Philosophers on Rachel Dolezal (updated)

Philosophers on Rachel Dolezal (updated)


Rachel Dolezal, “in recent years… has portrayed herself physically, and on social media platforms, as a woman of black African-American heritage. However, her parents, Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal, who are both white and live in the Troy/Libby area in Montana, [say] their daughter is not African-American. They backed up the claim with a copy of their daughter’s birth certificate and photos. The images show a younger, pale, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Dolezal who looks much different than the woman with caramel-colored skin now leading the Spokane NAACP and helping review claims of police misconduct in that city.”

That is from the original news story on Dolezal in the Coeur d’Alene Press last Thursday. Since then, the basic outlines of her story have been shared and talked about all over the world. The story is fascinating on many levels. Since public discussions could benefit from the insight and carefulness of philosophical thinking, I invited several philosophers to share, briefly, some of their thoughts on the issues surrounding the Dolezal case. Their remarks are below. Others are, of course, welcome to join the conversation. Additionally, if you notice other philosophical commentary on the Dolezal case elsewhere on the web, please provide a link in the comments.

Let me thank the philosophers who, on short notice, took time out of their weekends to write up commentaries. They are: Esa Diaz-Leon (Manitoba), Meena Krishnamurthy (Michigan), Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown), Charles Mills (Northwestern), Daniel Silvermint (Connecticut), Quayshawn Spencer (U. Penn), and an anonymous professor who will go by the moniker Disembodied Inquiry. I’d also like to thank Kristina Meshelski  for suggesting a post like this. Now, without further ado…


Esa Diaz-Leon:

Is Rachel Dolezal black? In order to answer this question we first need to know what “black” means, and this is a question that philosophers of race can help us answer. It might seem at first sight that if we say that races are biologically grounded then it is clear that Dolezal cannot be black, whereas if races are socially constructed and “black” refers to a socially constructed property, then it is possible that Dolezal is black after all, given some of her social features such as self-identification, social position, cultural identity, and so on. But this is too quick. Here I want to discuss briefly some social constructivist views according to which she would count as black, and some according to which she wouldn’t, and draw some conclusions.

According to a social-historical account of races (defended by Chike Jeffers, Jorge Gracia and others), races are the shared historical properties that certain groups of individuals have in virtue of their common ancestries or common geographical origins. On this view, Dolezal wouldn’t count as black (insofar as she doesn’t have black ancestors), precisely because she lacks the relevant social-historical property. On the other hand, there are other versions of social constructionism about races, such as Sally Haslanger’s account, where being a member of a race amounts to occupying a certain social position of privilege or oppression along some dimensions, and someone is marked as being appropriately in that position in virtue of being perceived or imagined to have certain geographical origins (where it’s not necessary that one actually has those geographical origins, but just that one is taken to do so). On this view, Dolezal would count as black in some contexts, to the extent that she is assumed to have black ancestors, and occupies a position of subordination within certain social structures because of that. However, it’s reasonable to believe that there are or there have been contexts where she has not been assumed to have black ancestors and therefore she has not occupied the corresponding position of subordination. That is, I believe that according to Haslanger’s account, she would count as black in some contexts but not in others.

What should we say in response to this multiplicity of views? How can we decide which is the right account? In my view, the most important question is not about what “race” or “black” actually mean in our language (or what our current concepts are), but rather what the most useful concepts are, given our aims and purposes. What are our main goals when we talk about race, and what are the concepts that can better satisfy those goals? This is the relevant approach in order to answer questions such as “Is Rachel Dolezal black?”

In recent discussions of this issue in the media, some people have suggested that self-identification should play a role when it comes to determining what races are. In my view this is problematic. When it comes to the concept of gender, it seems clear to me that a concept of gender based on self-identification is the most politically useful in most (if not all) contexts, given the central aims of being maximally inclusive and fighting transphobia. I also believe, more controversially, that when it comes to sexual orientation, a concept based on self-identification is also very useful, given the moral duty of capturing people’s self-identities. However, when it comes to the concept of race, it’s not clear to me that our main aims and goals will give priority to a concept based on self-identification, given our current political context. The two social constructivist accounts of race sketched above, namely, one based on historical properties and another based on social position within a social hierarchy, can clearly satisfy crucial explanatory roles, such as explaining a history of racial discrimination and revealing different social structures of oppression. However, it’s not clear at the moment that a concept of race based (solely) on self-identification is politically useful to a similar extent. But we might envision situations where this might be different.


Meena Krishnamurthy:

As the current popular discussion illustrates, ordinary language makes use of a variety of concepts of race. Some are based on objective (mind-independent) facts such as ancestral ones (where one’s recent ancestors are from, geographically) and others are based on subjective (mind-dependent) facts such as self-identification (how one perceives oneself) or other-identification (how others perceive the individual).

This raises the question, which, if any, of these concepts of race should we use or appeal to when we refer to Dolezal? My own view is that, in contexts where such considerations are relevant, such as the public sphere, political considerations of justice ought to be given priority. They trump, so to speak, when it comes to concept selection in the public realm. Dolezal, as the president of her local NAACP and chairwoman of a municipal police oversight committee, is a public figure and political factors are of central importance. So, in asking whether we ought to refer to Dolezal as “black”, we have to ask ourselves, would doing so be consistent with and express a commitment to justice in the United States?

A just society is one that ensures that each individual, black or white, can participate in that society while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect, that is, a secure sense of her equal worth. Referring to Dolezal as “black” is not consistent with the demands of self-respect or a just society.

If society broadly accepts the practice of referring to Dolezal as “black”, this would work to socially erase or make invisible the racial privilege that Dolezal experiences as someone who does not suffer from the downstream and long lasting effects of slavery. It would express the shared public sentiment that the national political history of racial oppression and the resulting differences in power can simply be cast away whenever a person of racial privilege desires to do so, for personal benefit or otherwise. Referring to Dolezal as “black”, would fail to publicly express respect for properly “black” people by failing to express an equal valuing and acknowledgment of the lived experiences and realities that such people experience. It would suggest that they and their experiences do not matter. Because of this, it is difficult for other properly “black” individuals to participate in a society that refers to Dolezal as “black” while also maintaining a secure sense of self-respect. In short, referring to Dolezal as “black” is inconsistent with political values of self-respect and, in turn, is inconsistent with the demands of justice. We ought not refer to Dolezal as “black”.

On what basis should we refer to people as “black”? When political considerations of self-respect and justice are taken into consideration, the ancestral concept of race ought to take linguistic priority in the public sphere. People who have sub-Saharan African ancestry are properly referred to as “black”. Ancestry is the appropriate basis for referring to people as “black” because it tracks politically relevant considerations such as oppression and slavery (historical political injustices), which are considerations that ought to be given weight to and taken into consideration when we interact with others in the public sphere. This is what self-respect and a just society require.


Rebecca Kukla:

First off, I am befuddled by how many people are interested in describing what was in Rachel Dolezal’s head and are willing to offer armchair diagnoses of her purported mental illness or condemnations of her motives. Not only do I not know what was in her head, but in fact, the more the conversation focuses on this particular person’s inner life, the less interesting I find the whole issue. The interesting question, I take it, is how to think and talk in general about people who identify and present as belonging to a race other than that assigned at birth, whatever their reasons and causes. I will focus on some meta-concerns about how we are talking about that question.

I am disappointed in how quickly almost everyone, including friends of mine who are strong anti-racist and trans allies, have been willing to engage in (1) ridicule and body-shaming – unabashedly mocking her hair and skin tone for instance; (2) confident descriptions of her as a liar who is choosing to pretend to be something she is not; and (3) fast and confident claims that she can’t claim black identity because she is appropriating a culture, hasn’t grown up with the black experience, can opt out at any time, etc. My main reaction to all this is that it’s surprisingly historically short-sighted and lacking in epistemic humility. So many times, ‘we’ (those of us with a recognizable and reasonably well-established embodied, socially positioned identity) have encountered a new way of being, and have responded with ridicule, shaming, and charges of lying. So often we think that forms of identity that have no clear social place are hilarious and clearly a pretense and that their bearers are fair game for humiliation. Honestly, I don’t know if Dolezal experienced herself as lying, or as making a voluntary choice to deceive, and more generally I don’t know whether or how there might be a legitimate place for transracial identities, as opposed to, in effect, race ‘drag,’ which is what almost everyone seems to assume is going on in Dolezal’s case. But I have learned from experience that body shaming and ridicule are always unhelpful and problematic, and that what we shame and dismiss one year we often come to understand and defend ten years later. I also know that people are driven to lie and deceive in seemingly incomprehensible ways when they find themselves without any socially recognizable way of being. As for the confident claims that Dolezal, or people like her, have no right to black identities because they didn’t have a lifetime of black experience, or because they are being appropriative of the experience and identity markers of an oppressed group, or because they want access to a community that their bodies preclude them from properly joining, or that their presence in black spaces threatens the integrity of those spaces for ‘real’ black people: well, I feel the pull of those arguments for sure, and I don’t want to dismiss them. But boy do they sound exactly analogous to ‘feminist’ arguments that were used to vilify and undercut the entire reality of trans women back in the not-too-long-ago day. I just don’t have the confidence that would allow me to proclaim immediately that this time the critique fits, that there is no real phenomenon here, no human need or way of being that requires understanding and a reconfiguration of my settled concepts. Can’t we learn from the past and proceed a little more slowly?

One final point: I’ve seen several philosophers online say that before we can settle what to think about the possibility of transracial identity, we need to know more about the metaphysics of race. I think this is exactly wrong. The question is not what race ‘really’ is, because whatever the difficult answer to that, we are all walking around with a phenomenological sense of self that does not hinge on or even include this answer, and race has a powerful social life independent of its proper metaphysics. Whether transracial identity is possible and should be given social uptake strikes me as a thoroughly political question about how various ways of claiming and recognizing identity do and don’t do harm to individuals and to communities. I can’t imagine how this hinges on metaphysics. Even if there was some real thingamajig in people that constituted their race, such that if they claimed to have a different one then they were saying something false (and does anyone think that, seriously?), I can’t see how that would settle any of the interesting questions about how people experience themselves and what sorts of identity-building we should acknowledge, support, or challenge.


Charles Mills:

The Rachel Dolezal case has it all—race as subjective (“I feel black; therefore I’m black”); race as intersubjective (“I need to start performing my blackness so these other folks will know I’m black”); and race as objective (“Rachel, honey, we’re white so you can’t be black”). The Dolezal parents know they’re objectively Caucasian (though the Caucasian race doesn’t exist), and perceive no absurdity in simultaneously declaring that they’re both part Native American (since by intersubjective consensus the one-drop rule only applies to blacks). The final proof is the eyeball test: presenting the photograph of their young daughter in her previous pristine blond blue-eyed incarnation. Walter White, another blond blue-eyed American, who was the (black) chair of the national NAACP from 1931 to 1955, might have quibbled: “Hate to break it to you folks, but back in the 1890s a whole bunch of octoroons headed up north—I believe some said they were going to Montana—after telling their kin: ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you … Actually, then again, we probably won’t.’”


Daniel Silvermint:

Here are three options for conceptualizing this alleged act of passing [what follows is an excerpt from a longer piece posted at Feminist Philosophers]:

If ‘passing as privileged’ involves a member of an oppressed group passing as a member of a privileged group for the sake of some personal advantage, then a fit for this sort of alleged case might be ‘passing as disadvantaged’, where a member of a privileged group passes as a member of an oppressed group for the sake of some personal advantage. There are many such examples. A politician with a wealthy background might present himself as “a man of the people” in order to sway voters in a low-income district. Cultural appropriation in the music industry or within artistic communities is another example, such as when a person passes in order to sell “authentic” indigenous pieces or narratives. Someone might pass as a member of a marginalized group in order to obtain a scholarship or other diversity opportunity, or in order to feel somehow special in virtue of having suffered, overcome adversity, or challenged the status quo. Some simply fetishize otherness.

“Might” is the operative word here, and not just because this is an alleged case of passing. Other types of passing could end up providing even better explanations and bases for assessment. For one thing, this doesn’t appear to be simple case of appropriation – setting aside the interpersonal and institutional fallout such a reveal could bring, by all accounts Dolezal is an effective and dedicated advocate for change. If so, then she wasn’t the only person intentionally and directly advantaged by her alleged passing, meaning that the case might have more in common with ‘mutually-beneficial passing’ than with cases where the passing agent alone benefits. In other words, the deception might be wrong, but the passing wouldn’t necessarily be parasitic or exploitative in the same way that, say, passing yourself off as a long-lost relative in order to be written into a will would be wrong. Dolezal might have usurped a position or displaced a voice when being a staunch ally would have been more appropriate, but that is a different kind of wrong.

Alternatively—and quite controversially—this alleged case might be something akin to transracial passing. If she genuinely self-identifies as something other than her assigned racialized group, and is actively living the life of a person of color (including taking on the oppressive burdens that go along with such identifications), then it is at least not immediately, decisively obvious that she is engaged in wrongful deception, or that she owed it to anyone to disclose her birth identity. Many have protested that Dolezal is obviously white because she, unlike people of color, can voluntarily walk away from oppressive burdens and disadvantageous racialized treatment if she so chooses. But this objection overlooks the ongoing history of ‘passing as privileged’, where genuine victims of oppression (tenuously, and at great personal risk and cost) have done just that. Dolezal, if she is indeed passing as black, has apparently paid familial costs among others, and faces fresh costs now that she has allegedly been outed. This is fraught and uncertain terrain, and I’m not sure what to say. We don’t normally think of racialized group membership as something that one can genuinely transition into or out of, but perhaps that’s as socially determined as everything else.


Quayshawn Spencer:

Why “Is Dolezal Black or White?” is a Bad Question

There are few nationally representative empirical studies on what current Americans mean by ‘race’ that use reliable and valid instruments.  But the few that exist show a clear pattern.  American race talk is a mess.  By that I mean, for any description of what a race is that has been studied, there is a large amount of Americans who accept it and a large amount of Americans who don’t.  The most comprehensive nationally representative study to date is the US Census Bureau’s Alternative Questionnaire Experiment.    The focus group portion of that experiment revealed that there is nowhere near a consensus among Americans about what race is.  Visible physical features, ancestry, culture, etc. were all frequently used to define ‘race’.  Similar results have been found in all other nationally representative studies, such as this one and this one, and in studies that are close to nationally representative, such as this one.  Even more interesting is that there is not only widespread disagreement about how to describe a race among Americans, but also about which groups are races, which presents problems for even a referentialist account of what Americans mean by ‘race’.  For instance, a nationally representative survey of US Hispanic adults conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2012 found that 75% of Hispanic Americans reject “Hispanic/Latino” as their race.  The most popular self-identity was “White”, at 40%.  So, do Whites include Hispanics?  Or is ‘Hispanic white’ an oxymoron?

The messiness of American race talk has motivated some race scholars, such as myself, to endorse a pluralist position on what race is in the contemporary US.  The pluralist position maintains that there are multiple, equally legitimate national meanings of ‘race’ in the contemporary US.  Also, by a “national” meaning, I mean a meaning that is one of the widest, competently used meanings in a nation.  Racial pluralism, as we can call it, can be particularly helpful when assessing a case like whether Professor Rachel Dolezal is Black, or, rather, is just a White person passing as Black.  From a pluralist viewpoint, this question is unanswerable until we add the additional context of a national racial discourse.

I’ve argued in a recent paper that one US racial discourse is something I call “census racial discourse,” which is the race talk currently used by the US Census Bureau, and is also the official race talk of the US government (it was introduced in 1997 by the OMB).  In this race talk, there are five races: American Indians, Asians, Blacks, Pacific Islanders, and Whites.  Furthermore, these groups are, roughly, just ancestry groups and individuals can have mixed racial membership.  For example, most Mexican Americans would be mixed people of predominantly American Indian and White ancestry according to census race talk.  The interesting thing about census racial discourse is that it permeates many important facets of American life.  It’s found on college applications, job applications, birth certificates, medical patient information forms, mortgage loan forms, childcare registration forms, etc.  So, all Americans are bound to run into it at multiple points in life.  Professor Dolezal might have run into census racial discourse when she applied to Howard University (she graduated with an MFA in 2002), when she filled out her job application for Eastern Washington University (she’s faculty in their Africana Studies Program), or when she reported being the victim of a hate crime to the Spokane police recently.  We do not yet know whether Dolezal racially identified as Black in these linguistic contexts.  However, if Dolezal did identify as Black in these contexts, and census racial discourse was being used in these contexts, then Dolezal misrepresented herself.  Given her ancestry, in census racial discourse, Dolezal is White.  However, Dolezal very well could be Black according to some other US racial discourse (perhaps one that emphasizes cultural affinity).

So, why does any of this matter?  Well, one reason is because linguistic competence and honesty about one’s racial membership(s) is presupposed in the execution of many social programs designed to promote social justice.  For instance, the preferential treatment of Blacks in college admissions and faculty hiring, the federally-mandated racial tracking of mortgage loan borrowers, the CIA’s racial tracking of hate crimes, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ racial tracking of health disparities all rely on Americans being linguistically competent and honest about their racial membership(s) in census racial discourse.


Disembodied Inquiry:

I have concerns that the Dolezal case raises issues too complex and fraught to be productively enough addressed, via this approach, for the general audience of Daily Nous.

Meta concerns aside, I’m more curious about than critical of Dolezal. She certainly appears to be down with the cause of Black political (and cultural) solidarity. Her ambitions seem to have been limited to making a life for herself and a difference around Spokane, WA. Bracketing the matter of deception about her family background, she seems to represent (what I argue elsewhere) is the real, if rare, possibility of a non-black person being a member in, not merely “ally” of, Black political solidarity. Still, Dolezal evidently has some substantial psychological challenges, which could explain why she gratuitously lied about easily enough confirmed facts about her immediate family.

But here’s what could get me in arguments that I don’t have time to deal with: I do think there is a parallel between this type of color-conscious “passing” and trans identity (an observation I make without prejudice, one way or the other). What I’ve read rejecting this parallel has been unconvincing and overly anxious–namely, in appealing to differences that don’t go to the heart of the matter. Also, I get the sense that whites are mainly the ones who seem outraged, while blacks mainly seem wryly bemused–an interesting issue unto itself.

Dolezal might deeply believe she is somehow black/African–regardless of knowing she was born to parents who are classified as and “look” white/European. Since the world is not yet ready to recognize this kind of identity change, she might have gratuitously lied in order to feel closer to–and be seen as–living what she experiences as her true, color-conscious political, cultural, and soul self. From the perspective, Dolezal is not merely a fraud or an opportunist; nor is she merely confused.


UPDATE (6/15/15): Laurie Shrage (Florida International University) was interviewed by BBC Newsnight last Friday about the Dolezal case. The interview prompted her to write the following, which she kindly agreed to share with Daily Nous readers:

Suppose a person is brought up in a white family and is treated from birth as a white person.  Imagine further that this person discovers that one of her parents or grandparents, with whom she has had no contact, is black.  Based on this new knowledge, if she were to “come out” as black, would we see her new identity as inauthentic, fraudulent, a kind of fakery, and an instance of cultural appropriation and opportunism?  If she didn’t begin to identify as black, would we now see her as trying to pass as white?

Now imagine a person who is brought up in a mixed black/white family.  No one in this family identifies as “mixed race,” instead they are all either black or white.  Suppose one of the white members begins to identify as black.  She has no known black ancestors, but she has black siblings.  To gain acceptance in this new identity, she cuts herself off from white members of her family, and she closets her past as a white person.  Should such a person be viewed as an imposter, fraud, liar, and fake?

The case of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane NAACP, who was recently “outed” by her parents as a white person, is being treated in the media as a bizarre instance of deception and fraud.  This would make perfect sense if race was a genetically inherited trait.  But decades of scientific research has shown that there are no racial genes, and there is more genetic variation within any recognized racial group than between groups.  While there are genes for skin color, hair texture, and physiognomic traits, the classification of bodily traits as racial is culturally based and variable.

In the scientific community, race is regarded as a social construct because the rules for assigning people to racial categories are socially and historically created, and do not have any significance in a biological or genetic sense.  A person’s bodily features may tell us something about the human populations around the globe her ancestors swapped genes with, but they tell us little about her culture, personality, abilities, traditions, and so on.

Saying that race is social construct does not mean race is not a socially significant and real category.  Nor does it imply that racism is not real.  Indeed, one thing we might be able to infer correctly from people’s bodily appearance is that they have faced a history of social discrimination in one form or another—experiences that have shaped their social ties, perspectives, and understanding of themselves.

Given that one’s racial identity is socially created, can we change our racial identities or the rules for assigning people to racial categories?  For example, the “one-drop” rule assigns someone to the category “black” if they have one black ancestor.  This rule once served an exclusionary purpose that many today would regard as racist and oppressive.  Yet, if the person in our first example were to be accepted as a black person, it would be based on a “one-drop” understanding of blackness.  Shouldn’t we contest this understanding, given its historical purpose and consequences, and also the choice of someone to identify as black based on it?

A person who identifies as black based on a problematic and historically racist rule may have good reasons for self-identifying as black.  She may want to show her social solidarity with the black community, and she may feel that she cannot do so while she enjoys the privileges of whiteness.  She may feel that others will identify her as black, based on the one-drop rule, and so if she goes on identifying as white, others will perceive her as racist.

Rachel Dolezal’s racial identity does not follow the historically racist rules of race assignment.  Because of this, the media has treated her case as one of deception and fraud, and we see reporters trying to catch her in an outright misrepresentation of her familial relationships, and thereby publicly shame her.  The media has uncritically accepted her parents’ understanding of her racial identity—parents whose motives should be questioned for forcibly “outing” their daughter and potentially causing her significant harm.

Whether Rachel Dolezal is really black is not a question I can answer here.  Whether she can live a life as a black person depends to a significant degree on whether she can be accepted by others and by her community as a black person.  With most social identities, there’s a gate-keeping process in which other members of the group are invested with the authority to say who’s in and who’s out.  In the wake of the media storm, many black leaders and commentators have said she should be put out.  One reason seems to be that because she does not have the characteristic experiences growing up as a black person, she cannot truly understand what it means to be black.  This reason, of course, should exclude the person in my first hypothetical example too.

One difference though between the hypothetical case and this real one is that, once people find out that someone has a black ancestor, they will be viewed by others as black and begin to experience what life is like living as a black person.  In Rachel’s case, in order to experience this, she had to hide the fact that she has no known black ancestors, and therefore is not black by conventional criteria.   Importantly, Rachel has the choice not to be black, while someone with one drop of “black blood” does not.  While this is problematic, the problem seems to be with the exclusionary one-drop rule, and the inevitable social discrimination that someone in my hypothetical case would likely experience. That is, there is a genuine problem that someone like Rachel has a choice to retain or not the privileges of whiteness, while others are denied this choice, and more importantly, the privileges of whiteness.  These privileges include automatic social respect, trust, and inclusion.  The real problem is that white identity is still a source of social privilege, something that the many recent stories of police violence underscore.

The upshot is that we should focus less on whether Rachel Dolezal is a fake, and focus more on how her story illuminates our own still very troubled and unscientific understandings of race.


 (image: photo of Rachel Dolezal by Colin Mulvaney / Associated Press, modified)

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sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

I can see why the last comments are anonymous [I say full well understanding the irony here] as this person does exactly what Kukla objected to doing. Maybe this person is psychic as Disembodied Inquiry also seems to just easily assert that black people are merely bemused by this case. This isn’t the reaction I’ve seen and I’d be curious at what an actual empirical poll might reveal. Otherwise, I think I learned a lot from this post and I’m happy to see something like this.Report

Daniel Silvermint
Daniel Silvermint
6 years ago

I found the roundtable format incredibly illuminating, and I hope that this is something that Daily Nous will continue to do with other issues in the future!Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
6 years ago

Strongly second Daniel Silvermint’s sentiments!Report

Izzy Black
Izzy Black
6 years ago

I agree with Rebecca that the shaming is both unhelpful and cruel. We also haven’t heard from Dolezal herself. It’s hard to justify forming strong judgments about the case when we have yet to hear from her on how she thinks of herself and how she chooses to relate to black identity. All we really have at this point is a lot of insinuation and rumor, but regardless of what she has to say on the matter, I don’t think it warrants public shaming. I also think it’s great that she has done as much as she has for the cause of racial equality and social justice.

But abstracting away from the particular case of Dolezal and thinking of the issue as a more general question, I think there are legitimate concerns about appropriation that really is, in my view, at the heart of the matter. I won’t make a concerted attempt to say what distinguishes this type of case from gender identity issues (although I gesture at possibilities below), but I will say something about what I think it is in particular that concerns people of color when a white person attempts to assume black identity. It is, among other things, that there is a unique, painful history of black experience in the United States of not only black cultural appropriation, but of people who enjoy white identities and privileges that have assumed black faces and likeness, often in ways or roles employed to denigrate blackness (black face, minstrel shows, etc). Obviously Dolezal would not represent a case of intentional parody depending on her motives and given her capacity as an activist, but more generally, the mere fact of appropriation, inasmuch as any given case is such an instance, still carries a painful history, imparts a particular meaning to people of color in our society, and ostensibly incurs a responsibility of respect. It is also for these reasons that I don’t consider such cases to be genuine instances of what we might call “passing,” as we do when we refer to oppressed minorities that are either forced into different racial categories or find refuge in them.

In terms of gender, I will only say that I’m not sure its history of oppression imparts these same kinds of meanings and effects, but I don’t know. I do know gender reversals, swapping, and fluidity (and gender itself as a concept) far predates the concept of race. (We see these kinds of ‘gender play’ dynamics in Shakespeare, which even goes as far back as practices and themes in Greek theater). It’s a question whether gender transitions have a stronger history of liberation than oppression. Perhaps there are historically similar problems with these kinds of role changes in gender history, or perhaps gender otherwise carries a whole host of other complexities that make the situation unique, I can’t say, and I’m happy to let someone who is more informed on these matters speak to this, but I can say that there is in fact this painful history in black racial identity that I think demands our respect. I take this view to be much in line with Meena’s comments. I think that even if such concerns aren’t an overriding consideration in our analysis of race concepts and racial identity, it’s in any case at least an important one that must be weighed against the sociopolitical pros and cons of respecting the freedom of the individual to self-identify how they see fit.Report

AnonForNow
AnonForNow
6 years ago

I think these matters are made to appear more complicated than they are by social scientists and activists, and even some philosophers who allow ‘political’ goals to guide their thinking. Here is a simple view that avoids these problems:

– Sex and race are natural phenomena, sex having to do with reproductive system and chromosomes, and race to do with biology and ancestry.
– Sex and race have been given importance/significance, almost always undue, generally in a way that oppresses some (females, colonized races, etc.).
– Psychological and other kinds of properties that correlate with sex and race are often stereotypically associated with the sexes and races, e.g. described as ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, ‘a white name’, ‘a German temperament’, etc.
– Sometimes people have psychological identities associated with these biological and historical features, such as an identity of sex (gender identity) and an identity of race. This is some sort of representation of oneself as having the features, and seems to correlate with the feature being important to oneself. That people can have the identities of groups they are not actually members of may be because they are representing themselves as having features stereotypically associated with those groups, or as partaking in the significance given to the biological/historical features, and there may even be an element of desire or preference in the identification, e.g. preferred embodiment or preferred social role.

From this perspective, here’s how I would answer the following questions:

– Is Rachel Dolezal black? No, she’s biologically and ancestrally white.
– Does she possess a black racial identity? Apparently so, but I don’t see why that matters.
– Is she/has she been treated as if she was black, and therefore partaken of the significance of that in the context in which she lives and works? Yes, but things can be treated as if they are things they are not, and they can partake of the implications of being a member of a group they are not.Report

anongrad
anongrad
6 years ago

I am interested in Charles Mills’ claim that “the Caucasian race doesn’t exist”. What does he mean exactly? Can anyone elaborate on this?Report

Nick Nicita
6 years ago

I think this case is important because it carries implications that reverberate through many different social spheres. For example, the issue of her reporting of hate crimes. Someone on another site began chastizing her as a liar for reporting these crimes, but without the relevant facts I’m not sure that conclusion can be drawn. Hate crimes are not just subjective, but also intersubjective. Insofar as the perpetrator commits a crime with the intent to cause harm based on the perceived race of the idividual (even if their knowledge incomplete or faulty) the crime can still be considered a hate crime. In the context of this issue, if the perpetrator believed Ms. Dolezal was black, and trageted her because of that perception, she may not have been wrong to call it a hate crime.Report

Charles Mills
Charles Mills
6 years ago

Anongrad: For a detailed (book-length) account of the history of this bogus concept see Bruce Baum, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race.Report

David Naples
David Naples
6 years ago

Many of these submissions address the issue of race, which is important. But also important is the issue of honestly, disclosure, and forthrightness. To compare it to transgenderism, it is one thing to learn that a certain person who is now a female was once male. It is a completely different thing to learn, let’s say a after a couple years of marriage, that one’s wife was once a male. Regardless of one’s opinions on the topic, such a revelation could obviously cause a feeling of betrayal. Dolezal’s leadership role puts her in a state more analogous to the latter case rather than the former. This isn’t to come to a judgment concerning her “actual” race, whatever that may be. I merely point out the other considerations in play.Report

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

Nick Nicita, the reason Dolezal is and should be chastized for reporting hate crimes is not because she’s not actually black (after all, hate crimes can happen to white people too), but because (at least some of) the hate crimes never happened — e.g. the threat letter in her mailbox must have been put there by Dolezal herself, according to the postal service.Report

Nick Nicita
6 years ago

Ben,

Thanks for clarity with respect to the issue of the alleged hate crimes. If, in fact, these incidents were completely fabricated that is a different situation all together. I’m not sure what a proper response should be in that context.Report

AnonAttorney
AnonAttorney
6 years ago

It’s rather striking how hesitant people like “MaybeIgetit” in another thread and Kukla here to label Dolezal a liar. I mean, just read this interview: http://easterneronline.com/35006/eagle-life/a-life-to-be-heard/#sthash.1aUk3liU.qaandUax.dpbs. She claims to have born in a tee-pee and grown up hunting for food with bows and arrows, a fantastically offensive fabrication based on stereotypes of Native Americans. There are a number of other outlandish claims in there as well. Claims that are used to establish her credentials for her position in a organization devoted to fighting oppression.

But worst of all is that she has lied about growing up black. In her explicitly political position she holds herself out as someone who has shared the experiences and struggles of black Americans. At most she has had a few years of those experiences and only as an adult. See http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/i-became-black-woman-spokane-rachel-dolezal-i-was-black-girl-first. She must know, after all, the whole point of a transition is to get society to see you in a different way. If she didn’t know it, she would not have changed her appearance. Still, she says otherwise. That’s lying. You can get that conclusion without working out any of the difficult metaphysical issues.

P.S. Speaking of outlandish claims, does anyone else not think most blacks are “wryly amused?”Report

Disembodied Inquiry
Disembodied Inquiry
6 years ago

I am puzzled by the notion that it is pointless or verboten to try to consider the mind and motives of a person engaged in unusual, directed behavior of public concern. Since I don’t understand a purportedly stark contrast between “inner life” and actual conduct in such cases, what I find interesting will sometimes differ from what, say, Rebecca Kukla happens to find interesting. I’m generally comfortable with my judgment of what’s interesting on the subject of race. (I can assure “sin nombre” that my reasons for adopting weak anonymity here having nothing to do with failing to meet standards he or she would support.)

As for my sense that “blacks mainly seem wryly bemused” by the Dolezal case, I’m fine modifying my conjecture to “many” or even “quite a few.” (My commentary was not originally intended for public consumption.) I am going on what I’ve read and whom I’ve talked with, an admittedly limited sample size. But I detect in Charles Mills’s commentary, perhaps wrongly, an example of the type of response I had in mind.Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

As a somewhat more philosophically pure thought experiment we might read this interview with Mark Stebbins. I don’t know anything about him besides what’s at the link, but it seems like a Rachel Dolezal without the lying or blackface elements
http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/06/15/mark_stebbins_interview_rachel_dolezal_s_predecessor_in_racial_controversy.html

Thanks also to everyone for participating! I initially wanted a post like to this to hear what others had to say to help me think through my own view. I agree with Rebecca that the metaphysics of race do not come first here, but I do think this case is an interesting datum for the formation of those views.Report

Coherentist
Coherentist
6 years ago

I really appreciate this post — I’m glad to read the different perspectives from such a wonderful group of thoughtful philosophers. I think it’s interesting (not as a matter of comment on this post, or what’s been said here, but on the media coverage surrounding this) that so much attention has been paid to the question of her motives, but seemingly little to the question of her parents’. Especially since it seems they may have a completely unrelated family controversy in which they find themselves on a different side than their daughter: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_28315863/rachel-dolezals-brother-faces-child-sex-assault-chargesReport

BlackAndWrylyAmused
BlackAndWrylyAmused
6 years ago

Just an anecdote in a sea of speculation.Report

Anon Of Course
Anon Of Course
6 years ago

This is a question about the thoughtful comments from Esa Diaz-Leon. Specifically, this part:

“there are other versions of social constructionism about races, such as Sally Haslanger’s account, where being a member of a race amounts to occupying a certain social position of privilege or oppression along some dimensions, and someone is marked as being appropriately in that position in virtue of being perceived or imagined to have certain geographical origins…”

On this view, the phrase “the black race” refers to a group of people occupying a certain oppressed social position. So it seems like, on this view, bringing about genuine social justice and equality–i.e. removing any unjust privilege or oppression–would destroy the black race. If someone’s black only if she occupies a certain social position, and it comes to pass that nobody occupies that sort of position, then nobody would be black. Surely that can’t be right! The civil rights movement is not advocating for the elimination of the black race!

Another way to put the point: Can any non-racist get a felicitous reading of this sentence?

In a truly just and equitable society, the black race would not exist.

Of course not! But there should be such a reading, according to the Haslangerian social constructionist view. So then isn’t that pretty strong evidence against this Haslangerian social constructionist view about the meaning of the phrase “the black race”? I think so.

…And wouldn’t the same go with gender terms, e.g. “woman”? I’d think so. But that would sure throw a wrench on the common interpretation of the Caitlyn Jenner story, an interpretation that seems to require a social constructionist treatment of “woman.”Report

blacyogis
blacyogis
6 years ago

While the idea of transracial identity is food for thought, I find Rachael’s story a poor case study. Had this woman decided to change her appearance and live as black woman, perhaps claiming her African roots from the distant past or just simply identifying with blackness and black culture, that would be an interesting case for viewing the idea of transracialness. However, there are a few things that go beyond just being about redefining racial identity. On the issue of deception, one of the essays above addressed our need to lie in everyday life. But her lies and deception were at the core of what is appeared to buttress her created identity. Her father had to be black, so her birth father is no longer her father. Her adopted sibling became her “birth” son. So in order to portray blackness she had to create a history otherwise, how would this black identity stick? She made false reports of being persecuted by a number of white hate groups. Perhaps this false narrative is an attempt to give her “oppression street cred,” in other words a badge of blackness. She even fabricated elaborate and detailed stories (watch her interviews) about her experiences of growing up and thinking about herself as a brown girl. I know some of the philosophers may say this is not relevant. But I believe these are significant because all of these things and are parts with fictitious content that she used to craft something a new identity. Yes, we all to some extent recreate ourselves anew everyday but there has to be some foundation of truth. Otherwise we are always looking for exhaustive ways to keep an untrue foundation solid. When comparing this woman’s scenario to transgendered persons, the huge difference is they are not (for the most part) fabricating experience, which is huge.

I do not agree that one can toss away the reality of shared experience of race particularly in America. It’s not just your experience one feels, one feels experience of ancestors, brother’s, sisters, aunts, uncles, children etc. There are numerous studies which show that we experience trauma passed down via our DNA for at least 3 generations. You look at Africans in Africa and black African peoples in the diaspora and there are significant undeniable similarities in culture ways of being. So as much as Rachael can claim this transracial identity, its like putting on a custom and playing a part and getting a glimpse of a life apart from a previous identity. But there is so much more.

And yet, where has there been this discussion about transracial identity in all the centuries of light-skinned black people passing as white and or dark-skinned black people bleaching their skin? Black people have already assimilated into white culture, by dress, straightened, hair, indoctrination of Eurocentric world view, but is transracial identity available for blacks? No.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
6 years ago

blacyogis and others: I really don’t want to defend RD in particular, but I just want to think a bit more about the general rhetoric around deception that this case is sparking. When one knows that one’s identity as it stands has no social place, one lies to survive. We don’t (now) dismiss gay people who had ‘fake’ marriages and relationships as covers to stay in the closet back in the day; we don’t say “well it’s fine that they were gay but they LIED so screw them.” We don’t (now, I hope) dismiss trans folks who protect themselves from violence and other transphobic harms by filling in deceptive details about a childhood that was different from the one they actually had. Social pressures and possibilities and impossibilities can, unfortunately, require lying as self-protection for some. To dip just ever so slightly into RD’s particular case: you say, “Her father had to be black, so her birth father is no longer her father.” – well, I am made uncomfortable by her use of this man too. BUT she obviously has a massively f*cked up relationship with her parents and there are lots of reasons to forge a parent/child relationship of choice with someone who isn’t your biological parent when your biological parents are utterly undermining of your sense of self and your relationship to them is damaging rather than supportive. So I think it’s too quick to say that she just grabbed this guy because she needed someone black.

But clearly she did all sorts of messed up and ethically problematic things, so again I don’t want to stake myself on defending her. I’m just more generally unimpressed at these quick moves from “X lied and deceived” to “X is just an a**hole rather than someone with a complicated identity we need to work to understand.” Lies and deceptions can be situationally produced rather than just an expression of bad character, particularly when it comes to fragile and socially marginal identity work.Report

AnonGrad
AnonGrad
6 years ago

I’m a bit surprised by the ease with which AnonAttorney and others accept Dolezal’s parents’ account of her childhood upbringing. Given Dolezal’s accusations of abuse (based on skin tone, no less), their hurry to “out” her, and the fact that she now has custody of her adopted brother, I think we have good reason to be quite cautious of accepting their narrative. In fact, her parents admit to having lived in a tee pee, although they claim that it was several years before she was born. It may well be that they are the one’s misconstruing their family history to discredit Dolezal. Having grown up in a conservative, fundamentalist Christian culture similar to the one in which Dolezal apparently did, her version of the story does not sound particularly bizarre to me (though, the fact that she appears to have lied about other things does complicate matters). The fact is, we just don’t know. But there are layers upon layers of complexity in this situation that cannot be overlooked if we are going to draw conclusions about Dolezal, her character, and the ethics of her particular choices (which are admittedly of less philosophical interest than the broader questions of the nature of racial identity).Report

Thisisaminefield
Thisisaminefield
6 years ago

And NOBODY wants to compare the Dolezal case to Michael Jackson? Now that would have been interesting.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

Did anyone answer the question? This is why you don’t ask philosophers anything that might matter to someone.Report

Jean
Jean
6 years ago

In response to Laurie Shrage: I don’t think it’s true that Dolezal’s parents “forcibly outed” her. In a television interview, they say they knew she identified as black for years, and said nothing. They said she was white when asked by a journalist. They took themselves to simply be telling the truth. http://www.today.com/news/rachel-dolezals-parents-we-taught-our-kids-always-be-honest-t26141Report

Nick Nicita
6 years ago

Matthew, the OP didn’t pose any specific question(s) that I can remember (I just did a quick scan of it, and didn’t see a question). He asked for thoughts on the issue. In that sense they absolutely answered the question.Report

Richard Hanley
Richard Hanley
6 years ago

Just to makes things even curiouser, it’s being reported that she once sued (historically black) Howard University for behavior “motivated by a discriminatory purpose to favor African-American students over” her:
http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/bizarre/rachel-dolezal-discrimination-lawsuit-786451Report

Gwendolyn
Gwendolyn
6 years ago

Isn’t this a non-issue? Who cares if she’s “black” or “white”- isn’t she the same person either way?Report

Disembodied Inquiry
Disembodied Inquiry
6 years ago

I feel somewhat embarrassed to point this out, but I wrote “wryly bemused” — not “amused,” as some readers seem to think. There is a significant difference in meaning between “amused” and “bemused.”Report

Meena Krishnamurthy
6 years ago

I came out with a strong answer to the question of whether we ought to refer to Dolezal as “black”, the answer I proposed was that “we ought not refer to Dolezal as “black”.Report

AnonAttorney
AnonAttorney
6 years ago

Re Anongrad,

I never said I accepted her parents’ account of anything. As others have noted, their motivations may not be (I would say likely are not) mere honesty. What I did say is that I did not believe her story about growing up in a teepee hunting for food with a bow and arrow. My priors for “being born in a teepee and growing up hunting for your own food with a bow and arrow” are pretty low. I’ve not seen any place where her parents claim to have lived in a teepee before she was born. I did see an interview where her father claims to have grown up hunting for food with a bow and arrow. I’m not committed to him being anymore honest than she is. Also, I’m not committed to thinking that her parents are good people or good parents. I’m just committed to thinking that Rachel Dolezal was lying in a number of instances.

Re Rebecca Kukla,

I think it’s true that people with unrecognized or unpopular identities often have to lie to survive. But the lies have to be needed (or perceived to be needed) for survival. If they aren’t, then they are morally impermissible. This why the inner life you find uninteresting matters, although on that I’m a little confused. If you are upset that people are calling Dolezal an “asshole” or whatever, then I don’t see how you could go about correcting them without looking at her inner life. After all, to say someone is an asshole is to say something about their motivations and so on. You can’t really say, “I know she’s not an asshole, but I know nothing about her inner life.”

However, if you are upset that people are not interested in the questions about race and intersectionality that her case (supposedly raises), then you might be able to address that with talking about her inner life. It seems fine to say, “She might be/is an asshole, but her case raises such and such issues.” This is why it’s strange that people won’t assert that she lied.Report

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

Disembodied Inquiry, if I were Charles Mills I’d be wryly bemused too since he basically wrote about this twenty years ago. I will say it again, this has not been the reaction I’ve encountered. I’ve seen some people call this black face, some people are upset that she took opportunities away from deserving black students and academics, some others have pointed to the New Yorker article calling race a myth. I think that was a pretty lazy conjecture on your part and, come to think of it, I’m not sure what the relevance is. Assuming Dolezal isn’t actually wearing black face, does it matter how members of the group she is trying to identify feel about her identification?Report

AnonGrad
AnonGrad
6 years ago

Anon Attorney:

“Dolezal’s mother said she and Larry lived in a teepee for a while in 1974, when they were first married and three years before Dolezal was born. “That was the end of living in the teepee,” Ruthanne said.”

http://www.cdapress.com/news/local_news/article_385adfeb-76f3-5050-98b4-d4bf021c423f.html?mode=jqmReport

etc. etc.
etc. etc.
6 years ago

The thing is, though, that gender identity can be conceptualized as primarily inborn and biologically driven without delegitimizing transgender identities. For example, one way that being transgender can be understood is as a type of intersexuality, in which one is born with a mixture of traits associated with males and females. Gender identity can be seen as one of these traits, along with (for example) external and internal gonad structure and/or continuous variation in hormone levels and developmental outcomes (e.g. location of the urethra). We have good evidence for gender identity being an inborn trait because there are numerous studies of intersex people who were coercively assigned particular genders at birth that later turned out not to match those individuals’ gender identities, with the eventual result being gender dysphoria and transition. We also have evidence that gender variance and transition has been observed/practiced across many different human cultures. But in this framework the analogy to racial “transition” falls apart: we have no similar evidence that racial identity can be an inborn trait that is decoupled from 1. ancestry and 2. the external perception of that ancestry, nor is there any plausible mechanism for this type of inborn racial identity (particularly in light of the fact that the cultural importance of the difference between White and Black people is such a recent phenomenon in terms of human evolution). This is unlike gender identity, where our understanding is of course still very limited but where we at least have some insight into how sex and gender are established during human development.Report

Esa Diaz-Leon
Esa Diaz-Leon
6 years ago

Thanks for your question! I agree that Haslanger’s account of race is committed to the view that if we get rid of subordination and oppression, then there would be no races anymore, since no-one would occupy a position of oppression in virtue of their perceived geographical origins. This would be a problem if the question at issue was to spell out our ordinary concept of ‘race’. It seems very counterintuitive to say that if there was no oppression, there would be no races, so it seems that Haslanger’s account does not capture our ordinary concept of race. But as Haslanger makes clear (and I suggest in my comments), the question at issue here is not what our concept is but rather what our concept of race should be. The claim here is that an account of race in terms of social position within a social hierarchy is a useful way of conceptualising race. It might be argued though that there are some important political aims that this concept cannot capture, such as explaining the significance of racial identity. So, we might have to conclude that a concept along these lines might be useful for some purposes but not for others.Report

an0n
an0n
6 years ago

Because people from the Caucasus are basically arabs and we tend not to think of arabs as white. So it’s meaningless to use Caucasian as a euphemism for white.Report

Justin E. H. Smith
Justin E. H. Smith
6 years ago

Just to clarify, the Justin who posted a link to my own page is not me, but perhaps Justin Weinberg, or some other Justin still.Report

Anon Of Course
Anon Of Course
6 years ago

Ah, thanks very much Esa (if I may). It wasn’t clear to me from reading your initial comments that the Haslanger proposal is merely a *suggestion* for how we might revise our race terms, and not a *description* or *analysis* of race terms as they’re currently used. Even so, it still seems pretty weird to suggest a revision of race terms on which it would come out true that “Ideally, there would be no black race” and (in the mouth of a civil rights activist) “My life’s work is to eliminate the black race,” etc. Still sounds pretty bad! One might take this as a good reason to politely pass on Haslanger’s suggestion. We should speak in such a way that makes it clear we want to advance the disadvantaged, to reduce racial inequalities, NOT to eliminate racial groups! For example, we speak of eliminating *poverty*, not the *impoverished*.

But I better understand the view now; thank you. So then, if you were asked the honest question “Is Dolezal black?” your answer would be “No,” right? That’s what the social-historical account recommends, after all. And it seems like you agree that this account captures how we actually use race terms.

But if the question were “Should ‘Dolezal is black’ be true?” you might, inspired by Haslanger, answer otherwise.

And I guess one might say something similar about Caitlyn Jenner. Is Jenner a woman? No. Should it be true that ‘Jenner is a woman’? Maybe then you answer otherwise.Report

Esa Diaz-Leon
Esa Diaz-Leon
Reply to  Anon Of Course
6 years ago

Anon of course: Thanks for this! Regarding the counter-intuitiveness of the revisionary proposal: I don’t think it sounds so problematic to say that activists are working to eliminate races. Of course if someone said that the aim is to eliminate the black race, this would probably trigger the implicature that the aim is to eliminate the black race as opposed to other races, which is obviously not the aim. But the more general claim that the goal of activism is to eliminate races does not sound so counter-intuitive to me. I think the analogy with poverty and the impoverished is a good one. Under one reading, we want to say that we want to eliminate poverty, not the impoverished, that is, we want to get rid of the property of being poor rather than the people who actually instantiate the property! (Under a similar reading, the proper consequence of the revisionary proposal about race would be to say that we want to eliminate racial properties rather than the people who actually instantiate those properties, that is, the aim is to have a world where people do no longer instantiate racial properties.) Under another reading, it sounds OK to me to say that the aim regarding poverty alleviation is to aim for a world where there are no impoverished people, that is, where no-one is impoverished. In other words, we want to eliminate impoverished people “de dicto”, not “de re”, that is, we want a world where no-one falls under the description “being impoverished”. Likewise, we could say that we want to eliminate racial groups “de dicto”, not “de re”, that is, we want a world where no-one instantiates racial properties, that is, where no-one is privileged or subordinated in virtue of their (real or imagined) geographical origins.
Regarding our current, ordinary concept of race: I agree with Quayshawn Spencer that race talk is a mess. So if the question is “Is Rachel Dolezal black, according to our ordinary concept of ‘black’?”, the answer would probably be “it’s indeterminate”, or “it depends on who is asking (and which concept they are expressing)”. So we will need to make the concept more precise (by means of revisions or stipulations), in order to get a determinate answer anyway. Because of this, I believe that the most interesting question is not about what our current concepts are but rather about what our concepts should be. And concerning this question, I think that both the historical account and the social constructivist account (a la Haslanger) can satisfy some important explanatory roles. (And perhaps other accounts could satisfy yet other explanatory roles.) Which account should we go for, then? I think it depends on the context and on which goals and purposes are more crucial in that context.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
6 years ago

Thanks to everyone. I am really learning a lot from this discussion. In case anyone is interested, I discovered this lengthy 2014 interview of Dolezal by a student. I didn’t get far because it was really painful to watch, to be honest, but it may throw more light on her than the popular news stories have done. It’s divided into four youtube videos.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmFqU_ocFG0Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

Haslanger accepts this result of her view. Others have rejected Haslanger’s view for this reason. Whatever you think about it, it isn’t a crazy view, as I hear a lot of people express the wish that “we didn’t separate ourselves with catagories” or “that all people will interbreed and we will all be shades of brown”, which I take to be expressing the idea that they wish races didn’t exist.

Some complications on Haslanger’s view, Jenner is not a woman when she isn’t being treated as a woman – some have rightly complained that her view marginalizes trans women. Also, for Haslanger only gender is socially constructed, sex is not. So there will always be the sexes we have now, and one can change sex by changing one’s body presumably. Haslanger is open to a future with different, non-hierarchical gender categories, but she doesn’t think they exist now.Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

Sorry I think my comment is redundant now, didn’t see the replies below!Report

Anon Of Course
Anon Of Course
6 years ago

Thanks Kristina. Would you mind telling me where Haslanger accepts this implication, and perhaps a couple places where others raise the objection (and reject the view for it)? I’m brand new to this area, and I’d like to dig into it some more. I’m starting a subfolder in my research folder.Report

Anon Of Course
Anon Of Course
6 years ago

This sounds a bit like the “etymological fallacy,” roughly: the original/literal/etymological meaning of X was Y. So X cannot now mean Z. But of course words change meaning all the time, and many have departed from their original/literal/etymological meaning. For example, ‘transpire’, ‘persona’, ‘apology’, ‘lady’, etc.

So, ‘Caucasian’ may well have a coherent meaning quite different from its original/literal/etymological meaning.Report

Anon Of Course
Anon Of Course
6 years ago

Obviously I don’t know how the “Reply” function works. That last comment was directed at an0n above, namely his comments about the term “Caucasian.”Report

Esa Diaz-Leon
Esa Diaz-Leon
6 years ago

Thanks Kristina, your comment is not redundant at all! I agree with what you say about gender. Regarding the desire for a world without races: I believe that even if all people interbreed and we were all shades of brown, this wouldn’t suffice to eliminate races, on Haslanger’s view, since according to this account racial groups amount to groups that occupy a certain social position within a social hierarchy, and there could still be social structures of privilege and oppression (in virtue of real or imagined geographical origins) in a world where we were all shades of brown. So on Haslanger’s view, to get rid of races amounts to eliminating the social structures of oppression. Likewise, I believe that to eliminate or change our racial categories (that is, our racial concepts) wouldn’t be enough in order to eliminate racial groups, since it would be possible for social structures to exist even in the absence of racial concepts (this is perhaps unlikely but not metaphysically impossible). So, again, in order to eliminate races on this account we would have to get rid of social hierarchies themselves (which is a very legitimate goal!).Report

Christopher S. Day
Christopher S. Day
6 years ago

Good stuff here. I’m glad to see a platform where philosophers can contribute to current topics of interest.

2 complaints and then a summary.

1. It’s misleading to say that race is socially constructed. All science is socially constructed, insofar as it is the product of human activity in groups. The relevant question is not whether a shared belief is socially constructed but how that belief is justified. In the case of the concept of race, the justification must come from research into human variation. And on the question of whether the concept of race is justified here, anthropologists are somewhat divided. Some see no use for the concept of race, arguing that though there are geographically distinct groupings of traits, there’s no clear enough discontinuity between them to justify continuing to think of them as separate. On the other hand, some technicians of human variation, namely forensic anthropologists, insist on using race as a measure of importance for human remains and make use of it in a straightforward, objective way in most circumstances. To say that race is socially constructed glosses over a philosophically interesting debate in the science of human variation and thus misses out on a profitable opportunity to apply the philosopher’s unique way of thinking to a disciplinary quibble within science. Why say that race is socially constructed when we could say, more philosophically, that while the empirical question of one’s ancestry is epistemically indeterminate, thanks to interbreeding and migration, it is not objectively uncertain in principle, as the details regarding your or my lineage are incontrovertible facts of history, whether we can in practice discover them or not.

2. I find the use of pragmatism in a few of the respondents’ musings unsatisfactory. Pragmatism arose as a way of deciding among conflicting empirical assertions (is light a particle or is it a wave?) and declared that instead of trying to settle the matter once and for all, metaphysically, we can instead satisfy ourselves with an instrumental definition of truth which lets us restate the question “What is true of nature?” in the following way: “What is useful to our investigation of nature?” In this way, the pragmatic answer to the paradoxes we encountered when trying to understand the natural world is that we can continue to use different theories in different contexts unproblematically as long as they make reliable predictions, and can therefore leave all worries of their overall compatibility behind. Light is pragmatically conceptualized as a discrete particle in some contexts (e.g. investigations of the photo-electric effect) and as a wave practically everywhere else.

So when race theorists ask us to think pragmatically about race, that is, to substitute the question of “What are the biological facts regarding some person’s ancestry?” with the question, “What should we believe given our political goals concerning the concept of race?” I see nothing but subterfuge. To think pragmatically about race means that we must also consider its usefulness for those of us who research human origins and variation. Does the concept of race help or hinder our understanding of anthropology, and to what extent? This is what a philosophically pragmatic approach to the topic of race must include. To leave it aside and to adopt pragmatism’s makeshift theory of truth only in the realm of how believing something furthers our political goals is in my view a subversion of philosophy.Report

Ph
Ph
6 years ago

“First off, I am befuddled by how many people are interested in describing what was in Rachel Dolezal’s head and are willing to offer armchair diagnoses of her purported mental illness”
… proceeds to do exactly thatReport

Esa Diaz-Leon
Esa Diaz-Leon
6 years ago

Christopher: Thanks for this! In response to 1: The claim here is not just that the concept of race is socially constructed, but also, and crucially, that the property picked out by the concept of race is socially constructed. There is a trivial sense in which all concepts are socially constructed, since the fact that we entertain some concepts rather than others depends on a variety of social facts which could be otherwise. But this does not entail anything about the nature of the signified property. For instance, the concept of money and the concept of electron are both socially constructed in that sense, but I would say that money (the kind) is socially constructed whereas electrons are (arguably) not. So, the interesting version of social constructionism about race claims that the property of being a racial group, or the property of being a member of a certain race, are socially constructed in the sense that those properties wouldn’t be instantiated in the absence of certain social practices and social structures.Report

Christopher S. Day
Christopher S. Day
6 years ago

Esa,

Thanks for the quick reply!

It is my argument that the property picked out by race is not socially constructed but is a natural feature of any given person’s full genealogy, and it is the task of biological anthropology to investigate this on a historical scale. It is, however, also my contention that while a perfect understanding of race at the level of an individual human is in practice unobtainable at the present moment thanks to the way in which gene populations have mixed and migrated, it is not in principle unknowable as the full history of my or your genealogy is a mind-independent feature of the natural world.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
6 years ago

Ph: Huh? I have literally no idea what you are talking about.Report

Matthew Tirrigan
Matthew Tirrigan
6 years ago

Chris: One problem with leaving the task to biological anthropology, though, is that they are unlikely to take it up. Anthropologists typically reject the notion that race is anything other than a social construction (this has certainly been my experience in communicating with anthropologists, but see also the 1998 AAA statement on race here: http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm). Moreover, they have good reasons for doing so. There are no physical features that all and only members of any putative race have, and–as you note–all genealogies converge at various points (which disqualifies “descended from X” as a determining feature). So while genealogy is both a mind-independent feature of the natural world (my ancestors are who they are regardless of my beliefs about who they are) and an important aspect of the current notion of race, it does not follow that race is entailed by genealogy or that race is not a social construction (even if it may be loosely based on various beliefs about genealogy).

The same issue arises in evolutionary biology: even if you know the exact genealogy of a particular bird, the question of which ancestor was the last dinosaur and which is the first bird is ultimately something we impose upon history. It is not something there to find. If we choose to define “dinosaur” and “bird” one way, we get one result. If we define the terms a different way, we get a different result. What features are possessed by each individual member of the lineage remains constant as our classifications change, and nothing in the world tells us that one definition is better than the other. Though we may reject some definitions on the grounds that they give us inconsistent results, any definition without such problems will always have competition from an even more specific definition that also lacks such problems (with the limiting case being that in which each individual organism gets its own category). The natural world, as it turns out, does not care about our convenience. Sure, certain features tend to be found in creatures that are closely related, but there’s a reason why taxonomy and phylogenetics are separate practices (no matter how much the former is informed by the latter). The generalities we try to impose never withstand scrutiny thanks to the messiness of nature.Report

Cristina Morales
6 years ago

Clever. This is the clevest thing I’ve read so far.Report

Christopher S. Day
Christopher S. Day
6 years ago

Matthew,

Well said. I find your response very thoughtful and comprehensive.

I appreciate the subtleties of scientific realism that have informed your reply, and I share what I take to be your view that while there is truth to be told about the natural order, it is from our perspective extremely messy and for the most part that means our attempts to represent it conceptually are damned.

But where I disagree with you is at the point when you assert that, “it does not follow that race is entailed by genealogy.” I maintain that race is a loose way to talk about precisely what is entailed in the larger concept of human genealogy, namely, the degree of relatedness among large groups of people. I understand that race, so construed, is tough to define, but though it may resist definition, that does not mean that it is unreal. To show that something could be real while also being impossibly hard to define rigorously, let’s consider the very quotidian concept of family-membership. Take my family, for example: We can’t define membership in my family according to any number of essential traits without excluding many people with whom I am related.

Thankfully, we nowadays have a more direct measure of relatedness, namely the genetic phenomenon of sharing a certain number of genes (alleles) above a threshold that is probabilistically determined only to be exceeded by close kin, but which becomes less reliable the more distant the family tie is. But think about what this means for race: We share with others various coefficients of relatedness that we cannot practically measure with certainty but which nevertheless is a real fact about the natural history of our modern species.

I am not defending a more specific philosophy of race, either that there are a certain definite number of them and that knowing someone’s genealogy can help predict his behavior. And I will grant that any attempt to get more specific than “a measure of relatedness among large groups of people” is bound to be socially constructed. But this does not mean that race is not an in principle measurable phenomenon. Simply put, what I am defending is the concept of race as a loose way of referring to shared ancestry which is entailed in the perfect knowledge of every living human’s genealogy but which, thanks to the impossibility of this perfect knowledge, cannot be known with the level of certainty that we might wish for from something so existentially meaningful.Report

AnonForNow
AnonForNow
6 years ago

I agree with Christopher S. Day that ‘social construct’ talk is misleading and obscuring. It is a term favoured by social scientists, but I find it makes thinking and conversation on these topics (race, ‘gender’, etc.) more difficult. We can bypass the language of social construction by talking about the social importance given to certain biological and historical properties, and our epistemic limitations in determining whether the properties have been instantiated in particular cases.Report

MaybeIGetIt
MaybeIGetIt
6 years ago

Maybe she is a liar, AnonAttorney. I don’t know. On the other thread I was trying to come up with ways to explain the following facts, (1) Dolezal identifies as black, and (2) her biological parents are both white, without immediately jumping to the conclusion that she is a liar. Why? Well, being a liar is pretty bad, and I think it’s useful and more accurate to look for explanations of people’s behavior that doesn’t automatically entail that they have some sort of poor character. That’s all.Report

Tina Rulli
Tina Rulli
6 years ago

Whatever phenomenon Dolezal embodies, “transracial” has long been used to describe the identities of people adopted as children into families of a different race. Reassigning “transracial” to apply to people performing another race erases this specific complex racial identity that transracial adoptees experience. So whatever you want to say about whatever it is that Dolezal is doing, let’s not call it transracial.

For more, see this: https://medium.com/@Andy_Marra/an-open-letter-why-co-opting-transracial-in-the-case-of-rachel-dolezal-is-problematic-249f79f6d83cReport

sin nombre
sin nombre
6 years ago

Linda Martin Alcoff (CUNY) spoke to Democracy Now about Dolezal: http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2015/6/17/watch_four_perspectives_on_race_andReport

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

So… just to be clear… is socially constructed and so we can replace it with whatever concept we want.

What about ? Are the social construction theorists hardline Platonists about only the concepts that they like? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this seems like a fatal internal inconsistency. If the concepts of race and gender are constructed in order to promote the interests of certain groups, then this goes doubly for the concept of justice. It’s pretty much a Moorean fact that people primarily use the term ‘justice’ in the way that best aligns with their tribal affinities. And unlike the cases of race and gender there is nothing in the natural world that could even partial ground the concept outside of human behavior.

I suppose the social constructivists might just be full-blown Nietzscheans and admit that the concept of justice employed by any group is ultimately an expression of that group’s will to power, so that when they speak of social justice they are simply identifying with one group rather than another. But for some reason I suspect that this is not the case…Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

The first two sentences should say:

“So… just to be clear… race is socially constructed and so we can replace it with whatever concept we want.

What about justice?”

They originally had ‘<' marks to indicate that they designated concepts, but the website ate them.Report

Christopher S. Day
Christopher S. Day
6 years ago

The discussion seems to have dried up, so I’ll make a closing argument and then link to a philosopher of science, Robin O. Andreasen, whose work on race I find to be the most compatible with the growing understanding of human evolution coming from modern genealogy and very new findings in paleoanthropology. Hello again, multi-regional model!

Many attacks on race as biologically real take as their starting point any number of difficulties with defining the term rigorously in a scientific context. These attacks assert that because there are difficulties with deriving a well-behaved concept of race from any biological data, the concept must be biologically unreal and therefore purely a social construction. I have argued above that I think the best way to operationalize the concept of race in the study of human evolution is as a measure of relatedness among large groups of people (see link below), but this attempt too faces its own difficulties of implementation and therefore is vulnerable to criticisms that treat conceptual difficulties as evidence of social construction.

So I will offer only a negative argument. The bedrock concept of species in biology, as it turns out, is itself conceptually problematic. Biologists of all stripes to this day are unable to define it rigorously either for purposes of placing an individual organism into its proper taxonomic group, or taxon, or for determining genetically what separates one candidate taxon from another one. There are various attempts to solve this problem used by philosophers and biologists alike, but none is uniquely satisfactory. Indeed, some are tempted to consider the problem unsolvable and to content themselves with the further use of the species concept as a mere convenience.

But does this mean that the concept of species is purely a social construction? If you are inclined to view difficulties with the fitting of theoretical entities to scientific data as evidence that these theoretical entities are not scientifically real then you must bite the bullet and accept the species concept as unreal as well. It is the consistent thing to do, given the precedent established by the deconstructionist approach to race spelled out above.

Perhaps this doesn’t bother you, but I would urge you to reconsider. A philosophy of race that obliges us to view the notion of species as biologically unreal is a Pyrrhic victory indeed. Showing logically that one must give up the species concept as a result of one’s line of reasoning with regard to race is as close to a reductio ad absurdum as any in the history of philosophy. And when absurdity is the the inescapable result of our reasoning, it’s time to reexamine our premises. Social constructionism is rarely the best tool for achieving a better understanding of the conceptual problems in science. It’s too tempting, too crass, and too impatient. If it changes our understanding at all, that’s because it leaves our understanding utterly unrecognizable afterwards.

Theories of social construction are a chainsaw when what is often needed is just a scalpel, and we should use them very sparingly if we want to advance the philosophy of science as a discipline.

Here is the promised link to Robin O. Andreasen’s paper that defines race in terms of relatedness among humans with overlapping genealogies, i.e. in terms of breeding populations since sapiens’ migration out of Africa: https://thenatureofrace.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/race-biological-reality-or-social-construct-copy.pdfReport

Michael S.
Michael S.
6 years ago

“I am black,” says Rachel Dolezal.

Besides having its meaning rendered circular to the point of nullity, when the word “black” refers only to the subjective experience of being black, it (both the sign and, more importantly, its referent) becomes vulnerable to appropriation. As a result, any white person can see parts of their own personality reflected in the stereotyped quirks associated with blackness as a measure with which to stake their claim to being black. But the word “black” becomes a meaningless symbol, an absent referent, as soon as it paradoxically points to obviously white people. I say “obviously” in the sense of “objectively” because the particular amount and type of melanin produced in melanogenesis is not up for interpretation. This product is in no way socially constructed the way race is, just as genotypic sex is not synonymous with gender. Yet in both cases, being naturally grouped into the former category serves as a basis for being artificially grouped into the latter category. Claiming to be a member of a marginalized group without satisfying these necessary conditions of membership erases the level of priority that gives their shared characteristics (not experiences) meaning as bases of marginalization. To put it differently, as political philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper writes, “You can’t identify your way out of [or into] an oppression that is material in basis.”

Today, however, identities are made to seem more and more unfalsifiable and, even worse, unquestionable. This tradition of commoditizing others’ determinate characteristics in the name of queering our own leads us to absurdity, I claim. After Jesus, for example, self-identified as the long-awaited Messiah, were the Jews bigots for rejecting his claim as such? Of course they weren’t; and, furthermore, no one is morally obligated to validate another’s sense of being something which they are not. How one feels about all this counts for nothing. Professor Dolezal is white, no matter how she self-identifies. (I’d even go so far as saying that she doesn’t deserve to be black.) And let’s be clear: wearing blackface while claiming to be black is just as (if not more, depending on context) offensive as wearing a pawned Purple Heart while claiming to be wounded in World War II. Aside from whether or not the claimant “experiences herself as lying,” the claim has its origins in fantasy.

(This, by the way, is my second attempt at having these words published here. Why is that?)Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

I think it’s discussed in What are gender and race? And what do we want them to be?Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

Right…Now that you say it I guess the “browning of the world” idea is a very different model for the elimination of race than what Haslanger has in mind – thanks for clarifying 🙂Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

Christopher Day – have you read Quayshawn Spenser’s work? It is very engaged with Andreasen.Report

Anon prof
Anon prof
6 years ago

Kukla’s point about the needless shaming of Dolezal is well taken. That said, I am disappointed with the tone and substance of some of her remarks, which suggest an ad hominem of those she disagrees with, such as Krishnamurthy and Diaz-Leon, rather than an attempt to genuinely engage with their points.Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

Anyone still following this thread and interested in the philosophical debate about race might want to check out Jeremy’s Pierce’s book A Realist Metaphysics of Race: a context sensitive, short term retentionist, long term revisionist approach (omg that title is crazy long). I am reading it right now, the book is very recent and very up to date on the relevant scientific, natural kinds, and philosophy of race debates, but is written in a very accessible way. Would be great for newcomers to the literature. I have a lot of misgivings about his conclusions in the book but it is still very worthwhile, and also a great introduction for those who need it.

Also sorry about my previous replies to people…I thought we were still doing nested replies so I wasn’t very clear about who I was responding to. Oh well. Happy Juneteenth everybody. According to the New Yorker “The existential question of who is black has been answered in the most concussive way possible…”
http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/church-shooting-charleston-south-carolina
I’m sad and also extremely disturbed at my own lack of surprise that this happened.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
6 years ago

Not at all. None of us saw one another’s pieces in advance, nor discussed the issue with each other, so I am completely certain it wasn’t ad hominem 🙂 Anyhow my critique was of quick and thoughtless shaming, not of reflective and thoughtful discussions regardless of their conclusions.Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
6 years ago

Sorry, I posted that as a reply to Anon Prof/68. I guess as Kristina says above, there are no nested replies. I gotta say, I think that ‘reply’ button is just a shameless liar taking advantage of its button privilege and passing itself off as something it isn’t just so it can get a job 🙂Report

J. Auvil
6 years ago

The reason why discussions on race are often so messy is because the word “race” is contaminated by differing perceptions and definitions that have developed over the decades. It might be helpful to calibrate our definitions before commencing discussion, but some of us feel strongly that the word should not be used at all. Instead, we should use words that say what we mean. Culture. Ancestry. Socio-economic group. Whether we use the word “race” as an advocate or an opponent in cultural, societal, or political issues, the fact remains that it conglomerates instead of distills, homogenizes instead of invites diversity, perpetuates nuanced slants instead of creates a space for tolerance. The same is true of the use of the word “equality” when we mean “fairness”; we know both empirically and existentially that none of us are equal to another. Perhaps not ironically, the constant use of words like “race” and “equality” conserve the very discrimination people are fighting against. By the way, this is a good time to evaluate if we should even start using the word “transracial”. With its usage, we give yet another nod to a word being taken out of its original context and migrate that traditional meaning to yet another muddled definition that stymies the kind of meaningful, helpful discussions that could actually get us to problem-solving.Report

LK McPherson
LK McPherson
6 years ago

@ J. Auvil: In “Deflating ‘Race’,” forthcoming in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association, I make an argument that supports roughly the type of position you describe (though I don’t support a moratorium on use of the word “race,” and my view is not motivated by concerns about diversity and toleration). I propose the idea of color-conscious “socioancestry” in place of the idea of race.

Dolezal, for example, insofar as she does not have traceable African ancestry, is not socioancestrally black. But having traceable African ancestry is not sufficient for a black socioancestral identity, either.Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

@LK McPherson Glad to hear the new APA journal will be publishing some philosophy of race! Would you consider sending me the paper?Report

AnotherOpenMind
AnotherOpenMind
6 years ago

The question that has been preoccupying me can be most succinctly stated as:
Is it possible that Elinor Burkett (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html?_r=0) and Rachel Dolezal are both wrong?
To unpack this question a little: Is it possible that one can reject the minimal biological essentialism which, it seems, must be assumed by radical feminism, and yet deny that an individual can legitimately identify as belonging to an ethnicity whose (traditional? conventional?) membership criteria he/she does not meet?
I ask this question because it seems to me that the most socially progressive view is yes, they are both wrong (and it’s a dumb question anyway because the answer is obvious). But I agree with Disembodied Inquiry – it does not seem obvious at all to me.
First of all, why does this question arise? It seems to me that it arises out of the fact that the vanguard of the transgender movement holds not only that the concept of gender is socially constructed (lacking a natural (?), mind-independent (?) foundation), but so is the concept of sex. That is to say, sex is not a biological category at all – not something we discover when we use the scientific method to study the living world. The motivation for this claim appears to be that it pushes the phenomena of maleness and femaleness wholly into the realm of personal identification: if someone sincerely identifies as a woman, that is the necessary and sufficient condition for being a woman, *with no residue* – that is to say, it is not the case that they are still, in spite of this identification, male in any way (say, biologically). This, for reasons I’ll get to, is denied by radical feminism.
As a brief tangent, I’ll note that this simple identification model of gender/sex is, well, simplistic, even if one accepts this view of the concepts of sex and gender, since “identification” does not pick out a pure authentic feeling or pure autonomous act; rather, it is a phenomenon which is the result of the complex interplay of many cultural, psychological, and social forces, over many of which the individual has limited to no control. This is the central thesis, as I read it, of Butler’s “Gender Trouble”.
Now, the argument against sex as a legitimate biological category has always seemed dodgy to me. It seems to rely centrally on a confusion between the claims that sex is a biological category and that sex is binary. These claims are obviously very different, and the demonstrable falsity of the latter (there are various ways of being biologically intersex) does not imply the falsity of the former. The arguments I’ve seen that do not make this confusion seem to rely on science that is 30 years out of date – for example, it is well known that sex is not determined at the chromosomal level, so the fact that there are XX males and females with Y chromosomes does not reveal that sex is socially constructed. We actually know a decent amount about the genetic determination of sex in humans (and mammals more generally), although we certainly don’t have a complete and detailed knowledge of all sex-determining genetic mechanisms (for example, the mechanisms that make possible the extraordinarily rare occurrence of SRY-negative XX males). It is also worth noting that recognizing sex as a biological, genetically-determined category is consistent with recognizing that gene expression can be suppressed by environmental as well as other genetic factors. It is also consistent with denying that the sex-determining genetic mechanisms are fixed for all time. They can change radically as a species evolves. (Present-day male European voles not only lack an SRY gene, they lack a Y chromosome all together!)

But whether we believe that sex is a biological or a social concept, we now seem to arrive at a dilemma. Suppose we believe it to be a social concept, and thus there is no – again, natural? mind-independent? – base standing in the way of sex being determined through sincere personal identification (ignoring the objection based on the complications highlighted in Butler’s work). How can one possibly take a different view of ethnicity? (N.B.: I use “ethnicity” throughout rather than “race”, because, while the concept of ethnicity may be socially constructed, being of, and being recognized as being of, a particular ethnicity is, like being (and being recognized as) a particular gender, a basic, pervasive, and important component of personal identity and determinant of the character of one’s experience of the social world. By “ethnicity”, I mean something like “community with genealogical-based membership, which shares a common set of traditions based on a common history and a common geographical origin”. The concept of race is not a social construct. It, like phlogiston, is a *fiction* – this seems to me to be an important and often-overlooked distinction. Race is meant to be a human correlate of breed. It is meant to be a biological category. But there simply is no such correlate and no such category. Of course, none of this is to deny the incredible importance of (false) beliefs about race, or of racism – these and their effects are very real.) If the complexities of sex-determining genetic mechanisms and the variety of ways of being intersex are enough to convince us that the concept of sex must be socially constructed, how on earth could we not think the same of ethnicity, given the vagueness inherent in geographical region, the influence of politics on boundary-drawing, the influence of cultures and languages on each other, and the tenuousness of the whole idea of genealogical membership? The arguments I’ve seen that try to make this case are terrible. Many simply denied that anyone can feel deeply that they belong to an ethnic group for which they don’t meet the established identity-criteria. (Says who?) Others argue that gender is a more fundamental socially constructed concept because it is older than ethnicity. It probably is older – on the order of a few hundreds of thousands of years vs. a few tens of thousands of years. And it’s also a basis for distinguishing individuals within groups as opposed to only between groups. But what any of this has to do with the matter at hand is beyond me.
Supposing we desire to avoid this horn of the dilemma, however, are we not immediately impaled on the other? If, in order to distinguish sex and gender from genealogy and ethnicity, we accept minimal biological essentialism – by which I just mean accepting sex as a biological category and not as a (purely, at any rate) social one, while still rejecting any stronger version of essentialism which would make sex itself sufficient to determine anything interesting about human behavior or capacities – and further accept that one’s gender identity is influenced by one’s sex just as one’s ethnic identity is influenced by one’s genealogy, are we not thereby open to the (moderate) radical feminist critique (as articulated by Burkett)?
The heart of this critique seems to be that (a) the (partially genetically determined) physical experience of being female is one important component of the experience of being a woman (in the sense of one’s gender); and (b) more significantly, (1) having had, been affected by, and battled with the experience of growing up being categorized, viewed, and treated as (biologically) female and (socially) a woman based on one’s (partially genetically determined) phenotypic characteristics is an extremely important aspect of becoming a woman, and of what it means to be a woman (again, in the sense of one’s gender); and (2) is an irreplaceable source of personal understanding of what is, is not, and is believed to be involved in being a woman. But trans women lack aspects of that physical experience; and, again more significantly, lack the personal history of spending one’s formative years being recognized and treated as different from men – the experience of belonging to this systemically oppressed group. This results in at least some trans women, such as Caitlyn Jenner, having very masculine ideas about the meaning of femininity (a common radical feminist complaint about the content of her interview). So recognizing sex as a biological category appears to undermine the claim that there is no important way in which a trans woman is not a woman while a cis woman is. The biological difference is relevant in itself to some extent, and even more relevant in its influence on social perception and personal history.
The discussion may be missing an important distinction – one which could provide the key to diffusing the radical feminist critique while recognizing sex as a biological category, as well as recognizing an important difference between at least some forms of transgenderism and transethnicism, and yet avoiding being dismissive of Dolezal’s experience of her identity. The American Psychological Association recognizes the categories of biological sex, gender (essentially the set of socially prescribed gender roles), gender expression (the outward conformity to or transgression of those roles), and gender identification – and that last is the problematic one. Gender identification is a combination of two things: (1) acceptance of membership in the biological sex to which one is recognized as belonging (I avoid the word ‘assigned’ because it makes this sound like it is generally arbitrary, and I think a lot of slippage in argument results from that sense of arbitrariness); and (2) personal comfort with and acceptance of the gender roles associated with one’s biological sex. But these are two very different things. There is ample anthropological evidence that there are cultures in which individuals are comfortable with their recognition as male (or female) (biologically), but identify and express the identity of being a woman (or a man, respectively). So we need to separate out (2) – which is gender identity strictly speaking – from (1), which should be called sex identity (not to be confused with sexual identity, which is apparently a synonym for sexual orientation).
Recognition of this distinction has implications for the use of the terms “transgender” and “transsexual”. Anyone who does not identify with the gender roles associated with their biological sex counts as transgender; but being transsexual means, in addition, not identifying with one’s biological sex. If we avoid the first horn of the dilemma (by accepting sex as a biological category), we can still draw a distinction between being transgender or transethnic on the one hand, and being transsexual on the other hand. To be transsexual involves an opposition at the biological level – an opposition between one’s recognition of one’s biological sex and a felt biological imperative (analogous to the felt experience of one’s biologically determined sexual orientation) that one should have been born a member of another sex. There is some reasonable basis for seeing this personal conflict as deeper or more fundamental than the conflict which exists for someone who is transethnic, since that opposition exists at a psychological-social-cultural level, rather than a biological one; but one would have to say the same about the conflict of one who was transgender without being transsexual.Report

Christopher S. Day
Christopher S. Day
6 years ago

@AnotherOpenMind,

What I like about your post is your analysis of sex and its biological correlates. I share your view that arguments attempting to undermine sex as a biological category often make use of evidence of intersex individuals to refute an inflexible, binary conception of sex but leave the evidence for sex as biological untouched, if not ironically strengthened.

What I don’t like about your post is your categorical dismissal of the possibility for a biological theory of race by virtue of the discarded hypotheses that have been considered during the historical development of our conception of race, namely, the fact that it arose as a human homologue to animal breeds (subspieces) and has since been obsoleted. You are right that the major groupings of human variation do not give support for this view of races as subspecies, but this tells us only that our conception of race in today’s scientific context has diverged from earlier scientific usages- and perhaps from current common sense notions as well, to the extent that today’s common sense notions of race are based on earlier science.

Check out Robin O. Andreasen’s work for a conciliatory philosophy of race both as a useful, biological concept and as a rich topic for constructivist thinking:
https://thenatureofrace.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/race-biological-reality-or-social-construct-copy.pdfReport

Bokonon
Bokonon
6 years ago

I think this is getting a little too complex for the actual question at hand. Our society possesses a highly crude folk theory of race based on skin color, which roughly goes like this: you’re black if you have dark skin and a particular ancestry. Correspondingly, you’re white if you have light skin (although whiteness is irrespective of ancestry). Rashida Jones (of Parks and Rec fame) exposes the shallowness of the concept; if she says she’s a white person, we’re fine with that. If she says she’s a black person, we’re fine with that, too, because she has both the ancestry and the light skin color. I don’t even think we really view her as mixed; she’s just both at the same time.

The issue at hand is not whether Dolezal has breached some highly complex metaphysical and political rules about race, because there aren’t any. It’s about whether she is guilty of misrepresenting her race according to the folk theory that the public employs, and I think it’s clear that she is. She’s guilty of claiming to have an identity that the public judges her not to have. Is that shallow? Yes, tremendously so. But I take the concept of race to be exactly this flimsy.

Is this problematic? Maybe if you’re a very enthusiastic constructivist. (And as far as I’ve read, there isn’t much empirical support for any strong sort of biological correlate, so that’s right out.) Personally, I have no idea why we’d even want such a robust constructivist view of race. But perhaps this is an easy thing to say as a white male academic.Report

PerplexedAnon
PerplexedAnon
6 years ago

I like thinking about the general question rather than regarding this specific case. Take the comparison between two examples: one of a transgendered individual and the other of a transracial individual.

Transgender:
Sam was born a boy, who at times thought that his life would be more happier if he was a girl, since he typically liked to do what is perceived as feminine things. (For what would be the reason to change genders if Sam typically liked more masculine things?) Anyways, Same later decided that he would have a sex change operation, and now identifies as a woman.

Transrace:
Jane was born white and grew up in a African American community. All of her life she has identified with this community, and liked the culture of African Americans. For these reasons, Jane decided to identify herself as an African American, and changed her appearance to look more ‘black.’

Things to consider:

Both deal with unchangeable biology that relate to gender/race
Both deal with external facets of identification
If we accept that one is acceptable do we have to accept that the other one is acceptable, and if one is unacceptable to we have to accept that the other one is unacceptable too? My intuition would have to say yes.

Well, that’s my example and thoughts.Report

Christopher S. Day
Christopher S. Day
6 years ago

@PerplexedAnon,

Biology is indeed involved here, so let’s bring it to bear. The biological development of sex in humans starts when a developmental program for female is either left alone or redirected into developing in a male-typical fashion. It is important to note that normal sexual development during the fetal stage also includes psychological changes as well. Much can happen between this earliest moment of sex differentiation in the womb and the final phase of sexual maturity, and normality in the phenotypic expression of biological sex is a spectrum of male to female with many gradations between.

Race, if it means anything biologically, refers to some facts about one’s full genealogy, specifically where one’s ancestors were during the critical periods of human evolution in the last few hundred thousand years.

In short, biology tells us that sex is a matter of somatic and psychological development in a given individual whereas race is a matter of the history of the genes that influenced the development of that individual. Biologically determining sex can depend on what an individual reports psychologically, given that sex is a matter of gene expression via development and some of this happens psychologically. Biologically determining race does not depend on gene expression per se, as it is only the history of the genes that matters. Facts about an individual’s development are only incidental when determining biological race, so psychological reports are not meaningful here.

Strictly using logic, I suppose we can countenance Caitlin Jenner’s and Rachel Dolezal’s claims on the same grounds. Using biology as a guide, however, we can treat them separately.Report

Ladyalec
Ladyalec
6 years ago

I know that a lot of people on this post think that Disembodied Inquiry said amused, but it was actually bemused which has a very different meaning. As a black woman, I reached out to some of my friends and family for an honest reaction to the issue. Here is what I got.

Most blacks were bemused as in not really sure what to think. Only a few were actually angry or felt offended. What I found more interesting was that the individuals who seemed the most offended or had the most to say about the issue of fake black was, well non-blacks. It was people who did not identify as black who were more offended and hurt by this issue.

Personally, I tend to move back and forth between actual amusement over the issue and anger. Amusement because I know so many “black people” who pass as white and this is the only time someone has ever intentionally tried to pass as black. If Rachel is willing to accept the social responsibilities of being black then ok. However, if you only want the ‘cool’ parts then you are a wannabe and that’s where the other side kicks in.

The other side of me is highly offended because I cannot take off my color at will. Passing is not an option for me and the idea that someone could take their race off and on like a coat is not acceptable. You must love who you are the way you are.Report

Syed
Syed
6 years ago

You state the following: “Since public discussions could benefit from the insight and carefulness of philosophical thinking.” I understand that certain topics and areas of inquiry are philosophical and commonly studied by philosophers. But what exactly is philosophical thinking and how does it differ from regular thinking? I would appreciate any answers others might have.Report

Aloisia Moser
Aloisia Moser
6 years ago

I really liked Rebecca Kukla’s point of view. I have wondered myself why it is so hard for people to see this as a transrace problem. Thanks for writing this!Report

collin237
collin237
5 years ago

Considering that the one-drop rule seems to be mentioned so often, it might be relevant to speculate if she’s related to the “octoroon” community in Montana, or at least knows them like family.

However, that begs the question of why anyone thinks the one-drop rule is still a rule. There is not — thank God — any system of apartheid in the post-Civil-War USA. The closest anyone wishing to apply the one-drop rule to anyone has here is a genetic test. And, as Wendy Williams demonstrated on her talk show, it’s possible for someone with a significant proportion of Sub-Sarahan genes to have entirely Caucasian features.

It’s nice that philosophers are finally realizing that social constructs are followers, not leaders, of anything more real. But digging up a phrase from folklore — which is all the old USA is anymore — is only hurting that cause. The only realistic explanation for race still being a category is that we assimilate it into our eyesight. By that criterion, Rachel Donezal definitely is black. But she used to be white.

It’s highly unlikely she could have made this change simply by accessories such as makeup, clothing, and affectation. She probably had surgery, and surgery is already accepted as a valid way of changing gender.

However, change of identity is accepted only as part of a strictly diachronic personal narrative. For example, nobody would believe that a man who became a woman could get pregnant from sex, without extraordinary evidence that a new medical procedure had just been invented!!!

So although Rachel Donezal became black as a matter of fact, she flounted the nascent social norms that such made such a transition conceivable in the first place. In that sense, she is living falsely — not in her essence, but in the realm of material culpability.Report