On Tuvel and Transracialism and Crappy Academic Articles
So, for those not in the know, an analytic philosopher named Rebecca Tuvel recently published an essay at the feminist journal Hypatia arguing that if we accept trans identity, we should also accept transracial identity. There has been a large backlash. There has also been  a backlash to the backlash by king of backlash to backlash Jesse Singal , who has never seen a fire on which he did not want to pour gasoline. Singal accused critics of Tuvel of leading a witch hunt, and said they hadn't read the original article.

So, a friend was kind enough to send me a version of the paywalled article. I had a couple of thoughts, and they seemed maybe a little too convoluted to put on twitter, so I thought I'd write briefly about it here.

Jesse litigates a bunch of individual claims, which I maybe don't want to go into here. But the crux of his defense is that Tuvel says repeatedly that she supports trans people's identities. I think that's right; Tuvel is not a TERF, and does not support TERF programs.

Nonetheless, I've seen a number of TERFs touting her article. Tuvel thinks she's using the logic of trans acceptance to aid people like Dolezal. But many people are going to take her article as using the illegitimacy of Dolezal to undermine trans rights. This was an entirely predictable outcome. If Tuvel supports trans rights, and cares about trans issues, why didn't she know this was going to happen? If she's writing about marginalized people, and positioning herself as an ally, doesn't she have an ethical obligation to know what the hell she's doing?

Tuvel does try to explain what she thinks she's up to. "I have taken it as my task in this article to argue that a just society should reconsider what we owe individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with another race, and accordingly what we want race to be." Her main commitment, then, is to people who feel like they belong to another race. These people, her rhetoric here suggests, are marginalized and misunderstood. We have an ethical duty to them. This is the moral investment of the article.

The problem is that this moral investment is stupid and unscholarly, which also, and not coincidentally, makes it immoral. Dolezal is not representative of a broad movement of marginalized people. She seems fairly unique. There is no history of transracial people, born with a strong sense of identity with a different race. There *is* a precedent for people of one race passing as another, but that's a quite different story.

Similarly, as Julia Serano points out on twitter, there is a very long history of people who live and identify as a gender different from that they were assigned at birth. This history is cross-cultural and very old, much like the history of homosexuality and lesbianism.  Tuvel argues that you cannot distinguish trans people from transracial people by biology, because that would be to essentialize. Perhaps...but you can distinguish the experiences on the basis of the fact that there are millions and millions of trans people as attested by their presence in virtually every society for which we have anything like records. In contrast, transracialism is attested to by...well. By Dolezal, and not by very much else.

Tuvel's ignorance of history is not exhausted by her ignorance of trans history. Her discussion of blackface is also confused and ungrounded in much relevant scholarship. "I take it that those who don a black identity do not express a genuine identification with blackness," she writes. That is completely and demonstrably false, as Tuvel would know if she'd ever read any of the extensive literature on blackface, or even if she'd read the wikipedia entry on the subject. Blackface was quite complicated, but most contemporary scholars agree that many who blacked up saw themselves as representing authentic blackness. Indeed, blackface is the beginning of popular music's obsession with authentic blackness, from Elvis to Mick Jagger to Justin Timberlake and on and on. Dolezal's claim to transracialism is unique and it's probably not useful to build a large case for anything on it. But if you have to situate her in relationship to blackface, it would again behoove you to have some vague idea what the fuck you're talking about.

I could go on I guess. The fact that she doesn't engage with any of the literature on white appropriation of Native American identity is telling; so is the fact that Julia Serano's work isn't in the bib; so is the fact that there's pretty much no engagement with critical race theory (Racecraft seems like a book you'd want to know about before writing this piece.) I'm not an academic, but anyone who knows anything about issues of trans identity and racial appropriation is going to be taken aback at Tuvel's general ignorance and carelessness. This is fundamentally not a serious paper. It uses a newsy headline to play intellectual games with issues that Tuvel is either uninterested in or incapable of actually exploring.   Singal is angry at Hypatia for not defending Tuvel, but the truth is that the peer reviewers, whoever they were, failed the journal and they failed Tuvel. This should never have been published as a serious scholarly work. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves. 

If the paper was just sloppy, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, it's sloppy in a way that is going to harm the people Tuvel claims to want to help. TERFs will still be citing this paper years from now in arguments with trans people as a way to delegitimize them, or simply to harass them. Racists will use the paper in the same way when talking to black people, and especially black women. Writing carelessly about marginalized people, treating their stigma and the hatred they deal with as an intellectual game, is fundamentally unethical. "I was just focusing on this abstract question" isn't a defense; it's the problem. You can't pretend other people don't exist, swing wildly about you with a baseball bat, and then chastise folks when they point out you've hit them.  The backlash to Tuvel may or may not be excessive; I haven't followed it closely, and don't really trust Singal's account. But excessive or not, Tuvel screwed up. She should apologize, acknowledge the harm done, and commit to not writing sloppy papers about marginalized people in the future.

Tier Benefits
Recent Posts