musings into why race as biological destiny is more entrenched than gender
July 20, 2016
While I’ve been meaning to write about this for a little while, Ben Carson’s recent remarks about how transgender doesn’t make sense, its like being ‘trans race’ (not in the valid use of the term in reference to transracial adoptees) but in the sense of rachel dolezal. And certainly, I know I’ve written about why you can’t evquivocate between race and gender in this way. They are distinct although interrelated systems of oppression. But you can’t interchange them conceptually. But I think the problem goes deeper than this, into the ontology of both. Race as a solidity. A realness that gender does not. For all that we say both are socially constructed race in how many of us discuss it still has a kind of essentialism that we’ve mostly stripped from gender.
I’m not entirely sure whence this ontological distinction arises. How is gender more easily given the status ‘social construction’, something it partly shares with race, but race still manages to cling to its ontological status as being essential or innate to a person? By all accounts it doesn’t make any sense.
First… while the science of racism has been around longer than the ‘science’ of gender (such as it is), at this point there is significantly more scientific ‘evidence’ in support of a physical/biological dimension than race does. Indeed, we can easily see this in many discussions about gender and sex. Invariably people will start talking about hormones, chromosomes, genitals, etc and so on.
Yet… when it comes to race, we don’t see purely physical or biological claims made with any great frequency. Not saying this never happens, since it absolutely does. But it doesn’t happen quite as often. No one these days says, ‘hey, you can’t be Black bc your head is shaped like a mongol’. That said, it is still common to see references to hair, facial features, and skin colour. Especially skin colour.
And despite the science of racism being long debunked, we cannot see how/why these two conceptions are treated so differently. It certainly doesn’t explain the lingering sense that even in ‘conscious’ discourse there is a kind of ontological priority attached to race but not gender. A kind of priority that makes most of us cringe when we see a white person claiming to really be Black but shrug our shoulders if/when someone tell us that they are a trans woman.
My best guess is that the way other parts of our identities intertwine with race in a way that doesn’t quite happen with gender. The thing with gender, by and large, is that it is much more generic concept than race. There’s men. There’s women. Men are strong. Women are weak. Etc and so on. Put in another way, there is a sort of universality to gender that isn’t the case with race. Which, I know makes it seem like gender should be more entrenched than race, but the opposite ends up happening.
Why? Well, as we can see from the history of feminism, debunking/disproving the universality of gender is quite easy to do. All you need to do is simply complicate the picture with other identities and suddenly its clear that gender isn’t universal and, thus, just a social construction. But race, however, doesn’t have this broad belief in the universality of its application and experience.
Few people honestly think that all Black people experience racism, anti-Blackness, white supremacy et al in exactly the same way. Indeed, the opposite usually occurs when trying to discuss racism. You’ll get white europeans (and some poc) insisting that there is a distinct, geographically bounded type of racism that exists in europe that is distinct from the united states. Just as there is other systems of racism in other countries. Like the way I saw that Singapore was framed as having a kind of Han Chinese supremacy via racism (literally paralleled to states with a dominant white population). In a strange way, this ends up subtly enforcing a conceptual notion that race is natural in a way that gender is not.
Of course, I’m not saying people don’t also assert that gender is natural on the same basis (ie, that it appears to exist in all peoples everywhere, just variations on a theme). But we reach these conclusions from different places. We disprove the universal validity of gender (or what amounts to the white colonial system), and then begin to think about the various systems that exist. Whereas with race, the case seems to be that the assumption is that race has always existed in some local form and then became universal with white colonization and the advent of scientific racism.
I’m just speculating on all of this, btw, for once sharing my thoughts as I’m still processing rather than waiting until I have a conclusion that I can feel confident in.
There might also be something about the fact that thinking that racism is natural and exists in various forms in all places and at all times that actually disguises its true historical and global context. I know this is something I’ve been exploring for a little while now. In a way, I think this oft unacknolwedged history is part of how racism achieves a kind of ontological solidity that isn’t possible for gender, despite gender actually having a better biological foundation at this point.
I guess in another way its also far easier to challenge, resist, and interrogate a system of oppression when its structures and forms are more clearly visible and apparent. And perhaps a lot of this has to do with feminism and its own respective history, as analysis of gender from that angle has had an impact that critical race hasn’t. Most especially with the way that critical race, as academic field, has actually helped to contribute to a reification of racism (see whiteness studies for an easy example of this).
Basically… I guess I’m really interested in the ontological aspects of why it is possible to claim to ‘be’ a gender different than the one you were assigned at birth but impossible to claim to be a different race (which I just learned is still, at least in the US, recorded at birth, most often assigned the mother’s race). And sure, while I’ve spent some time discussing at previous points how/why transgender is possible while (fake)trans-racial isn’t…
But now I find myself not quite satisfied with my previous answers and with the answers I’ve seen thus far, especially since it really seems to boil down to this ontological distinction such that race isn’t just a social construct and very few of us truly treat it that way (or at least in the same way as we currently do gender). Instead, sex and race appear to be closer alligned since a lot of people are much more adamant that sex represents a biological reality that isn’t socially constructed. But the question of what the ontological status of race is fascinates be since the scientific evidence has almost all been debunked and rejected and very few people think that race describes an objective, biological reality.
To some extent, I think the answer might be related to the ways that race becomes entwined with our heritage and ethnicity. Which of course ought to mean that we still conceive of it as a purely social construction but it ends up, idk, having a certain ‘traditional’ ontological firmness attached to it. Because… try and we may, at this point its very difficult to conceptualize my ethnic identity as distinct from any racial considerations.
For hundreds of years my identity as a filipina has been shaped and informed by race. By first being Brown and now being Yellow. In a way that kind of makes me realize that i don’t think we can call ‘filipino’ a purely ethnic identity. It is, and always has been, just about race as it is about ethnicity. Filipino is a racial identity because by calling myself this, I inextricably become caught in a web of racial signification.
I guess what I’m saying is that perhaps there is no coherent way to conceptualize ‘filipino’ without also conceptualizing it as either Yellow (modern racial class) or Brown (our previous racial class). In other words, Filipino is just a convenient way to describe a subsection of the yellow/brown race. We are the yellow/brown people who live in this area, speak this language, have this history. Rather than being a people who live in this area, speak this language, have this history who were then racialized via colonization by the Spanish and Americans.
Now that I’m really thinking about this… I feel like I’m onto something. No one who’s sincerely claimed to be transracial ever actually goes from one broad race to another. It isn’t that they go, “I’m a Black-identified white person” or “I transitioned from white to Black” because that isn’t actually what happens. In this example, most of the people I’ve seen say it like that are americans and based on the ways that they attempt to express their false race, it makes it clear that it isn’t generic ‘Blackness’ they are claiming, but Black american as ethnicity. They attempt to embody a specific articulation of Blackness rather than some… super general notion (as in, it isn’t just that they do Black face but appropriate histories, languages, etc or… as we usually conceive it, the ~ethnic~ parts rather than just the physical/racial parts).
Same goes for the white people I’ve seen claim an ‘asian’ identity. They are never just generically asian, as in they don’t try to make themselves have ‘slanty eyes’ and darken their skin (if they are aiming for one of the more brown varieties). But rather they attempt to be japanese (or whatever). They use various ethnic markers as a way to signal race. They are ‘really’ asian because they speak Japanese. Because they eat sushi. Because they watch anime.
I guess what I think this all means is that race as a certain ontological firmness/stability not because of biology or scientific racism but because of its relationship to ethnicity. Since I don’t know of many people who think that your ethnicity is something you can change. Sure, we know its socially constructed, but it isn’t changeable in the way that gender is. Especially since ethnicities are one way to sum up variations in socialization. As in, ethnicity as a whole tends to index the very things that work to socialize us: language. geography, moral norms, cultural values, family, kinship, etc.
In another way… I think history has shown that race is changeable in the way that gender is. I mean… if the Brown race can disappear entirely and just magically become Yellow, this points to a concept that operates much the same as gender. One race can be exchanged for another, just like gender…. but because of the inextricable ties between race and ethnicity, race becomes entrenched and unexchangeable. Since I don’t know of anyone who actually thinks that you can swap out ethnicity.
Like… I know that I’ll always be considered more filipino than a white person who grew up in the PH and speaks Filipino. Like. Yeah. This hypothetical white expat speaks the language and grew up in the homeland but… still isn’t filipino. I grew up in canada and I don’t speak tagalog (and never will) but… I am and always will be tagalog/filipina.
I think this is part of why the whole ‘eternal foreigner’ concept exists. Because, yeah, despite being born in canada, speaking one of the two official languages, and even having a parent whose ancestor helped settle and colonize canada, my supposed canadian ethnicity is rarely unconditionally granted. People ask me where I’m from. I tell them the province and city…. And then am asked, “no, where are you really from?” since I am not (can never be) truly ‘from here’.
Ok. Ok. I need to get to work and this is enough stream of thought processing.