Gender, Race, and Why the Hypatia Article is Wrong

I don’t want to dedicate more time than I have to on this matter, but I do feel compelled to respond to the “Hypatia Transracialism Affair.”

Recently, Feminist philosophy journal Hypatia allowed for a publication of an essay defending the notion of “Transracialism” in the Rachel Dolezol sense by claiming that the arguments in favor of transgenderism (as if Transgender people, who do exist, are just one ideology among others) logically support the notion that a person can change races. Hypatia has since apologized the article, but the class of privileged people who make “Freeze Peach” the hill they want to die on have responded poorly to the whole affair.

Let me begin with the reminder that having your ideas challenged, and having your speech held accountable and removed from a private publication for continuing to perpetuate misunderstandings and misinformation about marginalized people, is not censorship. Censorship is the state preventing and silencing voices. Free speech is not the ability to speak without consequence. The cisfeminist here wrote a mediocre philosophy paper that misrepresented and misused important concepts in queer theory so she could score a publication by defending something unpopular.

I will not be going point-by-point on her essay, but I would like to introduce two important ideas that I believe challenge and overwhelm the thesis that transgender concepts necessarily allow for transracialism:

1. ESSENCES ARE STUPID
Academic philosophy spends a great deal of time discussing something called “The Problem of Universals,” that is, how do we go about objectively grouping things together? For much of western history, most people, philosopher and layman, have posited that things must have an “essence” to them which necessarily makes them members of a group. Essences are nice, because they allow for definitive answers as to whether an X belongs in grouping Y or not. However, I, along with many other philosophers, hold that essences are (for the most part) not real, and the ways we identify group belonging is socially constructed and far more ambiguous.

Why is this important? Well, because this is used against transgender people. TERFs (Trans-exclusive Radical Feminists, basically the worst people in the world) make this sort of argument:

THE TERF ARGUMENT WHY TRANSWOMEN ARE MEN (consider grabbing a wastebasket to throw up in)

P1 Gender is socially constructed, sex is biological and “real”

P2 If Gender is socially constructed, it is just a collection of stereotypes. We must “abolish” gender. Boys can do whatever they want, girls can do whatever they want, gender is abolished.

P3 If Gender is abolished, there is still biological sex. Women (“Biological Females”) experience oppression based on their bodies from the moment they are born. Men (“biological males”) do not experience this sort of oppression. This is an objective, unchangable, biological caste.

C Transwomen are men because they have men’s bodies, and thus these sick, delusional men are invading women’s spaces.

TERFs so dearly want to believe there is an essence to being a woman, and so they pin biology as what necessarily makes for a woman. This is an incredibly poor argument for a variety of reason, not the least because biological sex is not a clean binary, because there are different kinds of sex (gonad, chromosome, hormone, etc.) but more importantly, it makes the classic essentialist fallacy of thinking that because there is no one unifying factor that defines gender identity or gender membership, it must somehow be done away with.

There is no essence, biological or otherwise, of gender, just as there is no essence of race, but that does not mean that gender is “imaginary.” Gender is a multifaceted psychological identity that is deep-seated and immalleable. Even if we lived in this fantasy world in which all gender roles were abolished, individual gender identity would still exist. Some societies have different languages to discuss gender identity, but that is a social tool to politically organize people by their gender identities.

Consider how we divide languages: There is a difference between Arabic and English, but there is no one final, correct construction of Arabic or English, rather, these are categories that include many, many dialects, regionalism, changing features, grammars, and other features under an umbrella. African-American English has a different verb conjugation structure than Associated Press English, Moroccan Arabic is unintelligible to Palestinian Arabic. And yet, there are intellegible tongues that are granted separate language status: Dutch and Afrikaans are extremely similar, as are Croatian and Serbian languages. There is no definitive line that crosses a tongue from being one language to another, just as there is no criteria of femininity that makes for a “true” female gender identity, or masculinity that makes for a “true” male gender identity.

As genderqueer youtuber ContraPoints described it, “All genders are ‘Made Up,’ but some are more made up by more than others.”

2. TRANSRACIALISM = TRANSGENDERISM IS INDUCTIVELY FALSE

One of the critical errors of both TERFs and the Hypatia article is that it assumes that transpeople are “Trans-” because they are attempting to change either their gender or their primary/secondary sex characteristics. “If you can change your gender or sex, why can’t you change your race?”

As I elaborated in the earlier section, your gender is a psychological state. A transperson doesn’t “change” their gender, their gender was always there, they are transitioning from one publicly recognized gender to another. The medical changing of primary or secondary sex characteristics is to alleviate the gender dysphoria that comes from the mismatch of one’s psychological state and one’s physical presence. Trans people are not transitioning because they think that is what makes them “real women or men.”

Thus, the comparison of gender to race or other made-up gender critical nonsense hypotheticals like “Trans-ableism” (ablebodied people thinking they are disabled) or “Trans-speciesism” (humans thinking they are other animals) is that Race is not a psychological phenomenon. There are psychological effects of racism, and the relationship to one’s racial identity is incredibly complex, but these psychological states occur as a result of, and in response to, the political experience of being tagged as a certain race. Race is not biologically real, but it is an socially-constructed (and politically imposed) way of evaluating one’s ancestors. Your lineage is something external to your psychological state. Your racial identity might change in the sense that societies might start constructing races differently (e.g. Jewish people, the Italians, and the Irish were not always considered white, but are now), or you may come to a new personal political understanding of your racial identity, but there is no sense in which a racial identity can be defined as a psychological status.

In short, consider this argument:

THE INDUCTIVE ARGUMENT AGAINST TRANSRACIALISM
P1 Transgender people exist throughout human history in many disparate cultures (the Hijra, Two-Spirited People, Kathoey, Khwaja Sara, Bissu, and so on and so forth).

P2 There is extensive medical and psychological research that confirms that gender identity is a psychological phenomenon, and transitioning is the best approach to treating gender dysphoria

P3 There are virtually no other examples of Rachel Dolezal-style transracialists, who claim to experience a form of “race dysphoria.” In fact, while gender is a cultural universal (there are no cultures that do not make social categories around a spectrum of femininity/masculinity), race is a Western creation of the Enlightenment.

C “Gender-as-psychological-state” is empirically confirmed through anthropology and psychology. “Race-as-psychological-state” is not.

More than just bad philosophy, the Hypatia article makes a critical moral error of discussing a literal life-or-death issue, the validity of transgender identities, with utter disregard to the consequences of such an idle, hypothetical discussion. Whether the author intended to infringe on trans identity, she still transgressed by ignoring just how much violent anti-trans rhetoric and policy found a home in the Rachel Dolezal case. It should be no surprise she makes only fleeting reference to actual transgender theorists. Our lives are not a stepping stone for you to get an assistant professorship; cisfeminist philosophers, listen to us first.