VIRTUAL WORLDS
The week of June 28, 2015

How Rachel Dolezal helped turn ‘transracial’ into a virtual identity

By Jenny Davis

When the Rachel Dolezal story broke, and we learned that the black-identifying president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter was born to white parents, “transracialism” suddenly started trending. News outlets, hashtags, editorials, and impassioned Facebook posts identified Dolezal as transracial and opined about the moral implications of this identity. On MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry explored the parallels between transracial and transgender. Television personality Montel Williams posted to Facebook that Dolezal’s was not an issue of “trans-race” but “sans-honest.” On Twitter, activist @Nettaaaaaaaa implored the “transracial crowd” to “be absolutely silent,” following a week in which they have been “LOUD AND WRONG.”

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Merriam-Webster defines transracial as “involving, encompassing, or extending across two or more races.” Academics and a community of adoptees use the term (along with transethnic) to describe children of color and/or of non-U.S. origin adopted by white American parents. Regarding Dolezal, however, people use the word to mean  that she was born in an incorrectly raced body, as someone who feels black despite her white parentage. It’s this latter, novel meaning that I want to discuss.

What is most striking about the public centrality of “transracialism” is that Dolezal never said she was born in an incorrectly raced body. She never identified as transracial. In fact, very few people—if any—do. (She mentioned in her Today Show interview that a reporter identified her as transracial. However, this almost certainly referred to Dolezal’s presumed blackness vis-à-vis white parents.) Rather, “transracial” is a virtual identity. It’s like an identity, it approximates an identity; we can see it, talk about it, analyze it, have feelings about it, but we can’t find its empirical instance. There’s a story to be told here, about the intersection of digital media and identity—about how “transracial” has taken hold, despite the absence of transracial people. Transracial may be a case in which the virtual, mediated by the digital, morphs into the actual.

Language is alive and subject to those who use it. The Dolezal incident made transracial part of the public vocabulary, and (re)defined it as a person who is born into one racial category but feels as though they are of another racial category. Through the social Internet, we are collectively writing transracialism into being.

Transracial may be a case in which the virtual, mediated by the digital, morphs into the actual.

We are doing so, I argue, through a process called prosumption. Prosumption refers to the blurring of production and consumption, so common in the digital age. People produce and consume entertainment on YouTube, information on Wikipedia, and art on Instagram. As I have written elsewhere, the production and consumption (i.e., prosumption) of content converts into the production and consumption of identity meanings. Status updates about cooking, for instance, don’t just reflect culinary propensities but construct them. Similarly, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag doesn’t just communicate protestors’ messages but constructs race activists among those who use it. Documenting and sharing are not just means of representing the self but creating a sense of self. And creating a sense of self expands beyond the individual.

A key characteristic of the Internet is that it connects people, and it projects their stories. When people connect who share unusual experiences, it paves the way for these individuals to collectively establish new identity categories. For instance, transability (people who feel they were born in “incorrectly abled” bodies), and asexuality are both products of the Internet and have been integrated into mainstream culture and institutions through, for example, the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

In this way, the mainstreaming of “transracial” positions transracialism as a consumable identity category. What is unique about “transracialism” is that this new identity category is being created without anyone to occupy it. Yet.

People can only identify by the identity categories available to them. Widespread use of “transracial” makes this category available, where previously it was not. Interestingly, the work of prosuming “transracialism” comes from myriad voices, with often disparate agendas. That is, commentators who have taken up the term deploy it in different ways, depending on their political inclinations. The uses fall into three broad categories, defined largely by ideology: conservative, critical progressive, and liberal.

Both conservatives and critical progressives create a hypothetical transracial person and use that character to advance their respective agendas. Conservatives employ transracialism as a satirical tool with which they mock liberal logic—and specifically transgender identification, typically referencing Caitlyn Jenner. Critical progressives, meanwhile, use transracialism as a counter against which they highlight real race and gender oppression. Finally, a small contingent of liberals frame transracial as part of human diversity and take seriously the possibility that one might, in fact, experience incorrectly raced embodiment. Let’s look at each in turn to better understand the still-evolving use of this “virtual identity.”

Documenting and sharing are not just means of representing the self, but creating a sense of self. And creating a sense of self expands beyond the individual.

Conservative commentators have often employed “transracial” as a way to discredit transgender and queer narratives. For example, John Talleos writes in the Hartford Conservative Examiner:

If anyone can proclaim a gender identity other than what they actually are, race is nothing, and it’s actually cheaper. You won’t need a doctor or pills. I’m going to predict she will out liberal the liberals with civil rights/identity-choice language that no one could dispute, because if they did, it would disrupt the celebrations of Bruce [Caitlyn] Jenner, make it kind of hypocritical, even…

By linking transracial with transgender, Talleos establishes identity as something fixed within the body and ostensibly exposes the inauthenticity of non-normative, non-binary, unfixed, identification. Similarly, Connor Williams snarkily declares in NewsBusters that “Transgenderism is so yesterday. Now it’s time to ‘discuss’ transracial issues!”

The use of transracial to parody progressive identity politics harkens back, says Aja Romano, to “trollish Tumblr roots.” For instance, The Tumblr user Trans-racialist seeks to “highlight the oppression of trans-race peoples in our society, and address the privilege of those cis-raced among us.” The  now-defunct Prince-Koyangi Tumblr, maintained by three teenagers, identified as an “autistic pangender asexual demiromantic trans-asian cat.” Similarly, the, still-active checkingoftheprivilege Tumblr includes the following description:

23, femme-presenting queer trans non-binary two-spirit genderfluid, xe/xir/hir/xirself pronouns, pansexual, PoC (1/16th Native American), white-passing except for hijab, Muslim (convert), neuro-atypical (self-diagnosed aspergers), economically privileged, sex-positive, body-positive, vegan, sociology major, loves Disney.

Like the commentators who, with tongue-in-cheek glee, link transracial with transgender, these parody Tumblr accounts create identity-fluid caricatures, and use these caricatures as unflattering mirrors that reflect an overly sensitive culture. For them, trans* identities are not legitimate, and the case of transracialism highlights this illegitimacy.

The Dolezal incident made transracial part of the public vocabulary and (re)defined it as a person who is born into one racial category but feels as though they are of another racial category.

Like the conservatives, the critical progressives refuse to take transracialism seriously—though rather than evidence of liberalism gone too far, they position it as an illustrative example of ongoing race and gender oppression. They insist that transracial is non-synonymous with transgender and that it discounts the true black experience. From Twitter:

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Critical progressives cast transracialism as the exemplar case on which they hang their social critique; it is the embodiment of cultural appropriation and privilege. Stated succinctly by Syreeta McFadden: “’transracial’ isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive,” because “to deny ethnic and cultural differences is to erase the identities of those who cannot choose.”

People can only identify by the identity categories available to them. Widespread use of “transracial” makes this category available, where previously it was not.

Finally, some liberal commentators take the transracial identity on its own (still-evolving) terms. They urge us to think about the range of human diversity and expand the boundaries of acceptance. For example, Melissa Harris-Perry, while resisting an equation of transracial with transgender, says:

I want to be very careful here, because I don’t want to say it’s the equivalent of the transgender experience. But there is a useful language in ‘trans’ and ‘cis,’ which is just to say some of us are born cisgendered, and some of us are born transgendered. But I wonder, can it be that one will be cis-Black and trans-Black? That there is actually a different category of Blackness that is about the achievement of Blackness, despite one’s parentage?

Similarly, law and sociology scholar Camille Gear Rich opined that Dolezal has a right to identify as black and that her case pushes us to decouple biology from identity.

An unscientific (but pretty extensive) scan of  #Transracial on Twitter reveals that this liberal version of transracial seems to have less traction among the populace, but it persists through prominent voices such as Harris-Perry and Gear Rich. This is perhaps a function of an overwhelming early response by those with strongly partisan views (i.e., the conservatives and critical progressives). The strength of polemical arguments may have stifled responses from those who would consider transracialism viable as a form of identification for themselves or others. However, those who do consider it viable may yet emerge.

It is this emergence that offers a unique view of identity processes in a digital era. Through the fast and widespread production and consumption of content, “transracial” has become an available identity category. It is out there for the claiming. Those who claim a transracial identity might meet contestation—from several different angles—but it is out there nonetheless. This is a product of complex media ecologies. As Twitter borrows from network news, and network news reports on Twitter, and Facebook users repost links, and bloggers share their takes, transracialism enters into the public imagination. In doing so, it also plausibly enters into the self-concept.

Currently, “transracial” is mainly a tool of conservative satire and a progressive straw person, but it’s not yet an identity anyone occupies. We are therefore in a pivotal moment in which, through a single dramatic event, the process of identity prosumption is made visible. It is a moment in which transracialism is still virtual, still a mere approximation, but transforming, through digitally mediated discourse,  into something actual. Soon, there could be transracials among us.

Photo via George A Spiva Center for the Arts/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)