The world of academic philosophy is ordinarily a rather esoteric one. But Rebecca Tuvel’s article “In Defense of Transracialism,”
published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia this spring, has generated a broad public discussion.
Dr. Tuvel was prompted to write her article by the controversy that erupted when Rachel Dolezal, the former local N.A.A.C.P. official who had long presented herself as black, was revealed to have grown up white. The Dolezal story broke just 10 days after Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair debut, and the two discussions merged. If Ms. Jenner could identify as a woman, could Ms. Dolezal identify as black? If transgender was a legitimate social identity, might transracial be as well? Dr. Tuvel’s article subjected these public debates to philosophical scrutiny.
The idea of transracialism had been rejected out of hand by the cultural left. Some worried — as many cultural conservatives indeed hoped — that this seemingly absurd idea might undermine the legitimacy of transgender claims. Others argued that if self-identification were to replace ancestry or phenotype as the touchstone of racial identity, this would encourage “racial fraud” and cultural appropriation. Because race has always been first and foremost an externally imposed classification, it is understandable that the idea of people declaring themselves transracial struck many as offensively dismissive of the social realities of race.
Dr. Tuvel’s cultural-left credentials are impeccable. Her research links race, feminism and justice for the oppressed (including animals). But she concluded that the strong philosophical arguments in favor of accepting transgender identities should also support the possibility of altering socially defined racial classifications to match people’s inner sense of racial identity
Dr. Tuvel was careful to point out that her “thesis relies in no way upon the claim that race and sex are equivalent, or historically constructed in exactly the same way.” As a philosopher, she was interested in the structure of social reasoning about gender and racial identities, not in the lived experience of black or transgender people. Crucially, she explicitly rejected the idea that self-identification alone should be the ultimate arbiter of racial identity, emphasizing also how one is treated by others.
Nonetheless, the argument provoked outrage on social media. The article was deemed racist and transphobic, and one philosopher claimed that it not only “perpetuates harm in numerous ways” but also “enacts violence.” As in other cases of internet shaming, people who apparently had not read the offending article were eager to display their virtue by condemning it. An open letter calling for the article’s retraction gathered more than 500 signatories. And a majority of the journal’s board of associate editors posted a “profound apology” on Hypatia’s Facebook page, stating categorically that the article “should not have been published.”
As news of the controversy spread, philosophers and others pushed back against the attacks. They challenged the criticisms of Dr. Tuvel’s article, questioned the harms it was said to have caused and underscored the harms to Dr. Tuvel herself, an untenured female professor. They deplored academia’s “poisonous call-out culture” and the practices of policing and intimidation that kept many who supported Dr. Tuvel in private from defending her in public. And Hypatia’s editor issued a strong, though somewhat belated, statement defending the publication of the article.
One of the criticisms of Dr. Tuvel was that she failed to engage the full range of literature relevant to her argument. As it happens, that literature now includes a book of my own, though it was published too recently for her to have addressed it in her article. My book analyzes the shifting terrain of race and ethnicity through the multifaceted lens of the transgender experience — encompassing not just the movement from one category to another but the staking out of positions between and beyond existing categories.
I argue that transracial is a productively disruptive concept because it can unsettle the taken-for-granted assumptions about the stability and naturalness of racial categories on which the reproduction of the racial order depends. The term also brings into focus the ways in which racial and ethnic identities have already become more fluid in recent decades. Sociologists have documented substantial shifts in racial identification from one census to the next, and from one social context to another. Ancestry, increasingly understood as mixed, has begun losing its authority over identity. And race and ethnicity, like gender, have come to be understood as something we do, not just something we have.
Of course, race is also — crucially — something others do to us, and opportunities for ethnoracial re-identification remain unequally distributed both across and within racial groups. Yet that is not a good reason for banning the term “transracial.” I was therefore deeply troubled by the attempt to shut down, rather than critically engage, Dr. Tuvel’s argument.
But the Tuvel affair raises issues that go beyond the controversial notion of transracialism. First, it invites reflection on what might be called “epistemological insiderism.” This is the belief that identity qualifies or disqualifies one from writing with legitimacy and authority about a particular topic. Few would argue directly that who we are should govern what we study. But subtler forms of epistemological insiderism are at work in the practice of assessing scholarly arguments with central reference to the identity of the author. Does the often-mentioned fact that Dr. Tuvel is white and cisgender (as am I) disqualify her from raising certain questions? Is her identity relevant to assessing her argument for according more weight to an individual’s racial self-identification and less weight to ancestry?
Epistemological insiderism not only stakes out certain domains as belonging to persons with certain identities; it also risks boxing persons with those identities into specific domains. It risks conveying the patronizing and offensive expectation that members of racial and ethnic minorities will focus their scholarship on race and ethnicity.
The attacks on Dr. Tuvel also raise troubling questions about the regulation of speech in academic settings. As claims to find speech harmful or offensive have proliferated in academia, so have debates about micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, speech codes and campus invitations to controversial outside speakers. Conservative commentators accuse universities of censorship and talk piously of academic freedom, conveniently forgetting that it is conservative state legislatures and appointed boards of governors who really threaten academic freedom at public universities, through threats to defund research and teaching activities they do not like.
Overt threats to academic freedom, like the Hungarian government’s attempt to shut down the Central European University, can be directly challenged. The more insidious danger is that of self-censorship. Will teachers avoid assigning controversial materials or discussing controversial views in class? Will professors stop exploring controversial topics in their research? The risks are much higher for those, like Dr. Tuvel, without the security of tenure. But even tenured faculty may opt to stick with safe topics. Reflecting on the Tuvel affair, the tenured feminist philosopher Chloe Taylor wondered “if I should not write or teach on certain topics that make me vulnerable to attack.”
Todd Gitlin’s devastating observation about the debilitating consequences of the left’s cultural politics — “while the right has been busy taking the White House, the left has been marching on the English department” — dates from the ’90s, but it has lost none of its pertinence. Only now the battle lines are drawn within the cultural left; the English department was conquered long ago. The spectacle of the left devouring its own children — and of emancipatory liberalism turning into its opposite — may read as farce. But in the context of the wider political emergency we face, the obsessively inward focus of the cultural left can also be understood as tragedy.