stone chats to Mia Freedman. Post continues below...

But yet another fundamental problem with transracialism is the comparison to those who are transgendered.

Why? Well, aside from undermining the uniquely complex cultural and social struggles that trans people experience... science. (I know, but stick with me.)

While gender identity is certainly hugely social, researchers also believe that its partly genetic; that there are markers in our brains that are 'female' or 'male'. With that comes a growing body of evidence that there are at least some biological explanations for transgender identity; among the most compelling of which are studies that point to reception of estrogen levels in the womb.

Dolezal as a teen, and as an adult. Images: NBC.

The same cannot be said for race. As Associate Professor Michael Yudell explained to The Huffington Post last year, scientists have largely dismissed the idea that racial differences beyond superficial physical features have any basis in genetics. What this means is that there are no genes that exclusively belong to Aboriginal people or to African American people, for example, and therefore no current biological explanation for race identity.

This is basically a complicated way of saying that current science suggests that many transgendered people are likely - to quote LGBTQI icon Lady Gaga - to be "born this way", while transracial people are not.

So is being transracial real?

Well, in the sense that someone is largely free to choose their identity - racial or otherwise - yes. It's not possible to argue with Dolezal that she 'feels' black.

However, critics would argue that what she's experiencing is cultural or psychological, and therefore would perhaps be better referred to as 'race dysphoria'.

What do you think about the idea of transracialism? Tell us in the comments below.