The problem comparing trans people with blackface

The problem of comparing self-promoting white people doing blackface with the millions of trans people worldwide is explored by Sam Hope.

Every time some one-off attention-seeking white person dons blackface for their own self-promotion (Martina Big, Rachel Dolezal, for example), trans people find themselves caught in transphobic crossfire, as people compare this abhorrent and racist practice with being transgender.

Such comparisons are damaging to both black and trans people. Kat Blaque, a black trans woman herself, has written eloquently on why this is comparing the incomparable, in which she points out that far from being a device for self-promotion, trans folk “face immense challenges” in their quest not to deceive people, but to reveal their authentic, complex selves.

Blaque also points out that the word “transracial” is a legitimate term, applicable to, for example, black children born or adopted into white families. So we can’t say “it isn’t a thing” but we can say it’s a questionable word to apply to Dolezal or Big. What is offensive is the appropriation of the word “transracial” to draw comparisons with transgender people. Because although race and gender are indeed both socially constructed, that is where the similarity ends. The comparision serves to obscure the truths of two very different civil rights struggles, in a way that is both racist and transphobic.

So let’s talk about why the two things bear no comparison.

The truth is, if Caitlyn Jenner was the first assigned-male person ever to show up claiming to be a woman, the world would rightly be suspicious. If there had not been a history, as long as the history of the human race, and across multiple cultures, of individuals who have similar experiences in relation to their gender, then cautious scepticism would be a fair response.

although race and gender are indeed both socially constructed, that is where the similarity ends

Maybe, scepticism would even be reasonable in the first half dozen or so cases we encounter, maybe even the first hundred, but there comes a point where people have to adjust their world view and accept that something is a real thing. We are way past the point of this with trans people.

Transgender people exist – there are millions of trans people in the world. Some estimate 1 in 200 people, as common as redheads. We even have an inkling of how trans people exist, and an understanding that our hormones play a part in what turns out to be the very complex dance of gender. Our hormones influence our gender identity, and gender identity (for all the inadequacies of this term) is a real thing in and of itself, separate from both the socially constructed nature of gender and the biological facts of reproduction and chromosomes.

Recent scientific consensus has established that gender identity is biological and a landmark Lancet study proved that it is not a mental illness. People who deny the reality of trans experience in the face of this overwhelming evidence and longevity are increasingly looking like climate change deniers, even if the media continues to paint trans existence, like climate change, as a still controversial and debatable issue.

there comes a point where people have to adjust their world view and accept that something is a real thing

We have, as yet, not even a single strand of evidence that there is an equivalent phenomenon to this in terms of race. There is no reason to assume that just because a particular phenomenon occurs in relation to gender, which is mediated by hormones as well as social influence, that it would therefore occur in relation to race, which arises from a very different set of historical and social conditions.

For instance, there is not a point, after conception, when an embryo has a chance to be born either black or white, depending on the hormonal journey it takes in the womb. There isn’t a hormone a person can take that will switch on some biological coding to make them black, in the same way someone can take testosterone or oestrogen and masculinise or feminise their body. Race is inherited in a way that gender and sex are not.

People who deny the reality of trans experience in the face of this overwhelming evidence and longevity are increasingly looking like climate change deniers

They are different things, and that’s all there is to it. And it doesn’t seem that Dolezal and Big are claiming they are the same, but rather claiming a right to “choose” their race. This is where analogies with trans folk become very problematic – trans people do not “choose” their gender, the only choice, if choice it is, is how to negotiate their gender in a cissexist world.

The salient discussion is about how trans people experience gender as something over and above the historical and constructed, and more than just in connection with their reproductive systems. It does not appear that race is experienced in the same way, or that there is even a shred of evidence of a phenomenon related to race that fully matches what some call gender identity.

Meanwhile, this debate distracts people from the issues that matter. Where race and being transgender are tragically connected is in the police profiling of trans women of colour, and their frighteningly high presence in statistics for victims of violence and murder.

Blackface is racist because when white people appropriate the appearance of being black they still avoid the inheritance that black people share in – the history and enduring presence of racism and white supremacy. People’s lives are not a costume, and blackface trivialises a social condition that white people remain generally oblivious to, and complicit in perpetuating.

It does not appear . . . that there is even a shred of evidence of a phenomenon related to race that fully matches what some call gender identity

In the UK, young black people are twice as likely to be unemployed as young white people. Black people are more likely to be incarcerated for identical crimes, and seven times more likely to be jailed than white people. They are less likely to get a job if they are similarly qualified to a white person. They are more likely to experience mistreatment, even violence, from the police.

While we sit around discussing whether a white person wearing blackface is “really black” we are ignoring the racial issues that are urgent and important. When we speculate if Big and Dolezal are just like trans people we ignore the genuine experience of stigmatisation and violence that comes with being actually trans.

Making an issue that is entirely about race and racism all about trans issues gets us off the hook from exploring our racism. It’s a neat distraction, but look how easily when racism comes up we skip off into something else entirely.

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