Tackling the question “Can you change your race?”

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I dug up my old paper back copy of this book, it’s still got it. The movie was a little less so.

While many commentators are linking the Dolezal story to Trans issues (as this one does), I think I’m still waiting for a convincing statement about what the differences really are. In Elinor Burkett’s recent Times op-ed about Caitlyn Jenner, for instance, she argued of gender exactly what this video argues about race. Burkett even went as far as to compare transitioning to the incomensurability of changing one’s race. It’s sort of frustrating and I’m starting to think comparing them to each other is more confusing than clarifying.

I pay more attention to black people explaining what it’s like to be white than to white people explaining what it’s like to be black.

By necessity, the oppressed know their oppressors better than the oppressed know those whom they oppress. They even tend to know some things that the oppressors don’t know about themselves.


I haven’t figured out how to express this yet, but I’m thinking along the lines of:

There are two aspects of race: culture and genetics. An individual can be genetically one thing but because of where and how they are raised, and what they look like, their experience and their phenotype may not match their genotype at all. This does not mean one is true and the other false…they’re both true, they’re just different side of the same coin. One side may express itself more in some situations, and the other in different situations.

Sex is the original binary. As such, the culture of gender is much more welded to each person from birth. We allow a girl to be a tomboy for a few years in childhood, as an example, but it has to be outgrown quickly. Newborns who are not obviously one or the other are surgically changed immediately. We really are not comfortable with any variation between phenotype and genotype when it comes to sex/gender. Which means it is much more believable when someone says their mind tells them that their body is the wrong sex. Our culture insists on either/or, when it’s almost certainly a continuum which is not solely based on the apparent sexual organs. Transpeople are proof that male/female are NOT two sides of the same coin.

The equivalent of transpeople in racial terms would be those who are perceived by society as being defined by their genetics but because they have grown up outside of the culture connected to that gene pool they think of themselves as something else: a hybrid, an outsider, etc. For example, an adopted black child raised in a white middle-class suburban home might think of themselves as being part of that culture, but they’re still going to be followed around in a store and unable to catch a taxi in NYC.

The opposite of transpeople in racial terms would be, well, this example here. She wants to be perceived as something other than her actual genetics AND other than her lived experience growing up. She really wants to be black, that seems to be true, but without either nature or environment backing up her claim.

Also, someone who can “pass” as white will have a different experience in the world than someone who simply cannot hide their skin color. To truly understand the African-American experience, you would have to know that insisting you are a Real Black Person™ when your skin and features mean you would have been treated differently your entire life is simply exposing your ignorance. Donezal seems to be tone-deaf about that.


How do you know what race you are and what race you are supposed to be?
Who gets to decide?
Has there been an externally mandated system of racial classification that has not been used as a tool of oppression against less favored groups?
Is there a test or criterion for firmly establishing one’s degree of ‘coloredness’ and if so where is the cutoff point? (we are talking about NAACP, otherwise I would have chosen less florid language)
How many races are there and what are they?

To address the video specifically, what if a black person were raised by non black parents? Because they have not experienced generations of oppression or some specific culture they are not really black or black enough to understand?

I am so confused by reaction on all sides to this. people who seemed so progressive have shown me a lot about implicit racism and how deep it still runs.


If you read up on trans-racial adoptees, black kids raised by white parents tend to have it worse if anything, because many white parents adopt black kids for the express purpose of being abusive, and even if they mean well, they don’t know how to teach their kids on how to deal with racism, and when the kids do face racism, the parents often dismiss it. They’re going to have to deal with all the usual racism (and more, from their parents) growing up, and have nobody to teach them how to deal with it.

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Many white parents adopt black children to abuse them?
Please cite me some sources for that one?
Most I have seen have been out of loving compassion or the result of a generation being raised by grandparents.


I can’t get links right now, but there have been tons of cases of “parents” beating their children to death for minor slights. Look up the case of Lydia Schatz, for an example - the parents whipped her for 9 hours until she died. These are sadly actually pretty common, there’s an entire movement that provokes this stuff. And many countries have serious issues with essentially kidnapping children (especially indigenous/native children) so they can be ‘adopted’ by white parents, sometimes for profit.

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I hate this story. I hatehatehate this story. Why? Mainly because it’s kind of a weird, tangled mess, and trying to glean lessons from it is to fall into the very human trap of pattern recognition, where no pattern exists. Sometimes people do strange nonsensical things for various reasons that even if well understood, are deeply unsatisfying.

I think the comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner originated with transphobic people and comes from a deeply dishonest place. The dynamics of gender run much deeper than the 400 year old notion of race as we understand it now. To pretend that these things have some analogous footing is wrong, but so far I’ve found efforts to explain the difference very inarticulate, and unnecessary considering where this argument comes from.

Can someone be “transracial?” Yes, in other contexts. People acculturate and accept different cultural norms all the time, and in our present time, people will react to you based on perceived race. This leads to the uncomfortable reality that some very light-skinned Black people will not experience the same level of racism and denigration that other Black people experience. It means that some Arabs get treated like they’re Hispanic, and some Polynesians get treated like they’re Asian. There was a gangland murder of a Persian in LA a number of years ago, because he didn’t understand the very loaded question, “Where you from?” in a neighborhood where he looked too Hispanic to belong. This kind of “transracialism”, which is more often recognized as “intersectionality,” totally exists.

The Dolezal story remains too strange and unique to cause a reconsidering of theory and phenomena. Is it possible that as social outlook improves, the lines might get blurrier and fuzzier? Sure. But we’re a ways away from that. I’m playing the waiting game before drawing conclusions. I would like to see some more cases like this maybe emerge, and see what kinds of patterns there are.


One is an apple.

The other is an orange.



Where/when has racism been implied by the responses of people who seemed so progressive? Could you offer a direct example or two of people who seemed progressive and now seem racist, so that I could understand what you are seeing, more clearly? It would help.

In examining the Schatz case, nowhere do I find evidence that she was adopted expressly to be abused, nor evidence that those who use questionable companies to adopt children do so expressly with the intent of abuse.
Do horrible things happen to kids? Sure. Trans racial adopted kids? Certainly. You have still not cited one example of anyone adopting a black child for the express purpose of abuse.


I have never heard of trans-racial adoptions. The very idea of trans comes from latin, via chemistry.

trans and cis - terms of steroisometry.

Steroisometry has no analogue in race. It’s not even a great analogue for the binary nature of sex chromosomes, but there it is, and it works in that context. It does not work in the world of cis-racial relationships. That just sounds ignorant. Go ahead, say ‘cis-racial’ with a straight face (or a trans-face, whatever works for you).

Cross racial and interracial are words that exist.


I only used the word to reply to someone else’s response, I think the whole conception of racial categorization is so vague and nebulous that it is rendered functionally meaningless. How can something be Trans racial when there is no such thing?
In retrospect, I should have added a ‘sic’ afterwords, but I thought it was too sparky.

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Indeed I haven’t. :wink:

Snarky, damned autocorrect!

There are a lot of questions I have about this whole issue.

I am most wondering if Dolezal has ever actually been racially profiled (and if she claims “yes” can we believe her? It’s a weird catch-22, like if I say “I don’t believe her” it’s kind of denying the prevalence of racial profiling.)

Dolezal was pretty high up in the NAACP, clearly she was doing something valuable to them, but now that we know her race is her work suddenly suspect? I mean, calling her “racist” is just . . . confusing.


We occasionally call it trans-racial, but usually only if someone else initiates the conversation using that term. Cross racial, as a phrase, is slightly more common than interraccial, at least in my experience.

But usually we say things like “ours is a mixed race family” because the point is for people to understand, not to be semantically or politically correct, and what’s important to us is that we’re a family.


I am using the terms that the community uses, that they have decided upon. Words can have meaning beyond what their roots may suggest.

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