“Race and gender are not the same!” is not a Good Response to the “Transracial” / Transgender Question OR We Can and Must Do Better – The Feminist Wire

“Race and gender are not the same!” is not a Good Response to the “Transracial” / Transgender Question OR We Can and Must Do Better

I remember Justine Black from elementary school. She was smart. She was brown, but not brown like me. I was black like most of the other kids in our class. I remember Justine because she was a good friend of mine. I knew that she was from some other place outside of the U.S. and not Africa (in elementary school I didn’t know how vast the black diaspora was), but when she told me she was black I took her at her word.

I relished in the fact that black could exist, could be pronounced and claimed proudly by this person, who could, if she wanted, be some other thing, some other race. In our school, being black was a privilege; it gave you a certain kind of currency. I know because I remember what it felt like to be called “white” because I was just too something else…I remember that no matter what anyone told me, I knew I was indeed black. And blackness seemed to be more than a designation. I didn’t feel like I needed to fight for the obvious. But I remember Justine, and I remember if someone got mad at her, I knew the deepest cut would come when someone would say, “Your middle name is ain’t!” Then a chant would move from murmur to rumble, “JUSTINE AIN’T BLACK! JUSTINE AIN’T BLACK! JUSTINE AIN’T BLACK!”

Race, and more specifically, blackness, was policed socially and there were moments when some people were made more vulnerable to being ousted than others. I remember the moments when the same students who joined in the chant one day had a sudden change of heart the next. They would fight for and co-sign Justine’s claim on blackness. She could be one of us. And even within the “us” some of “us” could be kicked out and charged with the damned sentence of “white.” I write of this childhood moment because I think it does a great job at illustrating the complex nature of race, particularly blackness.

This past week I have been forced to reckon with the elasticity of the color line and its relationship to the gender line. Multiple memes, Facebook statuses, and tweets vilify Rachel Dolezal’s “becoming/being black” and the logic that has been used to damn her to “white” actually yields a transgender-antagonistic outcome.

The question many have asked: “If we accept Caitlyn Jenner as transgender, then must we also embrace Rachel Dolezal as “transracial”?[1] The response from many POC, Black, queer, transgender, organizers, scholars, theorists and artists has been to end the conversation with “Race and gender are separate.” To ask that question or put the two together in any way becomes transphobic. But the question itself isn’t transphobic. The answer that one arrives at, if you hold on to a historically situated notion of blackness and a presentist (gender is not only socially constructed, but historically naturalized) notion of gender, is transphobic.

In this moment we land in a messy and important intersection. The discourse surrounding the incident is both theoretically and materially destabilizing. Or perhaps this conjuncture once again reiterates the instability that is always already present when it comes to both the color line and the gender line. Race and gender are not the same, but they are both bio-social-historical categories that help to facilitate and enforce the unequal distribution of power and wealth under capitalism. It is important that in this moment we wrestle with these questions. We cannot just end the conversation because it makes us uncomfortable or angry. We must ask ourselves: What are the similarities between gender and race? What does this relationship reveal to us? How, why and when does it make us uneasy?

Many people in my circles (Black Radical, Queer, Trans, Feminist…) have decided that they no longer want to have this conversation regarding “transgender” and “transracial” because “they aren’t the same thing.” This is not a good answer and it is not a stupid question. It is a perplexing question; a hard one. The reason it is difficult is because it once again exposes us to what we already know — black is, and black ain’t. Many have responded to this conundrum of relation by stating that “I was born black and I don’t get to make a choice about that!” The truth is that many of us don’t get to make a choice. Our darker skin colors speak for us (and still it is not able to give the world the story of who we really are).

Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal made a choice; she decided to become black and whether or not you like it or agree with it is not the important question to me. A person can indeed become black because race is historically, biologically, and socially constructed! It is not just one of these things, it is all of these at work simultaneously. If you accept Caitlyn, then you have to accept Rachel. This incident pulls at the heartstrings of many people. Many black people who feel angry, harmed, and uncomfortable with the idea that someone who doesn’t posses the right historical and biological blood lineage is claiming blackness. But don’t we already know that the one-drop rule is a problematic one? And didn’t we all at some point originate biologically in Africa? How far back do we have to go to prove our racial allegiances?

Let us first discuss this term, Transgender. Transgender in this moment (this week) is represented or brought to us by Caitlyn Jenner. We have watched her transformation and we think that we somehow now know what transgender means, what it looks like, how to mark and name it. However, we take for granted the conjunctured nature of trans and gender. We say we know transgender, but I argue that we still really don’t know gender. Gender in the way that I understand it is also, like race, a bio-social-historical category that we all move through in different ways at different times.

  • Gender is biological. I am not arguing that it is only biology, but we can agree that medical science assigns bodies at birth, via anatomic endowments a gender. We know that some people do not agree with that designation and decide to change it, perhaps to the opposite gender one was given at birth, perhaps to no assignment at all, or perhaps something for which we yet to have grasped within our grammar or politics of inclusion.
  • Gender is socially constructed. Boys wear blue and play with trucks. Girls wear pink and play with dolls.
  • Gender is also historically (re)produced. THIS IS a major point that must be reckoned with. For as my friend and colleague Michelle Wright noted in an email conversation, “…we understand race as historically produced and gender as ‘natural’ [but it is not].”[2] This is one of the most important places we need to go because this is the place where many are marking the distinction between race and gender, but it is an unproductive move. Gender like race has a history or multiple histories and it changes over time.

Now let us move on to race if we are to consider the new “transracial” to mean someone who changes their race, different from the one they were assigned at birth. Race, like gender is biologically determined, socially constructed, and historically (re)produced. There is a real logical connection between race and gender. The response for many has been: “This is my history that Dolezal is doing violence to!” It is about ownership over a past, one steeped in the colonial and white supremacist violence that traveled through the middle passage and continues to move (differently always) through present day white supremacist violence.

The black pasts and presents are not simply moments of struggle, loss, and pain. These are also moments of pleasure, joy, desire, and resiliency under horrific conditions. These are race- making moments—moments when the shape of blackness comes into view as it is defined as the deviant counter to whiteness’ tyranny. These histories and their contingent narratives are often carried in the flesh meaning that some people’s flesh sparks in others a memory of racialized terror. These folk look black like me, but there are other black people who don’t look black like me, some who look white like some other (dare I say) ancestor, but they too are black.

Race has boundaries. We police those boundaries, though we are not the only ones who do that policing. It is clear that Rachel Dolezal’s appearance has troubled the race police. I have heard arguments that she is purporting to take “our oppression” or she is pretending to be a black woman and her actions are disrespectful to real black people. These ARE the same arguments that people make regarding transgender bodies: “These men want to be women;” “They want to be oppressed and in so doing they distract from the real oppression real women face.”

When it comes to Dolezal the question is much more discomforting. She was born white. She decided to become black and live her life as a black woman. Geography matters: she made the choice to be black in Spokane—not, for example, Chicago or Atlanta. We are all responding to the question: Is she black or nah? We have too easily answered this question with a resounding NAH! But I think that’s the wrong question. The question we should be asking is when was/is she black?

Transgender visibility has appeared recently in a way that it has not before, mostly because before Caitlyn Jenner, the faces of this transgender moment/movement were transgender women of color like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, but also organizers and activists like CeCe McDonald. What all of these women have in common is not simply their blackness and their transgender identity, but a radical black queer feminist politic. That is why I am so here for these women, because their embodiment of transgender is not the only way to embody transgender and they aren’t afraid to name that. Janet Mock calls out her own privilege, understanding that there are many stories that become further pushed into the shadows of now (and back then as in history) if we take her narrative as THE transgender narrative. There are many routes and many pathways to becoming. We need to pay attention to the multiplicity that is being named here and understand that there are many transgender bodies that don’t fit the scripts that are being most presented to us in popular media. I’m not arguing for more inclusion, I’m asking you to understand and be aware that there is always more there there.

Now that Caitlyn Jenner has made her debut as herself and many have applauded and affirmed her right to be and exist as she desires, we leave it at that. But Caitlyn Jenner is no CeCe McDonald. Caitlyn Jenner’s politics are not in line with mine. While I can support and affirm Jenner’s gender self determining processes that does not help to dismantle and create a new system whereby white supremacy and patriarchy are not the dominating structural formation that some of us seek to destroy.

Rachel Dolezal was outed by her biological parents as white. She has been lying to people and pretending to be something she is not, a black woman. People have said she’s been doing blackface. I disagree. I am not offended by Rachel Dolezal. I ask her the same question I ask Jenner: What do your politics look like? And what kind of work do you do?

It seems as though people have forgotten what we already know, which is that black has always been a porous entity. Some people do have a privileged relationship to blackness.[3] Not all black people relate to the category or are marked by the category in the same way. Your blackness might not be legible in certain places perhaps because of your complexion, or language, or accent, or hair texture. Dolezal reinforces and reiterates that black is a category that we all have the ability to move in and out of to a certain extent — my dark skin automatically situates me squarely as a physical manifestation of blackness, but there are people who are continuously questioned because their skin is of a lighter hue. We know this already. We also already know that racial passing has been going on since race was constructed, and no it wasn’t only black people passing for or becoming white. It was white people passing for or becoming a whole host of things (which included white too). When does passing stop being passing and become being?

I caution us to be very careful in this moment, as transgender can become a category that we take for granted. It is a category many think we know because we have seen it. It represents a move from one gender to another. But it is more than that. The gender binary is troubled and it is challenged. It is not only or always transgender people that we recognize as simply (or not so simply) moving from one place on the gender binary to another that do the troubling. There are many people for which transition isn’t just a moment and time to be completed. Some people live and reside outside or fluctuate between genders—this critique is one that collapses binaries.

The best response I heard in response to this whole matter came from writer Adrienne Maree Brown, co-editor of the new science fiction collection, Ocatvia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. She posed the question “Any good sci-fi explanations or transformative justice responses for #RachelDolezal?” I seek answers to this question as a black transgender man, who is unapologetically black and unapologetically transgender. I cannot think gender and race separately. I have some agency in identifying with these two identity categories. I am black yes, but I choose to be unapologetically black and that is political choice. That decision is how I make my blackness mean or matter.

But blackness in itself is not a self-fulfilling prophecy (not everyone is unapologetic about it). The fact of blackness exceeds the category black. This doesn’t mean that black doesn’t exist, that some people don’t embody it. It does not mean that some of us have no choice in the matter of how we carry certain histories in the flesh. But we do not all carry our history in the flesh. Some of us carry it in our language, some of us carry it in our sway, some of us carry it by proclaiming it. I am unapologetically black. The unapologetic nature of my blackness compels fugitivity. I think we are supposed to accept blackness as a thing that has only been done to us. I think of people who ask, “who would choose to be this oppressed? This black? This queer?” I would and I do choose to be black as long as black holds this possibility of fugitivity and the desire to escape hegemonic control and order.

So what does transformative justice look like in this situation? I’m not sure that I have a real answer here, but I can’t respond by refusing to have the conversation. As I wrote on Facebook: “No, it’s not the same. But, yes there is some overlap and the discussion needs to be had. We need to put on our thinking caps (critical analysis) first. It’s not as simple as #rachelDolezal gives us Trans–racial and #caitlynjenner gives us Trans–gender. The latter we are to applaud and commend while the former we are to condemn to ‘mental illness’ and ‘inauthenticity.’ Something isn’t right here which is why I’m putting my thinking cap on.”

While I continue to put this thinking cap to work, I know for sure that I will not be joining the chanting chorus line of, Rachel Dolezal AIN’T black (no more). I am more concerned with whose blood is spilling on the sidewalk than whose blood is running through Dolezal’s veins.

[1] Transracial is a thing, a word that has significance prior to this moment. I think Lisa Marie Rollins does a great job of clarifying that here: I don’t think that forecloses the need to talk about the possibility of “transracial” in the Dolezal sense.

[2] I encourage everyone to read Michelle Wright’s new book, The Physics Of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology

[3] Thank you Fred Moten for stating this so plainly.



Kai M. Green is a writer, scholar, poet, filmmaker, abolitionist, feminist and whatever else it takes to make a new and more just world. Kai is invested in developing models of healthy and loving Black masculinities. As a leader, teacher, and brother he is committed to raising consciousness around self-care, self-love, sexual health, emotional health, sexual and state violence, healthy masculinities, and Black feminism. He believes that writing and story telling are revolutionary acts, especially for those who are often erased by heteronormative and Eurocentric histories. He is currently a professor and Postdoctoral Fellow in Sexuality Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University. Twitter: @Kai_MG


  1. Katina Sawyer

    June 15, 2015 at 12:43 am

    Thank you, Kai, for posting this. I really appreciate the thoughtful manner in which you approach this issue. I have been struggling with how to organize my thoughts about this, as I know I will be asked about it by students and those within my field, and your piece greatly helped with that process. Many thanks for a thought-provoking read :).

  2. DarlieB

    June 15, 2015 at 3:23 am


  3. Lesego Ramphele

    June 15, 2015 at 4:09 am

    I found this very helpful for opening conversations.

  4. salemowalk

    June 15, 2015 at 5:52 am

    The eloquence of this piece is appreciated. I’ve been feeling similarly for the past two days, but have been afraid to be more vocal as to not be called transphobic (as a cis person) or a sellout (as a Black person). My gut suggests that there are more similarities that differences, but my frontal lobe is attempting to determine to what degree.

  5. Jessica Goodenough

    June 15, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Great article, thank you! I was accused of being transphobic for trying to have this conversation with fellow feminists and they tried to shut me down with “race and gender are different!”… Yeah, but isn’t this something we actually need to think and talk about? Thank you again!

  6. Not_american

    June 15, 2015 at 6:46 am

    I appreciate that you try to make sense of this moment and aside from the timing the kind of random corelation of dolezal and jenner. I think other similar conversations have happened but in probably micro settings. For me, as a part-time academic, what Dolezal exposes is the hollowness of academic discourse. I dont blame her, perhaps admire her as I would any con artist that pulls off a disguise and with her it was not one where she seemingly had changed her appearance enormously, except perhaps a perm. But I think the most important difference for me is that in the academic and activist context that Dolezal occupied being black gave her access to certain spaces and discourses and a way of speaking in them. This is not really true for most transgender people, even when people say that what if an athlete claims to be a different gender just because it is slightly different measures for women, it hasnt happened that often. The opposite has, where athletes are tested for male hormones or being intersex. At the level of embodiment,sensation, appearance,presentation gender and being transgender is entirely different from race, not to imply that one is okay and one is not. But it is probably vastly, differently felt – the similarity of it being a social and historical category would apply to pensioners also.

  7. Ryk Lewis

    June 15, 2015 at 6:52 am

    Thank you for this article. I have been troubled by many of My “progressive” friends who have so vehemently tried to separate these two topics. I dont understand how one woman is beatified for living as she sees herself to be and another is vilified for living as she sees herself to be.

    Thank you

  8. Rebecca Wanzo

    June 15, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Thanks for this. This is the smartest piece on this issue, although I still disagree that they are functioning the same, but for different reasons. I have been troubled by some of the essentialist arguments/jokes with the RD story, and think people get a lot wrong. She is not, as bell would say, like Iggy Aalea, as we are used to black people doing things we associate with “black performances” as white people, part of how they capitalize on the performance is being white while doing it. I do think that different kinds of identities function differently, even the Native American comparison–in the Iron Eyes Cody example, white people have WANTED to claim Native American ancestry, and often do, as part of the twisted Vanishing American convention that gives white people a right to the U.S. So I resist the critique not became I am uncomfortable or transphobic, but because I do think (and I would tweak Green’s argument here sex is biological, gender is the performance attached to sex), but because I think we may miss some real specificity of how identities function structurally (despite the overlap here). You are right in laying out the similarities here, although ironically, I have been using Michelle Wright to talk about the difference, In Becoming Black her discussion of the Black intellectual tradition talks about the ways in which black subjectivity arises from resistance and response, we see this discussion of blackness in the west with negritude, etc. . . I don’t think sex/gender always function in that way. Similarly gender has been made to be a negation, but I think there is a lot (like mothering for example, biological or no), that is attached to womanhood that is not out of resistance. Black culture in the west–music, humor, even food, etc–so much comes out of traditions of resistance and what we have be denied. It is not always phobic to resist the comparison, but it can be about trying to think through how treating identities as functioning the same can cause us to miss real differences. But this will help me continue to think through it.

    • Kai M. Green

      June 16, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      I really appreciate your thoughtful response and push back. I’m looking forward to working through these ideas more and I am so glad that I have folk like you willing to go there with me and push. <3<3<3

    • The Alchemist

      June 16, 2015 at 8:33 pm

      Black womanhood is not just about resistance but also biological. Blackness and womanhood are not separate for me. The author of the article separates the two because he’s not a black woman.

  9. Jay

    June 15, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    This is a brave article, and I applaud you.

    • Kai M. Green

      June 16, 2015 at 12:36 pm


  10. Cara Ramsey

    June 16, 2015 at 3:04 am

    No, it is NOT the same. You make a fundamental assumption then build your tower of logic on quicksand.

    Being transgender is, according to every major medical organization, a medical neurobiological condition. “Transracial” is a deliberate misappropriation of a technical term that previously was used solely by clinicians to discuss the impacts of raising children of color in a white household.

    As a trans woman, I am getting tired of telling some people that there IS a biological component of gender. It’s not as important in our socialization as the social component in directing our behavior, but it is more important than the socialization component in determining who we perceive ourselves to be.

    • Kai M. Green

      June 16, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      I argue that there is a biological component—I also argue that it is not just biological. Also biology can get us into big trouble, which is why I say that gender is bio-social-historical—it’s all and probably more. We must contend with the nuances.

      • Cara Ramsey

        June 16, 2015 at 3:16 pm

        The professional medical and psychiatric position is that, for gender identity, it is neurobiological, therefore completely not equivalent to the separate “transracial” discussion (misappropriated word there too). Gender identity, who you are, is neurobiologically determined, in the womb no less, before socialization can even occur (before genitalia even sexually differentiate, in fact).

        Gender roles, on the other hand, are culturally and historically impacted and created. But different cultures do different things. And despite those different behavior patterns and different levels of responsibility among genders across so many different cultures, trans people still identify with particular genders and, this is the key, want to associate with others of that gender, not the gender to which they were assigned based on a 30 second visual inspection of external genitalia.

        My point is there are stark differences between this political dustup over Rachel Dolezal and an entire class of people who are transgender.

        Someone who argues the two are not different is ignoring those clear medical and biological differences. Why should such differences be ignored so blatantly? I think that is an important question to ask as well, because the entire start of this conversation appears to have originated with people who wished to both ridicule and demean Rachel Dolezal (not saying she was right, but the goal was to demean her) and then, implicitly by association because of the “sameness” of the argument, demean and ridicule transgender people.

        And that is only possible if one ignores that fundamental medical and biological difference.

        You asked this question:

        So what does transformative justice look like in this situation? I’m not sure that I have a real answer here, but I can’t respond by refusing to have the conversation. As I wrote on Facebook: “No, it’s not the same. But, yes there is some overlap and the discussion needs to be had. We need to put on our thinking caps (critical analysis) first. It’s not as simple as #‎rachelDolezal gives us Trans–racial and #‎caitlynjenner gives us Trans–gender. The latter we are to applaud and commend while the former we are to condemn to ‘mental illness’ and ‘inauthenticity.’ Something isn’t right here which is why I’m putting my thinking cap on.”

        And the answers that I would focus on are these:

        1. Transracial, in the manner the word is being used right now, has never been applied before. It’s real usage has been about children of color raised in white households and the impacts on those children. Why was this word misappropriated precisely now?

        2. Transgender is a proven medical condition, with neurobiological basis, and which has proven and effective therapies for dealing with this medical condition. Transracial, as that word is being used here, is not a medical condition.

        These two answers give rise to counter questions:

        If these above are true (and they are) then why do we even allow or accept conflating two so very different things? One is apples, one is oranges, and they are different, not the same, so comparing them is useless, unless there is some other agenda at work.

        Anyway, those are my thoughts thus far on this. I am not arguing to ignore Rachel Dolezal at all, just that her situation has nothing to do with the situation of transgender people.

    • linda ravenswood

      June 17, 2015 at 10:14 pm

      Dear Kai, I loved this article. I was challenged by the coverage of the Rachel Dolezal story .. so complex. I encourage everyone to remember that Transraciality as a construct was used to examine the affect / effect of black kids being raised in homes where white people lived. But we have to remember that Rachel Dolezal was raised in a home by white parents, but she had 4 African American siblings, who were her age. If Rachel identifies as African American, and stated that she began identifying as Black / African American from the time she was five years old, isn’t it possible that she is culturally Black, as she says? Is it not possible that being raised with 4 Black siblings aided in that identification, and the fact that she went to a traditionally African American college, that she married an African American man, that she has two African American children, that her interests have been the African American experience, arts, that she teaches about Empowerment, and The History of Blackness in the US, is this woman not a clear example of Transracial? If she says she is Transracial, why don’t we believe her? The currency of Blackness seems to be informing the queries, and the shut down of the queries? I am so excited to learn about the future of these trajectories … I think our ideas of Blackness, Whiteness, self identification, empowerment and agency will be evolving !

  11. Cara Ramsey

    June 16, 2015 at 4:10 am

    Oh yeah – here, a black trans woman adds her thoughts on this why these two things are nothing like one another, adding more fuel to that fire. Given that she’s trans, and she is also black, I think that gives her a bit of street cred, don’t you?

    • Kai M. Green

      June 16, 2015 at 12:33 pm

      I am also trans and black. The way you assign “street cred” is troubling and essentialist. Who are you to assign street cred? Check yourself. With love.

      • Pamela

        July 3, 2015 at 1:21 am

        You’re ftm trans, she’s mtf trans, There’s a huge difference, especially when you spoke FOR mtf’s as an ftm yourself in this article.

  12. Jem

    June 16, 2015 at 10:54 am

    This is very useful for a theoretical understanding of “transracial” people.
    A key bit that you miss is that RD seems to have created an entire false identity – false stories about experiencing poverty, abuse and other hardships during her childhood – all of which seem to service some negative stereotype about black life. It is really this that makes her a fraud (and not “transracial”) in my eyes: CJ has never lied about being born assigned as male, and the path take to transition as a transgendered person. RD created a whole false life story to fit the identity she wanted to project to the world.

    • Kai M. Green

      June 16, 2015 at 12:31 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. The issue for me is bigger than RD. She is simply an example of something which is that some people have the ability to move in and out of racial categories. If we could get that, then I think we would not be so consumed by this case. This is why I end the piece by saying that I am more concerned with blood on the streets than whose blood is in a persons veins. There is something called blackness and their are black people. Not all black people experience blackness in the same way (class, skin tone, geographic location, gender and more all affect ones proximity to blackness and ones proximity to premature death). I don’t need to authenticate or deny RD’s blackness because I know that people can and do move in and out of particular social locations (not everyone has the same access to mobility). There are consequences, material consequences depending on ones proximity to blackness. As long as there is a category black and that category means (not solely or always) that you are situated more closely to premature death and white supremacist violence, then we can move all kinds of bodies in and out of that social location. At the end of the day, the eradication of that social location as one more susceptible to premature death, is what we should focus on dismantling. This is not the same as getting rid of blackness or black people. But I do have to ask myself what would blackness mean, or how and when and where would it mean if what I say I want to happen (the end of white supremacist, capitalist violence and control) happens? That is the work that I am here to do with communities I love. This visioning, which should be truly about liberation and not just a shift (reversal) of power, has to think through creating new structures. We also will have to contend with that fact that in this new world, we will all become new people. But, alas we are here now–today, we are holding up the name of yet another black person, a young black woman, ‪#‎ArneshaBowers‬, who was violently slain. This is where we are.

    • Audrey

      June 18, 2015 at 1:00 am

      See, but the problem is, what other choice did she have?

      Let’s assume for a moment that she’s genuine in terms of her feelings about “being black.” Now if she wanted to live this “authenticity,” the only was she *could* do it would be to disavow her white parents, claim black heritage, move to a new city and forge a new history for herself. If she tried to present herself openly as a black woman who “used to be white,” she would be crucified by her community (I mean, look what’s happening now).

      This to me is really interesting in relation to how trans women were treated when gender confirmation surgery was first becoming an option in the 60s and 70s. Patients who underwent SRS were instructed by doctors to move away from where they had lived before, to create a “false” history of always having been female, to disavow family, etc and to create a new life. Trans women moreover were encouraged to perform femininity in extreme ways: always have your hair done, always sit in a feminine manner, always wear dresses, etc. Trans women were told that to do otherwise would essentially be suicide. The mantra was: blend in or die.

      And there were very real consequences for women who did not successfully blend in. At best, public ridicule would follow. At worst, so would acts of physical violence and even murder.

      Now I’m not trying to say that these two cases are equivalent. In fact, I must admit, I have a pretty negative emotional reaction to RD and what it seems she has done. But for the life of me, it’s very hard to explain logically why this reaction is what it is, as opposed to my reaction to trans women, which is much more sympathetic.

      But also, I am white, so I don’t want to position myself in any way as some kind of authority on blackness or who gets to be black. But I do think this issue poses a lot of tough questions, which are definitely worth addressing. And I agree with Kai that just saying “race and gender are different!” to end the conversation feels especially hollow.


  13. Cheryl Clarke

    June 16, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Great to see you in print, kai.

    • Kai M. Green

      June 16, 2015 at 11:57 am

      Thanks for reading. Love you Cheryl!!

  14. Laura VanAmburgh

    June 16, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Thank you so much for putting this out there. I was having a hard time putting into words my feelings about this topic and you have done so in a beautiful way that makes sense to me!:)

  15. Null

    June 16, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Im done being told what is or is not reality.

    Reality is reality, check her DNA that will give you her racial and gender background.

    Everything else is tripe.

    • A E-F

      June 17, 2015 at 11:21 am

      The problem is that race is partly subjective. Your genetics say what family you came from, maybe how dark your skin is, but there is no “race gene”. That’s been documented in many peer-reviewed studies.

      So it might seem objective, but when you say “his race is black”, you’re just saying “he looks very dark so I consider his race to be black”, or “his african heritage (which we all possess) was recent enough that I consider his race to be black”.

  16. Shana Lancaster

    June 16, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Thank you for this brave article! I keep telling myself that “this is the last one” I’m going to read because the story feels saturated. But, I’m fascinated by it’s larger context and was craving someone to push the issue deeper and wider. As a white woman who identifies as an ally to all kinds of black folks, I think one more take away I’ve had is that RD’s expression of race was a missed opportunity for healing from the major traumas of the white feminist movement. I understand the mistrust that exists for many black (and WOC) feminists when it comes to their white counterparts and to actively impede transparency when putting in work on the front lines feels so counter-productive. Anyways, my two cents. Sending you love from Oakland, Kai!

    • Kai M. Green

      June 17, 2015 at 10:46 am

      GO WARRIORS!!!!

  17. aex

    June 16, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    she’s a *cultural* appropriationist with a napoleon-class mental delusion. Delusion because there is nothing *intrinsic* about race *but* culture–same with nationality for that matter…unless, of course, one happens to b a racist i suppose.

  18. Meg

    June 16, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    I just re-read her article. I think it’s important to understand the difference between some terms here (I hope this does not sound like I am ponitificating).

    Her discussion of gender is actually inaccurate “Gender is biological.” This is not really the case. Gender is a societal construct. SEX is biological (requires surgeries etc, when someone’s biology has been assigned to a person who is the wrong gender).

    Similarly, I’ve been taught that race is biological (the color of the skin with which I was born, the box I check when asked “black, white, Caucasian” Whereas ethnicity is ” the state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.”

    I only bring it up because I think it helps clarify the discussion. Rachel D is NOT black, though she identifies with an African American ethnicity. I’m not saying that she should readily be included in that social group or that she is entitled to belonging, just that is how she affiliates herself.

    • Meg

      June 16, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      Also, apologies Kai. I refer to you as “she” here, when I should have said “he.” Better yet, should have just used your name. Thanks for the sensitive attention to the topic!

      • Kai M. Green

        June 17, 2015 at 10:44 am

        he is the correct pronoun.

        • Meg

          June 19, 2015 at 1:06 pm

          Lesson learned. Read the bio before writing a comment. Thanks for all of your work.

  19. Bernadette Barker-Plummer

    June 17, 2015 at 12:50 am

    Thank you so much Kai Green for this deeply insightful analysis. I have been working my way through this debate today and sharing, linking, thinking, in community with my feminist, queer and critical race colleagues but even the most thoughtful and nuanced writers out there — folks who obviously know intimately the complexities of the political and cultural construction of race and who are usually so spot on about genders — have been rushing to judgment and to closure on these issues with little reflexivity about their/our right to do so. So, I really appreciate your willingness to push along the analysis in a way that opens up questions — what does it mean to claim or refuse a race or gender? And who (ethically) gets to decide? Why are some peoples’ claims to authenticity see as more valuable than others? And why is race different here than gender, if it is?– rather than closing them down. We have gone around and around about these issues of identities/ categories in feminisms and queer theories and the old answers — that race/gender is inscribed in the body; is created in oppression; is the creation of the powerful; is a performance — are all true some of the time, but they don’t seem to move us forward. We keep walking in circles, re-inscribing slightly different boundaries rather than rethinking or — gasp — undoing them altogether (easier said than done of course). So thanks for the work, it is appreciated! There may be no solution but that is a better answer than a glib solution.

    On the subject of speculative/scifi ‘solutions’ — what difference would it make if there was available to all the means to change our ‘races’ as well as to change our genders? An imaginary ‘racial hormone’ to reshape our faces and kink or unkink our hair, to darken or lighten our skins, to racially transition in the way that people transition genders? Who would change and why? Would it follow patterns of gender transitions?

  20. Bernadette

    June 17, 2015 at 1:06 am

    I wonder if you have seen this piece from Adolph Reed, which is coming from a quite different place but has some overlap in argument with yours, I think?

  21. Charles Bell

    June 17, 2015 at 2:36 am

    I have a huge issue with how you have framed your argument by ignoring the connection between race and ancestry. Race has always been a group affiliation based on lineage. One is white both of one’s biological parents are white. One is black if either of one’s biological parents is black. Regardless of how our (American) construction of race has changed that has held steady as the basic standard for who is black or white for generations. It remains the standard to this day. One simply can’t ignore it, as you seem to have done when discussing race in general and Rachel D in particular.

    While it is true that the common understanding of whiteness (and pretty much just whiteness) has changed over the years it has always been a understood as being an exclusive collection of ethnicities and not individuals. Its expansion and contraction has never been on a person by person basis. An Irishman didn’t become white, The Irish became white as an ethnicity. Also in so doing, they did not stop being Irish.

    Instead of trying to reconcile Rachel D’s lack of African heritage with her quest for black identity you choose to define blackness primarily through skin color. What’s especially vexing is that you seem to focus on skin color for the sole purpose of shooting it down as a standard for racial identity. While doing this allows you to create a space in which Rachel D can assume Black identity, it also renders that identity meaningless. It ignores the shared history and ancestry that is at the core what it means to be black and provides no other standard for blackness beyond simple self-identification.

    This brings me to the issue that I have with how you discuss gender. Cara Ramsey articulated this much better than I could in her comment when she discussed gender as being a function of neurobiology as much if not more than is it a function of physical anatomy. When gender is thought of as a function of neurobiology, transitioning is no longer a matter of moving between genders, but an adjustment of the outward performance of gender to match one’s unchanged neurobiological gender.

    If you were to make a convincing argument about ‘transracial’ identity being like transgender identity, you would need to make the argument that one’s racial identity is also a function of one’s neurobiology and as such can be entirely different from the racial identity assumed according to one’s lineage. I do not think you can make that argument. I do not thing anyone can for one simple reason. There was a time before white and black. There was even a time before race. There was never a time before gender.

    • Kai M. Green

      June 17, 2015 at 10:42 am

      I think you have misread. I say that race is social, historical and biological — that is ancestry.

      • Charles Bell

        June 17, 2015 at 11:39 pm

        But you don’t try to reconcile ancestry with your thesis. Ancestry doesn’t play a role in gender identity but it is central to racial and ethnic identity. Just saying that both are social, historical and biological doesn’t speak to that difference.

        • Crista Lebens

          June 18, 2015 at 7:00 am

          Charles Bell writes: “Ancestry doesn’t play a role in gender identity,” I disagree. I would use the term sex category (to denote the biological dimension). Sex categories are social and historical. The way one enacts one’s sex category is enmeshed in one’s racial category (and class position, etc.). That is the “social” part. These overlapping, enmeshed, multiplicitous identities are historically located as well.

          One does not come to an understanding of one’s racial categorization or one’s sex categorization outside of culture, which is located in a particular historical moment.

          “Gender identity” is a term developed to articulate an individual person’s disconnect between their assigned sex category and their self-understanding. This identification, too, is socially and historically located.

          I think the point would be more clear if Kai Green (and other theorists) made this distinction. Using the term ‘gender’ to refer to all of the apparatus that constructs and maintains sex categories elides an important difference.

          Thank you, Kai, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis.

          • Charles Bell

            June 19, 2015 at 2:24 pm

            I feel like I have fallen into a quagmire of nomenclature so I’m just going to say this.

            There is no way to determine my gender (anatomical gender, gender identity, sex…) through knowing basic demographic details of my ancestors (ex. name, age, sex, race, religion, ethnicity, birthplace…). That statement holds regardless of the society or era in which I was born.

            Unlike in the case of gender, those details are literally all that matter when determining my race. You can determine that I am black without meeting me, seeing my face, hearing my voice or even knowing my name.

  22. Pingback: The Blackface politics of Rachel Dolezal - The Feminist Wire | The Feminist Wire

  23. Christopher Knorr

    June 17, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Kai, this is without a doubt the best thing I’ve read on the topic yet. I hope we can open a new discussion and maybe learn something important about race and gender identity in the process. Thank you so much for your clear, well-reasoned points.

  24. Anjum

    June 17, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks so much for this article— it asks key questions and gets at so much. I guess I’m still a little confused about transgender vs transracial: I’m 100% with you in terms of race and gender both being bio/social/historical constructs. But perhaps transmisogyny works differently than phobias against people who identify as transracial. What differs is people’s reactions to transracial vs transgender.

    “Femininity” according to the current western white-supremacist, capitalist social order is a hallowed institution emphasizing whiteness, slenderness, hairless, soft-skinned bodies and virgin purity. The kind of aesthetic celebrated in classic ballet, for example. Basically there is an idealized image of femininity that is white within society. It is virtually untouchable, especially to people of certain groups: arguably, non-cis women, POC and especially black women are never allowed full access to the institution of femininity and “true” womanhood that is held up on a pedestal.

    This idea of the “pure” white woman is then immediately endangered by transwomen. There is paranoia and fear…no matter how cis she looks—“what is she hiding under her skirt”? Of course this is mitigated by race and class too—how does Jenner’s wealth/access and whiteness make hers a less threatening body? However, it seems like transwomen are a threat or to be reviled for they are sullying the supposedly sacred institution of (dainty hairless white) femininity.

    However blackness, especially black womanhood, is not held on a pedestal by the white-supremacist capitalist social order. According to the current order, it seems the further you are from blackness the better. Similar to what you said, blackness is something that is “inflicted” upon people (who would want to be that oppressed?) So when RD is outed as white, there is no disgust at her whiteness having muddied the institution of black womanhood because black womanhood is not an institution that is recognized/validated. What is the reaction to a supposedly “disgusting” trans body vs RD’s body that is not “authentically” black but (perhaps, whew) that is a good thing according to the current social order? The critiques against her seem to be chiefly how she stole blackness as an identity, not disgust at her very body/her very being— because there is no sacred institution she is sullying/polluting. Stealing womanhood as an identity is of course part of trans-phobic discourse. But there is also the larger societal discomfort/disgust at transwomen for having sullied the institution of white womanhood. This discomfort/disgust seems less present when discussing a non-black person taking on black identity.

    I guess that unfairness is what feels violent to me. RD (and other non-black identifying ppl) can claim black womanhood and not be met with disgust etc because they aren’t sullying something put on a pedestal ie: blackness/ black womanhood.
    Transwomen can claim womanhood but are faced with disgust because they are sullying something on a pedestal ie: the notion of (white) femininity.
    Thus seemingly, the stakes will always be higher for non cis-women claiming femininity than for non-black people claiming blackness. Or perhaps I’m way off?
    Anyway, that’s my muddled reasoning. Sorry if its confusing/misguided or states the obvious. But I am very much on board with what you say! Building movements/solidarity/political identities is what we should be doing, and steering clear of essentialism in order to be “concerned with whose blood is spilling on the sidewalk”. Thanks for such a thoughtful, clear article!

  25. Emilie

    June 17, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    Thank you for this Kai, I haven’t seen the complexity of my thoughts on this subject matter in print until today. I feel much less alone to know someone else is chewing on the same bones I am.

  26. Clara

    June 17, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve been having similar misgivings about the ideas of “being” as it relates to race that our people are clinging to so dearly. I suppose you might say it’s all we have to hold on to.

    If you’re looking for someone to engage with, it can be very interesting to talk to people from Latin America, because the construction of race there is different (sometimes it can even be difficult to explain how someone could say they’re black if they’re not)

  27. Nymunariya

    June 18, 2015 at 9:03 am

    I just want to say that Gender is not biological. We are taught to believe that gender is biological, that is how we get away with assigning gender at birth.

    What is biological is sex. Sex is concrete, sex is definite. Sex is something you are born with. Sex is raw.

    Gender is not something you are born with. Gender is what we are taught. Gender is learned. Gender is cooked.

    Sex is of course a taboo word in American society, so people like to shy away from that word, and slap gender on instead. When you ask somebody for their gender (which is really only masculine or feminine, or other–an adjective), and you expect a male/female response, you are asking them what their sex is. That’s the polite way of saying do you have a penis or a vagina?

    Gender is based off sex. The marker that we all have on our identification is based off sex. Sex is what happens at birth. Sex is also corrected at birn in the case of intersex individuals. And because of the sex organs present at birth, which were either acceptable, or were changed, gender is then assigned.

  28. Pingback: On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame |

  29. Marcie Gallo

    June 18, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Kai –
    Just got to your piece – wonderful. Thank you. Given that we are at a nadir of racial identity/politics/justice in this sick sad country of ours (folks just love/hate that one-drop rule…), I appreciate your nuance, thoughtfulness, and voice. We must pay attention to being, as you put it so well, “more concerned with whose blood is spilling on the sidewalk than whose blood is running through Dolezal’s veins.”

  30. Jane

    June 18, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    Thank you for this well written and well thought out article. It is a complicated subject on both sides and I hate that many people have reduced it to soundbites and judgement.

  31. Laurie Shrage

    June 19, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    You make many great points and I’m basically in agreement with you. I would argue that race and gender are biological only to the degree that we socially construct them by using criteria that refer to biological processes or characteristics (genetic ancestors and bodily anatomy for race; and anatomy, chromosomes, hormone levels, and neurobiology, for gender), but which biological attributes are prioritized varies from one social or historical context to the next.

    Some have pointed out that transitioning from white to black is easier than black to white because of the one-drop rule. I agree with you that light-skin people have identity choices and social privileges that people with darker complexions don’t have, which applies to all light-skin people however they racially identify. To me this raises the problem of how European racism attaches value to “light” features over “dark” ones, and how we need to address the perniciousness of and ignorance behind this.

    Some have argued that the exclusiveness of white identity (due to its representing an absence of non-European or non-Caucasian ancestors) marks a difference between race and gender “passing.” With gender transitions, the difficulties of transitioning in each direction are about the same. In other words, neither sex (or gender) occupies a more privileged position, at least in this one respect. I wonder about this though, since the norms of feminine appearance require a more complete absence of masculine features than vice versa. By this I mean, the bodies of transwomen (and women in general) are often intensely policed for facial hair, bone structure, muscle development, voice, fat in the right places, and so on. By contrast, if someone simply wears a beard (man or woman, e.g., Jennifer Miller of Circus Amok), they are usually read as male despite other features such as voice, bone structure, etc. That is, male body appearance is not policed to the same degree as female body appearance and seems to allow for more physical diversity, making transitions in one direction (in this case to the lower status identity) more difficult.

  32. Pingback: Die Geschlechterdifferenz gibt es, eine „Rassendifferenz“ gibt es nicht | Aus Liebe zur Freiheit