A Return to Wholeness: The Transracial/Transgender Divide

I am late to the Rachel Dolezal party because I was considering the invitation. This complex story within the larger narrative of identity-loss and white supremacy in America undermined my ability to function as a productive member of society, which I think just means I'm paying attention. For weeks, I've carved out spare minutes from single-momming and Pressing Household Duties, such as selling my labor and eating, to try to curate the perverse entropy of racism (an absurd and impossible endeavor). I've wept to the point of nearly vomiting, unable to carry on as though racism isn't a deadly cancer that requires immediate treatment. I’ve ignored sideways glances while speaking complex political soliloquies into my phone in public places. I've read everything I could, interviewed several people from many communities, started writing down every thought that occurred to me, and watched how our collective ideas slowly sorted themselves into a few main strands. Here is the first.

The Transracial/Transgender Divide

Why is transgender different from transracial? I wrestled the question like an old-testament angel. I reached out to eloquent friends, and found a whole lot of “I don’t know,” which seemed like a great place to start.

First, let's define our terms. As Lisa Marie Rollins points out, “the term ‘transracial’ is used in scholarly research, creative writing, and cultural work to denote a particular ‘state of being’ for people adopted across race. It also describes a kind of family unit / type of parenting. […] The ‘trans’ in transracial for me, never meant my race changed. It meant I was a multiracial black girl, adopted into a white family. It meant I was taken without my consent from one home, one place of origin and put inside another family, another culture, another race, one that didn’t belong to me. It meant I had to learn how to navigate my blackness and my black girlness, inside an often times racist, religious, violent and rigid white world. It meant living in a house and community that simultaneously erased me, racialized me and tokenized me. It gave me a language to articulate what was happening to me. But you know what it didn't do? It never actually changed my race. An even with all the ‘privileges’ of whiteness, even with all the education, the middle class living, camping, fishing, hunting — It never made me white."

Many people have encountered “transracial” only in its newest iteration, which purports identifying with a racial or ethnic identity absent from one’s genealogical makeup. After her launch into the limelight, which revealed zero African ancestry, Rachel Dolezal reaffirmed her identity as a “black woman.”

Our ancestors express the miraculous scope of improbable unions that gave rise to us. When we deny those who have given us our eyes, our gifts, our bones, we insult everything that has enabled our existence. When we identify as transgender, agender, or gender-fluid, we still embody the same history. We're still the same little live wire at forefront of a particular and vast ancestral circuitry. This circuitry connects us to lands and clans.

Through deliberate forgetting (emigration under duress, genocide, and famine), or unwilling severance (capture and transport during slave trade), we have forgotten where we come from. We call ourselves colors, races, nations. But these census-bureau signifiers don't touch the blood.

"Transracial" versus Transgender by Erin Langley, the professional artist. Diagram not to scale.

"Transracial" versus Transgender by Erin Langley, the professional artist. Diagram not to scale.

Many of the arguments I read scratched the surface of the transracial/transgender divide. Plumbing the heart of the matter requires these preliminary incisions. Matt Bruening notes problems with popular arguments about the differences between transgender and "transracial" here. While I appreciate his neutrality, I don't share it. I have a definite bias toward transgender equality, opportunity, and rights. I believe in standing in our own genealogical skin as a bouquet of equally wise, beautiful, and powerful heritages that complement each other through contrast. 

We all live out our ancestors' stories unconsciously to some extent, and Rachel Dolezal is no exception. Through attempting to assume another ancestry, she acts in congruence with her own familial wound. Denying, forgetting, and oppressing in an attempt to "help" other people exemplifies colonialism. Her efforts toward social justice shine with brightest irony because the imperialism she wanted to alleviate relies on this very set of unequal relationships.

Tad Hargrave writes, "When I read 'I identify as black,' I read, 'I disidentify as white. I refuse to know where I come from, my ancestors, the profound poverty of what stands in the place of genuine culture for people who come from where I come from[...] I don't want to be with the incredible sadness of what's become of my people so I just won't be of those people anymore. I don't want to make that noise I'd make if I'd really let that grief in so it could sound off the walls of this dark cave where I am and so I'll never know the dimensions and shape of it from the sounds bounced back. I refuse to know what I was born into by tracing my fingers and trying to make out the much faded art on the walls. I am hungry for the fruit of culture and so I will simply eat the fruit of trees that others planted instead of planting my own tree so that my grandchildren might have some shade."

I have seen European-descended students in Ancestral Remembrance classes identify with genealogies other than their own because--through their own admission--their family trauma exceeds what they are equipped to deal with. And I hear them. It's wise to wait for the right time and community with whom to process the depth of trauma many of us reinforce through denial. 

Zeba Blay writes, “The idea that Dolezal's choice to publicly identify as a black woman—one who occupied positions of power in spaces specifically designated for members of a marginalized group—is the same as being a trans woman, simply doesn't add up. What Dolezal did is culturally appropriative, and suggesting otherwise disrupts actual discussions about transgender identity and issues." I agree with Zeba Blay on every point, but one: The comparison she opposes leads us on a collaborative journey of clarity and justice. Faulty comparisons polish and reward when we make the effort to see them through. 

I asked active duty transgendered Army Physician Jamie Lee Henry if she could articulate the difference between transracial and transgender. She replied, “I’m struggling with it too[…] Just as a transgender person sees a psychologist to help understand what's going on, a transracial person would likely benefit from doing the same. At some point, if you have enough people, you can then formulate an idea of what is really going on. I'm trying to refrain from condemning Rachel Dolezal[...] I can't pretend to know what is going on in someone else's head."

I appreciate Dr. Henry's nonjudgmental acknowledgement of Rachel's experience because nothing I read or thought offered this basic gesture of empathy. Seeing a psychologist doesn't imply pathology; it simply acknowledges that we all need support. Reflexive condemnation has never helped me in a time of struggle. What does she think and feel, when she is not being examined from a place of judgment and scrutiny, but from a place of curiosity? Because let's be clear, we're complicit in the cultural body that gave rise to Rachel Dolezal. Her thoughts and feelings clearly express our collective forgetting of who we are, especially for people of indigenous European descent. 

I also asked P.E. Garcia, whose eloquence with identity politics and social justice I admire. He said, “For me, the idea of transracial isn't quite like transgender because it only works in one direction. I couldn't be white even if I identified as that. And what would it even me to ‘identify as white’? Trans- and nongender-identified people don't appropriate the oppression of others, I feel, as they take on and face their own forms of oppression."

Kat Blaque, a trans woman of color, echoes these ideas: "Transitioning to another race is only available to certain people. A lot of people believe that trans people disguise themselves to fool the people around them. Who I am today is the most truthful incarnation of myself[...] I could be so much further in my career had I decided to not transition. Trans people are still fighting to use the restroom."

Rachel Dolezal argues that race is a social construct, just like gender. Blaque says, "A traffic light is a social construct, but you're gonna be in quite a pickle if you decide to run a red-light into oncoming traffic." This analogy perfectly conveys the substantial repercussions of denying our heritage, which we see playing out in the sick dramas of mass murder and incarceration of black, brown, indigenous, and transgendered peoples.

If we knew who we were--really knew--we would value each other as an act of self-preservation. We are much larger than individuals; we are a system that sings. Exploring our origins gives us the melody with which to participate. Knowing who we are also prohibits blame. A return to our humanity is a return to wholeness. We are complicit because we are whole. 

(My dear friend and colleague Heidi Guttmann of White Tigress Ancestry has compiled tremendous research and resources for people who have been adopted, so exploring our origins is off-limits to no one.)

Gender is an inborn shape of humanity; we default into some kind of anatomical shape both physically and experientially, whether or not we inhabit the binary. Millions of forebears bestow our racial and ethnic presentations. Everyone is bound to have a human shape, whether male, female, neither, or both. But not everyone is bound to have brown skin and black hair. 

Rachel Dolezal appropriated the oppression of African-descended people through altering her appearance and falsely reporting hate crimes that people of color actually have to endure on a daily basis. She tried to replace her own substantial ancestral trauma with that of the African-American community. She co-opted a struggle that is available to us all no matter where we stand, yet took a route which required continuous deception. 

I've never felt lied to by my transgender friends. When it comes to who they are, they're some of the most radically honest people I know. Nor have I made the same observations about gender and trauma. I am fortunate to live in an area where I personally know many happy trans kids with loving families who have supported their children since the minute they understood what was going on. This is not the unfolding of denial or trauma; this is a flower, blooming. 

Neither is transgender a new phenomenon. Our ancestors from around the world had sanctioned places for community members who defied the binary. I know of no "transracial" precedent, except in culturally-approved fostering arrangements, which would have upheld the academic definition of transracial rather than the denial-of-heritage one. 

We have seen how gender expression defies appropriation. As Amandla Stenberg explains, cultural appropriation occurs when people of privilege want to assume the arts that another culture has created under unimaginably oppressive conditions to simply survive, communicate, and maintain their basic humanity. Rachel Dolezal wanted to don the oppression, too, which cannot be removed like a headdress, hairstyle, or linguistic affectation. But it is still a costume, and costumes are setbacks. The thing is, we all have to don racism and oppression because that's the fabric with live with. Let's at least stop spinning its threads. Let's turn racism to rags by adorning ourselves in our own skin, the only appropriate regalia in the ongoing ceremony for gender equality, human rights, and social justice.



Blaque, Kat. Why Rachel Dolezal Isn't Caitlyn Jenner

Blay, Zeba. Why Comparing Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner is Detrimental to Both Trans and Racial Progress

Bruening, Matt. Transrace and Transgender

Garcia, P.E. The Body of Kenneth Goldsmith

Geidner, Chris. The First Out Transgender Active Duty U.S. Army Officer: "My Story is Not Unique"

Langley, Erin. Remembering Our Ceremonies with Respect to Our Elders

Langley, Erin. Serving the Guardians of the Threshold

Stenberg, Amandla. Amanda Stenberg: Don't Cash Crop on My Cornrows

Deep Genealogy Resources:

Heidi Guttmann Corning of White Tigress Ancestry

Atava Garcia Swiecicki of Ancestral Apothecary

Marcela Sabin of Circle of Ancestors

Erin Langley of Ancestral Acupuncture

Apela Colorado of Worldwide Indigenous Science Network