Transgender vs. Transracial: Is There a Moral Difference?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, Caitlyn Jenner has been in the news–Jenner is a former Olympian who is transgender and recently decided to transition from expressing traditionally male characteristics to expressing traditionally female characteristics. Aside from a few on the right, the media response was generally one of acceptance. By transitioning, Jenner realizes her vision for herself, she achieves a measure of self-actualization. This is good for her and it harms no one else. All of that seems pretty obvious to me, and I wasn’t going to bother writing about Jenner at all, because I think it’s pretty straightforward. But then this other thing happened–a woman named Rachel Dolezal showed up in the news. Dolezal is genetically a white person, but she chooses to present herself as a black person and to identify as black. The media response was very different–Dolezal was accused of pretending to be black when she is in fact a white person, of “faking it”. Many people are accusing Dolezal of appropriating black culture, of being a liar, and so on and so forth. Why are the reactions to these two women so different? Is there a difference, and if so, what’s the difference?

It’s well-established that readers like pictures, so here’s Jenner before and after:

And here’s Dolezal:

The difference in reactions highlights the disparity in the way we understand two issues that are, at bottom, similar in many respects–gender and race. In both cases, people are born with legitimate genetic differences. Men and women are different, physiologically, and the same is true of people of different races. But in our society, we tend to drastically overestimate the relevance of these genetic differences, ascribing all kinds of behaviors and phenomena to gender or racial differences. When a person is born female as opposed to male, we don’t stop at assuming that she has a female body rather than a male body–we often assume that her personality, talents, abilities, and tastes will be entirely different purely and exclusively on this basis. This begins manifesting very early in life. Parents often put their daughters in pink and their boys in blue, buy their girls dolls and their boys trains, and so on. We assume that these differences are inherent because adult men and women generally conform to them, but it is entirely possible that these differences are learned and imprinted on children when they are young, and there are certainly some adults who don’t conform to gender norms despite immense social pressure to do so. There are women who act in ways associated with masculinity and men who act in ways associated with femininity. It is by no means clear how much of the difference in behavior between men and women is attributable to fundamental biological differences and how much is due to mere socialization. Feminist theory exposes the ways we socialize boys and girls to be different and calls them into question–why should we assume that just because a person is born a boy that he likes trains, doesn’t like wearing pink, is sexually attracted to women, is more rational, or wants to be a breadwinner? Why should we assume that just because a person is born a girl that she likes dolls, is sexually attracted to men, is more emotional, or wants to be a mom?

We call these associations between sex and behavior “gender norms” or “gender stereotypes”. Feminists theory points out that these norms and stereotypes box us in. They force us to conform to gender roles that may not fit who we are on the inside. They rob us of our individuality and expose us to conformist social pressures.

Race is really quite similar, though many people have tried to find less explicit ways to affirm racist norms and stereotypes. Instead of attributing behaviors to genetic differences between black and white people, today’s racists often attribute differences to black or white culture. I call this “implicit racism”. For instance, in America, black people are often accused of being more violent or less intellectual, not because blacks are genetically different but because of a “black culture”. This is the same kind of claim, but it’s being made obscurely to help the racist avoid being identified as such. Educated people know that differences in behavior between blacks and whites are caused by material differences in the economic and social opportunities available to blacks and whites. This leads blacks to become marginalized and alienated, and marginalization and alienation produce a variety of behaviors that help individuals cope with those feelings, but may not necessarily be socially constructive. Today’s racists excuse differences in economic outcomes and opportunities by asserting that the difference is caused by the culture, when the reality is that it is the economic circumstances that fuel differences in behavior. These beliefs perpetuate a cycle of poverty, and as black poverty is reproduced, so too are the norms and stereotypes of black and white behavior.

When a transgender person transitions, we consider it something to celebrate because that person is breaking out of the box our gender norms and stereotypes create and showing how arbitrary those categories are. Just because Jenner was born with male physiology doesn’t mean she can’t want to embrace a set of behaviors that are much closer to what we associate with femininity, and by transitioning, she illustrates the intellectual vacuity of those norms. We celebrate Jenner for self-actualizing, for overcoming the norms and the social pressures that perpetuate them.

To the extent that race is different, it is different because at this point, race is more economic than gender. When a person chooses to embrace “black culture” when they did not grow up black, they are they are affiliating themselves with a response to discrete economic obstacles that they themselves did not face. But this difference isn’t quite as substantive as it appears. There are economic advantages and disadvantages to the genders as well (the infamous pay gap comes to mind), but when a transgender person transitions from male to female, we don’t accuse them of exploiting the economic oppression faced by women for personal gain. Male Olympians likely get more attention from the media and make more money from endorsements than their female counterparts (particularly during Jenner’s period of activity, the 1970’s). Jenner benefited economically from masculinity and now assumes femininity having already benefited from masculinity. This is not altogether different from Dolezal’s situation–she did not face many of the economic and social obstacles associated with blackness in her youth. But it should also be remembered that affluent black people do not face all of the economic and social obstacles associated with blackness–Barack Obama’s daughters will have many advantages in life that most white children (even male white children) will never have. This does not disqualify Sasha and Malia from being black (and it should go without saying that it does not make them immune from all of the disadvantages black people face in America).

This is one of the key problems with the concept of cultural appropriation–to whom does “black culture” belong? We recognize that differences in behavior between blacks and whites predominately results from differences in economic and social opportunities and outcomes, but we do not deny the blackness of affluent blacks or affirm the blackness of poor whites. Indeed, once we recognize that racial differences do not reflect any real differences in ability or potential among the races but merely reflect the different ways our society has treated people of different racial backgrounds, the very value of having the concept of a culture associated with a race is called into question. To say that black people have a black culture and that when white people identify as black or with elements of black culture they are appropriating it necessarily implies that the differences in behavior between blacks and whites are not merely the unfortunate, unjust consequences of deeply entrenched systemic racism, but that they are valuable or ought to be perpetuated. To perpetuate a black culture distinct from a white culture is to perpetuate the systemic differences in treatment that produce and perpetuate the cultural distinction in the first place.

We never talk about gender in this way–no one accuses Jenner of “gender appropriation”. Because we believe that gender norms are bad, we challenge them by refusing to affirm them. We encourage men and women to act however they want, to flout gender norms and express themselves as individuals. When it comes to gender, we believe in self-actualization. We want people to be who they really are, independent from limiting norms. But there are some people out there who seem to believe that it is good to have discrete, separate black and white cultures. So when a white person like Iggy Azalea or Rachel Dolezal adopts the behaviors we associate with black people, they object, and when a black person adopts the behaviors we associate with white people, some view that person as an Uncle Tom or accuse that person of “acting white” or forgetting or ignoring their heritage.

It’s difficult, because when we tell people to flout gender norms, the economic constraints are much lower. You can’t simply tell black people “stop following black racial norms” because black racial norms are the outcome of a system of economic injustice. They are not merely the result of heavy social pressure and expectations, they also have a very large material component that cannot simply be denied or wished away. But this does not mean that it is desirable to perpetuate racial norms. Ideally we would like to reach a time when the opportunities and outcomes for blacks and whites are the same, when blacks and whites can identify with the same kind of experience and therefore with the same behaviors and culture.

How do we get there?

  1. Redistribution and Policy Change–we need to create more opportunities for the poor and improve their life outcomes so that they will not feel alienated and marginalized and will not need to produce a set of mechanisms for dealing with and confronting those feelings. Since blacks are disproportionately poor, alienated, and marginalized, lifting up these groups will lift up blacks and reduce disparities in racial opportunities and outcomes, thereby reducing the difference in behavior and culture between whites and blacks, thereby reducing the strength of racial norms and biases.
  2. Flouting Norms–we should encourage white people to embrace pro-social behaviors traditionally associated with blacks and vice versa. This weakens the norms and stereotypes and also invites people to see the similarities between themselves and others. If a white girl wants to be a rapper, that’s great, and if a black girl wants to be an opera singer, that’s great. But there are a couple caveats–we should recognize that without redistribution and policy change, poor, alienated, and marginalized people cannot norm flout. To expect these people to norm flout in the absence of redistribution and policy change is to engage in implicit racism. We also don’t want people embracing norms that are socially destructive, even if this does challenge stereotypes. While seeing a bunch of white people riot would make the point that rioting is not a “black” behavior but a “poor and marginalized” behavior, rioting harms people and the point being made does not justify the level of harm.

For gender, the strategy is almost precisely the same–the only difference is that the amount of economic policy change that is needed to enable norm flouting for those who face obstacles is much lower for gender than for race, so norm flouting can be more freely encouraged without as many caveats.

Our ultimate aim is to allow each person to be an individual, to express themselves and to live however they choose, regardless of their sex or race, without feeling any substantive social pressure to conform to any gender or racial stereotype. Right now, there are people who feel so thoroughly boxed in by our gender and racial norms that they have to completely change their appearance and transition so that they can be freed from the pressure imposed by the expectations of others. This causes them to suffer in a serious and important way. It’s more common with gender than with race, but if a person feels that they have to change their appearance so that they can behave in a way that actualizes them, they are never to blame for this. We are, as a society. We continue to perpetuate the norms that box them in, that impose the suffering on them, that force them to take radical action to gain the social freedom to behave the way they choose. So whenever someone transitions from something to something else, the question we should ask ourselves is not “what’s wrong with them”, but what’s wrong with our society, that it would so thoroughly limit the socially acceptable behavioral options of people of different genders or races that they would feel compelled to go to all this trouble?

And it is a lot of trouble. Transgender people continue to be abused and derided by many people, and a great many people have been deeply unkind and unsympathetic to Rachel Dolezal. Choosing to modify your body to transition to a different appearance so that you can be yourself remains a radical act in our society, one that still draws scorn and derision. To transition knowing that others will likely respond with great negativity speaks to the level of suffering and alienation from the self that these individuals must surely experience. When someone does this for any reason, our response should be empathetic. We should try to understand how these individuals are being boxed in by our social norms and what we can do to help them and others like them break out. Failing that, we can at least be accepting of their choices.