The Philosophy of Passing


The story of Rachel Dolezal’s outing as a white woman (insert whatever scare quotes you think appropriate there) is being widely discussed all over the place, including, now, the philosophy blogosphere. I’ll be putting up a post comprised of contributions from several philosophers here by the end of the weekend, but in the meanwhile, Daniel Silvermint (Connecticut) has a guest post on the subject—particularly on the idea of “passing”—over at Feminist Philosophers. An excerpt:

A lot of weight is being placed on what are purported to be her high school photos, which show a young woman with lighter-seeming skin. Using these photos to draw the conclusion that she is “actually white” is social construction in action. When we think a member of group x is actually a member of group y based on how they look, dress, act, sound, spend, associate, etc., or because they appear in social spaces where we normally expect members of y to appear, then we’re often doing more to maintain and reinforce social reality than we’re doing to meaningfully track it. Identity is messy and complicated. For almost any given group, its members run the gamut in terms of appearance, personality, and expression, but when we see borderline or ambiguous individuals as members of one group rather than another, this serves to fix the boundaries of both…

Much more here.

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Joe
Joe
6 years ago

“A lot of weight is being placed on what are purported to be her high school photos, which show a young woman with lighter-seeming skin. Using these photos to draw the conclusion that she is “actually white” is social construction in action. When we think a member of group x is actually a member of group y based on how they look, dress, act, sound, spend, associate, etc., or because they appear in social spaces where we normally expect members of y to appear, then we’re often doing more to maintain and reinforce social reality than we’re doing to meaningfully track it. ”

So, I think that there is a mistake involved here, one that really matters both politically and philosophically. Social reality, by definition, is something that is brought into being by this kind of “policing”. That is, there is nothing more to social reality than the dispositions/beliefs/habits/etc. of human beings. To use the paradigm sort of social fact as an analogy: if people in a society reliably denigrate some item in the marketplace as worthless, that is what *constitutes* its worthlessness. There is no independent reality for the participants to “meaningfully track”. Similarly, it is a deep error to assume that there is a distinction between the actions of those who are calling out Dolezal for not being really black and some other activity we could engage in which could “meaningfully track” her Blackness or lack thereof. If blackness is socially constructed, then it cannot be “troubling” to police it, because boundary-policing is (on this view) what brings race into existence in the first place.

The point is: articles like this are themselves “social construction in action”. They are policing our linguistic activity just as the Dolezal-haters are. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that (how could there be?). But there is something wrong with claiming that one’s own particular boundary-fixing is something more, i.e., a description of social reality as it “really is”.Report

Scrooge
Scrooge
6 years ago

In recent days, I’ve seen a lot of people try to distinguish Dolezal’s actions (which, supposedly, are Very Bad and Very Racist) from the actions of numerous transgender people (which are correctly regarded as entirely morally unproblematic). Some philosophers seem to have very strong views about this. I’ve even seen graduate students on Facebook attempting to shut down any discussion of the point, as if it were obvious that Dolezal is a horrible woman, and that her position cannot be compared to the common phenomenon of transexuality.

Abstracting from the idiosyncratic facts of Dolezal’s case, I see no way of drawing any interesting moral distinction between transgender and “transracial” people (for want of a better word), insofar as the latter phenomenon exists (which seems entirely possible, and maybe even likely). I’d be genuinely interested to hear whether anyone can persuade me otherwise, and I’m prepared to change my mind if I’m wrong. (I would ask, however, that terms like “social construction” and “social reality” are not used as unexplained primitive terms.)Report

MaybeIGetIt
MaybeIGetIt
6 years ago

That’s an interesting point #2. I think there is some respect in which we should allow people the identities they feel most comfortable with, or the most themselves in. But I think “transexual” is an offensive term. So be easy with that.

Anyway, I think Dolezal’s situation might be worrisome because she has clearly incurred the social benefits of being white. Nevertheless, like a trans woman, she has eschewed the privelege she was born with. But then again, trans men don’t exactly get an easy break either. Should we think that black people who pass get an easy break? Arguably not, I mean presumably, members of their families don’t.

I don’t know. It’s an interesting comparison, and I’d like to hear more from members of the trans community and the black community about what Dolezal’s behavior means to them.

Maybe this is an example of the utility of standpoint epistemology?Report

Scrooge
Scrooge
6 years ago

I apologise for using an offensive term, #3. Thanks for letting me know, because I’m not aware of the current terminology, and no offence was intended.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I think one worry is that the kind of racial identity that Dolezal is claiming is one of self-identification, therefore predominantly a psychological form of identity, which implies reducing racial identity to something oversimple, ignoring the real and important differences in personal history and social condition of people of color (social and economic discrimination, for example).

That, in turn, is worrisome because it’s precisely such differences that have to be kept in view to 1) continue to acknowledge and appreciate the severity of racial prejudice and injustice and 2) eventually overcome them. If we begin to see race in primarily self-identifying psychological terms, we pay less attention to the ways racism functions as set of conditions, institutions, and relationships that affect only some people, not others.

Like Scrooge, I find the comparison to transgender issues interesting and worth pursuing, but for very different reasons. If Dolezal’s claim is potentially problematic in that it reduces or oversimplifies race in a way that may not be entirely fair to people of color, can’t we at least in principle ask (this is not an assertion, just a sincere question) if attempts to conceptualize transgender identity to be continuous with “man” or “woman” might also include a problematic reduction or oversimplification of what gender is or can be? (Note that the alternative isn’t necessarily to reject transgender as an identity, just to acknowledge that women who are transgender have important differences from women who aren’t, and that many of these are ethically and politically important differences.)

That is, in both cases, might what is treated as an expansion to a more inclusive concept of “woman” or “black” in fact be a reduction (from a complex of the internal and external to just the internal, from a complex of social, biological, relational, and social-economic condition, to just self-image)? (In Sartrean terms: do we risk stripping our understanding of human identity of its “being-for-others”?)

This seems timely given a recent article, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html?_r=0.

It seems to have been almost universally excoriated by the internet left. And while I think it was a bit clumsy in its execution, I think it was asking a serious question: if we conceive of being a woman (or a man) as nothing more than a psychological identity, aren’t we in danger of minimizing or distracting from the very real material inequalities that women face that are independent of psychological identity or self-identification? And if we conceive of that psychological identity in an essentialistic way, aren’t we worrisomely implying that women who don’t share a gendered sense of psychological identity are somehow in the wrong?Report

Anonattorney
Anonattorney
6 years ago

I would have thought the problem lay in falsely claiming to have undergone the difficult experiences involved in growing up and living for years as a person racialized as black. Though no two of these sets experiences are exactly the same, the commonalities form the shared experience (struggle) of black people in the u.s. After a number of years of passing as black she might have had a number of these experiences, but after the initial transition she would not. To announce oneself as black and as having grown up as black is to assert or at least imply that one has partaken in this shared experience. To do so falsely is deceptive and made worse by explicitly holding oneself out as a active comrade in the struggle. There is a difference between an ally and a member of an oppressed minority and a new haircut, some spray tan, and lying about your past won’t erase that difference.

And don’t get me started on her appropriation of Native American culture.Report

Anon postdoc
Anon postdoc
6 years ago

People are overlooking some key details of this story – that Dolezal has allegedly fabricated numerous facts about her family in order to pass as black. She claimed that Larry Dolezal was her stepfather, and presented a black man as her father – but by accounts of those who knew her growing up as well as birth cert records, Larry is indeed her biological father, and none had met the black man so presented. She also tried to present her adoptive brother as her son, claimed to have been born in a teepee and grow up in South Africa (details her parents dispute) and warned another brother not to ‘blow her cover’ when she began passing as black. Some reports are claiming that she fabricated several alleged hate crimes against her.

There’s an interesting question of whether racial identity is more intractable than gender identity (while one can alter one’s biological sex as well as skin tone and cultural milieu, one cannot alter one’s ancestry – arguably a relevant feature of racial identity). But this is not the right case to test that question – if allegations against Dolezal are correct, then she was a fabulist who would repeatedly lie about her family and upbringing in order to sustain her new identity.

And those alleged fabrications have had real consequences beyond the basic wrongness of repeated, sustained lies – police have suspended investigations she initiated as part of her Ombudsman role (the application for which she allegedly lied about her race). Police misconduct is a serious problem, but this whole affair has jeopardized review of Spokane practices because of Dolezal’s role and the fact that (perhaps fairly) police are suspicious of the investigative work of someone who has allegedly routinely deceived many people.Report

Skeptic
Skeptic
6 years ago

I think that the Dolezal case and more generally the phenomenon of transidentity raises a serious epistemological problem.

Suppose for argument’s sake that there is a “true self” and that each of us has one and that it is gendered (for simplicity let us assume the classical gender-values, “Male” and “Female”). The challenge is to justify the attribution of a gender-value to oneself.

Outward appearance provides good evidence of gender, but as we’ve seen that evidence is defeasible and, specifically, can be defeated on one’s own word. More precisely, the challenge is to vindicate the status of “one’s own word” as a genuine defeater. If not based on outward appearance, then what constitutes good grounds for the contrary verdict?

The first thing to note is that good grounds must be truth-conducive. Since the matter is to discover the truth about one’s gender, it would not do to point to one’s desire to be regarded that way or any other pragmatic grounds. The grounds must be evidential, they must be indicators of a preexisting fact about oneself.

Futhermore, outward appearance already discarded, that leaves some kind of inner insight into oneself or knowledge of the facts that led to the development of one’s gender identity.

If some act of introspection properly grounds the judgment, then one is hard pressed to see why the same view should not extend to the Dolezal case and thereby legitimate her position epistemically (though not necessarily politically). One is hard – pressed because one’s metaphysical views should be uniform across all “social reality” or “social constructs” and without a difference in one’s metaphysics what motivation would there be to propound different epistemologies (when the aim is truth-persual).

The same undergeneralization problem arises for the second option. If specific facts led to the development of one’s gender identity, and one’s knowledge of them is the basis for one’s counterverdict, why can’t the same be said of racial identity? After all, who but the person concerned would have better epistemic access to these facts. Whatever theory one has of their development, so long as one isn’t literally born into race or gender in the same way one is born into a family, either cases of transidentity face a formidable skeptical challenge (gender and race alike) or neither do, in which case Dolezal is not an impostor if her belief is indeed sincere.

I tend towards the skeptical conclusion myself because I find neither option an especially promising avenue to the needed self-knowledge. That’s not to say that they’re not right, that’s just to say that they don’t *know* they’re right.Report

Scrooge
Scrooge
6 years ago

Many thanks for all the interesting responses. I have a quick question for Anonattorney (or for anyone else):

If a trans woman became the president of a women’s charity, and misled people into believing that she had female reproductive organs at birth, would you also say that she acted wrongly? If the trans woman lived as a man for the first 20 years of her life, does she have a moral obligation to disclose this fact? I’m inclined to think that the answer to these questions is “no”. I’m not really sure why anyone has a duty to disclose this sort of information. Furthermore, in a society where transgendered people are subjected to terrible abuse and discrimination, it seems to me that it is reasonable and morally permissible to fabricate a background story. There have to be limits to this sort of fabrication, but I would be very hesitant to treat a trans woman who behaved in this way as morally blameworthy. I’m not yet persuaded of the relevance of the fact that the trans woman avoided anti-women discrimination for the first 20 years of her life.

Once you’re in that frame of mind, Dolezal’s behaviour doesn’t seem to be particularly blameworthy either.Report

AnonAttorney
AnonAttorney
6 years ago

Re Scrooge:

Is the women’s charity focused on remedying discrimination against women? How old is the transitioned woman, since she transitioned when she was 20, i.e. how long has she been viewed by society as a woman?

If the answer to the first question is “yes” and the answer to the second question is “not much older than 20”, then she has acted wrongly and is blameworthy. I recognize I am being vague regarding the second question. I don’t know how long one must live as a member of an oppressed minority group to acquire the shared experiences that bind that group together. I think the answer is “a long time.” I don’t know what percentage of one’s hair one must lack in order to be bald. Nonetheless, there are bald people and people who lack those experiences.

She has a prima facie duty to tell the truth about her past, just like we all do. That can be defeated, of course, when severe consequences will follow. She need not tell everyone about her transition. However, the duty does extend to prohibit actively promoting a falsehood regarding her past, especially to members of the oppressed minority group.

Consider the concept of people speaking from or with”privilege,” which looms large in discussions of racial dynamics and the role of allies. One might say it looms too large, but that’s a separate issue. The motivation behind the idea is that even allies are speaking about issues from their own, privileged, stand-point. They cannot, the story goes, step outside that standpoint and take on the standpoint of a member of the group simply by reflection. The transitioning individual, of course, goes beyond mere reflection and can, in my opinion, eventually take on the standpoint of a member of the group. However, this does not happen quickly.

Finally, Scrooge, I ask you to consider a case. Suppose Bill holds support group meetings for combat veterans, where the veterans can discuss their experiences and work to improve how they can deal with these experiences. Bill tells everyone at the meetings that he is combat veteran just like them. However, Bill is lying. He was not a combat veteran. Do you think Bill is blameworthy? If we add that holding the meeting is a paid position, as Dolezal’s was, does this make Bill more or less blameworthy?Report

Anon black woman
Anon black woman
6 years ago

What bothers me most about this is:

1. Misappropriation of black culture…again.
2. She is taking on the good or current “coolness” of being black without taking on the bad that comes with being black.
3. At the end of the day she can take off her make up, take out her “black hair” and go back to enjoying her white privileges if she so chooses.
4. She is passing as black woman by changing her looks to fit the stereotype of a black woman when there are so many ways to be a black woman, but she makes it look so static.Report

MaybeIGetIt
MaybeIGetIt
6 years ago

I know that having black friends or even being married to a black person doesn’t get exempt a white person from being racially insensitive or offensive to black people and black culture. But with that said, I’d like to point out that Dolezal’s statements in a pair of recent interviews indicate that being part of a black family and a member of the black community is deeply important to her for reasons that she’s not getting into (but I suspect it has something to do with bad blood with her biological parents- I mean, there’s something odd about parents going out of their way to nationally humiliate their adult daughter like that).

I’d also like to point out that once confronted, she never denied the fact that her biological parents have no African heritage. So unless there are details I’m unaware of, I don’t see that she’s lying here.

Finally, while it’s true that our society certainly does have a problem with the misappropriation and exploitation of blackness and black culture, I get the sense that her identification might be more personal, and not exploitative in this way.Report

MaybeIGetIt
MaybeIGetIt
6 years ago

Also, regarding the Bill scenario above, if Bill experienced some trauma somewhere and now has PTSD, I can see him identifying as a combat veteran without lying. You see this sort of thing in 12-step programs all the time. A person who has never had a drink, but is recovering from a drug addiction might identify as an alcoholic, or a person who has never used drugs, but engaged in other compulsive behaviors might identify themselves as an addict. They’re not lying- they’re using a perhaps inappropriate label to get the appropriate help.Report

Anonattorney
Anonattorney
6 years ago

Maybe I don’t get it. I think those folks are lying. There is really no way around that. They might be justified in doing so, if lying was the only possible way they could get the help they urgently need, but they are definitely lying. They are definitely breaching the trust of the other group members and moral anger is an appropriate response on behalf of those group members.

To be honest I think I’ve reached a point were further argument has diminishing returns. If you really think it’s permissible for anyone with ptsd to claim to be a combat veteran and use that falsehood to get a job leading support groups for combat veterans, then I don’t know what to tell you. I guess we have different conceptions of absurdity.Report

MaybeIGetIt
MaybeIGetIt
6 years ago

Nonono! It’s not at that point yet! So those people are not lying. If asked, they’ll admit that they used drugs, and explain that they identify themselves as alcoholics because doing so enables them to partake in support groups that help them to deal with their substance abuse problems. Maybe that system is outdated. I happen to think that it is- but that’s another story. What matters is that they’re not deliberately trying to deceive anyone- they might be guilty of violating some conversational norms, but again- that’s another story.

As for Dolezal, she might have experienced more kindness and acceptance from some the black people she happened to meet in her life. And who knows? Maybe she liked some of her friends’ hairstyles- again, I have no idea. But if that’s what happened, that seems fine. In any case, like the addict who uses the “alcoholic” label, Dolezal might be using the “black” label to identify herself as a part of the community that she feels most comfortable in. And just like the addicts using the “alcoholic” label, Dolezal admits what she means by identifying herself as a member of the black community.

Anyway, I’ve imagined a number of ways it might have gone down. But I obviously don’t know what her deal is. I’m just not sure if she’s the appropriate poster child for misappropriation of black culture. Maybe The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin are better candidates… *sigh*Report

MaybeIGetIt
MaybeIGetIt
6 years ago

Or Iggy Azalea- she even has a fake American black accent and thinks that she can say the n-word because she’s friends with TI. That’s bad. That’s offensive. Working for the NAACP and wearing your dark blond hair in locks, not so much.Report

MaybeIGetIt
MaybeIGetIt
6 years ago

One last thing- everyone is so up in arms about photos of Dolezal with black hairstyles. Maybe people are just uncomfortable with black hairstyles, hm? Okay, I’m done until I get a response. I promise.Report

Anon black woman
Anon black woman
6 years ago

@MaybeIGet It. She could have supported the black community and still be white. She could feel close to the black community and still be white. Her harm and lies are not excused because she feels close to the community. Plenty of people grow up around communities of people of a race other than their own and feel close to the community but don’t misappropriate that culture.Report

Anon black woman
Anon black woman
6 years ago

@MaybeIGet It: She did mark “African American” on several applications. That’s lying if you admit that your parents are not of African heritage (assuming no one else in her family is of African heritage). She introduced herself as “African American” to the man whose position she was taking over. That’s lying as well.Report

Anon black woman
Anon black woman
6 years ago

@MaybeIGetIt :There is also video of her giving a speech in which she talks of growing up as a young black girl/woman. Ok. I’m done. I promise.Report

RealEmail
RealEmail
6 years ago

@ABW, I didn’t see that speech, but that sounds pretty bad for Dolezal. Here’s the interview I saw, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/7573930Report

RealEmail
RealEmail
6 years ago

= MaybeIGetIt. Whoops!Report

photondancer
photondancer
6 years ago

“I’m not yet persuaded of the relevance of the fact that the trans woman avoided anti-women discrimination for the first 20 years of her life. ”

Scrooge, why not? they’re not called the formative years for nothing. There is no way 20 years of being treated as a woman during adulthood, when one can recognise and reflect upon one’s treatment, is anything like growing up subjected to it when one is too young to even recognise it let alone resist it.

I’m not USAian so I find this affair more amusing than anything else; something like it was inevitable given the importance of race and identity politics in USAian society. But I dourly suspect that if it had been a white cis-het man pulling this jape, he would be getting excoriated for it now and not a soul would be saying “well now lying and deceiving people ain’t so bad really”.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
6 years ago

There are quite a few women who would argue that transgenderism is, itself, appropriative of womanhood. In this context it’s worth noting that the vast majority (76% according to this study, which is in line with others) of people who identify as transgender were born men:

http://www.umass.edu/stonewall/uploads/listWidget/9002/Understanding%20Transgender%20Lives.pdf

In fact the vast majority (70-90%) of transgender people overall are, like Jenner, middle-aged people who had lived normal lives as heterosexual men, often including the fathering of children, prior to transition:

https://sillyolme.wordpress.com/faq-on-the-science/

So I don’t think the comparison between Jenner and Dolezal is unwarranted on its face.Report

Dai
Dai
6 years ago

In response to the comments above, I think that access to resources, both social and financial are likely do explain the disparity. Also, there’s so much more history, resistance, and persecution to transgendered experiences that make it a very different case.Report