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“Call me Caitlyn.” With this phrase, emblazoned on Vanity Fair’s June 2015 cover, Caitlyn Jenner revealed her transgender identity to the world. But these words were not only a revelation; they also were a demand. Most obviously, they demanded that others call Jenner by a new name. But even more importantly, they demanded that others recognize Jenner as having a certain identity: woman.
Reactions to this demand were predictable. Jenner was warmly embraced and lauded by many for her decision to—as Jenner put it—live as her “authentic self.” Transgender activist and writer Laverne Cox wrote that Jenner’s “courage to move past denial into her truth so publicly . . . [is] beyond beautiful to me.” President Barack Obama, retweeting Jenner’s announcement, praised her “courage to share [her] story.” Hundreds of thousands of others left encouraging comments on Jenner’s social media. Within these reactions, an idea repeatedly surfaced: Jenner’s demand for recognition as a woman is legitimate because Jenner is a woman.
Not everyone agreed. In fact, some disagreed with notable incivility. Right-wing blogger Matt Walsh called Jenner a “mentally ill crossdresser,” and likened her gender identity to his two-year-old son’s claims to be a Tyrannosaurus rex. Walsh was joined by a small group of feminists, including Germaine Greer and Elinor Burkett. Furious that Jenner was one of Glamour’s 2015 Women of the Year, Greer commented, “I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that doesn’t turn me into a f**king cocker spaniel.” And, in a controversial New York Times editorial, Burkett argued that what makes someone a woman is an accrued experience of sexism and misogyny—an experience that Burkett did not believe Jenner possessed. Within these reactions, we see an idea that in many ways mirrors the previous one: Jenner’s demand for recognition as a woman is not legitimate because Jenner is not a woman.
In other words, despite deep disagreements, both positive and negative reactions to Jenner manifested a single theme: persons’ claimed identities should be recognized when and only when they really are what they claim to be. Jenner’s demand for recognition as a woman was seen as legitimate by those who viewed her as a woman and as illegitimate by those who did not. But all sides understood the question “Should someone be recognized as a woman?” to be settled by first answering the question “Is that person really a woman?”
In the same month that Vanity Fair published “Call Me Caitlyn,” another controversy broke concerning Nkechi Amare Diallo (née Rachel Dolezal). Her parents publicly stated that Diallo—at the time, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP—was passing as Black. In response, Diallo said that despite her lack of Black ancestry, she genuinely self-identified as Black. Public reactions to Dolezal were swift, and in many ways they mirrored reactions to Jenner. Vanity Fair ran an article by Allison Samuels charging Dolezal with “dishonesty about her race” and calling her a “white woman” who had her “cover blown.” NPR’s Denene Millner agreed, calling Dolezal a “white lady with fussy hair and a bad tan” and pointing to unique social and cultural experiences—experiences Dolezal did not have—as the heart of Black identity. Samuel and Millner were joined by thousands of articles and social media posts calling out Dolezal as a white woman pretending to be Black.
Most reactions to Dolezal—and more recently, to former George Washington University professor Jessica Krug—manifested the very same assumption taken for granted in reactions to Jenner. Once again, most people assumed that a claimed identity should be recognized when and only when someone really is what they claim to be. They believed that the question “Should someone be recognized as Black?” would be settled by first answering the question, “Is that person really Black?” And, in the court of public opinion, the correct answer in the case of Diallo (or anyone else lacking Black heritage) was “No.”
We want to put our cards on the table: we think that there is a deeply important asymmetry between Jenner’s claim to be a woman and Diallo’s claim to be Black. We also think that, as a result of this asymmetry, transgender identities deserve social uptake and so-called “transracial” identifications as Black almost always do not. (We leave space for unique circumstances in which someone who has deeply invested in a Black community and been forthcoming about their racial history is nevertheless accepted within that community as Black.) In other words, we think that transgender women and men should be recognized and treated as women and men (respectively), but that persons should not be recognized and treated as Black solely on the basis of self-identification.
But we also think that it is a mistake to base this asymmetry on notions about who “really is” a woman or who “really is” Black. The social world is a dynamic and ever-changing place. Some people think that the social rules that govern what it takes to be a woman or to be Black have never changed—that these rules are fixed and naturally determined, and thus unchanging and unquestionable. We think that’s wrong: the rules of gender and race are always changing. And given this, the question that really matters isn’t whether individuals like Diallo and Krug are in fact Black given our present rules of racial classification, but whether they should be.
Let’s recap. The loudest reactions to both Jenner and Diallo were based on two ideas. The first often is stated somewhat explicitly: there are generally accepted rules about who is a woman and who is Black. The second idea is often unstated: these rules are fixed and legitimate. That is, whether we should recognize and treat someone as a woman or as Black always is and should be determined by these rules.
We think the second idea is false. To see why, let’s see how this reasoning breaks apart in other cases. For example, before the Twenty Sixth Amendment was passed in 1971, eighteen-year-olds couldn’t vote in some elections. Should someone in 1970 have concluded from this that eighteen-year-olds should not be recognized and treated as voters? Prior to the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008, bone marrow cancer was not legally considered a disability. Does that mean it should not have been counted as a disability? And today, intelligent life forms like octopuses are considered food. But this hardly settles whether octopuses should be considered food. In short, rules about what belongs to social categories like “eligible voters,” “legal disabilities,” or “food” are not fixed. Neither are they guaranteed to be legitimate: in many cases, commonly accepted rules for social classification have been deeply unjust.
We think that the categories “woman” and “Black” are similar to categories like “eligible voters” or “food” in the sense that currently accepted rules about gender and race classification are neither fixed nor guaranteed to be legitimate. Hopefully we all agree that the 1970 rules for who counted as “eligible voters” did not settle who should be counted as eligible voters—these rules were changed to accommodate the political interests of young adults. Similarly, we think that there is room to question whether currently accepted rules about who counts as women or as Black ought to be changed in the interests of gender or racial justice.
Maybe you get off our boat here. Maybe you think that “woman” and “Black” are importantly different from categories like “eligible voters” or “food.” The rules determining what makes someone a woman or Black, you might say, are given to us by nature, whereas rules about “eligible voters” or “food” are what philosophers would call “socially constructed”—that is, they are a matter of social, political, and economic practices and institutions. We can change which animals are food as we learn more about different life forms and their cognitive and affective capacities, and we similarly might change which people are eligible voters given commitments such as gender, race, age, or immigration justice. But, you might think, we don’t settle the rules about who is a woman or who is Black—those rules are determined by the world, not society.
In philosophy, this view is called essentialism. It is the idea that the rules for gender and race classification are grounded in eternal truths—rules that we can only discover, not revise, and therefore rules that we cannot question. Even those who think about gender or racial categories as social constructions frequently nosedive into essentialist logic as soon as transgender or transracial identities arise: while holding that gender and race categories are human inventions, they simultaneously appeal to rules for gender and race classification as if these rules forever settle the question of who ought to count as a woman or as Black.
But essentialism fares poorly against the historical record. Gender essentialists typically insist that there is a single, fixed trait—biological sex—that always has and will determine gender. But not only have rules for gender classification substantially changed over time, binary categories of biological sex (i.e., female and male) resist definition in terms of a single—much less fixed—trait.
As Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna observed in 1978, “There are [no features] that always and without exception are true of only one gender.” As scientists continue to learn more about the complexities of sex—down to the fact that a single person can have different chromosomal sexes across cells—this forty-year-old observation becomes ever more well-founded. And yet, as medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis pointed out in The Lancet last year, the facile search for a definitive trait of biological sex continues:
For a century, scientists studied an array of human characteristics that inform our ideas of what makes someone a woman or a man, seeking to pin down a single, definitive biological indicator. Bodies troubled these schemes and led to socially untenable categorizations. If gonads were understood as the essence of sex, women who were phenotypically female but who had testes were men. This didn’t make sense, so scientists proposed yet other traits. Even as they debated which biological trait signaled its essence, scientists understood sex as biological and involving multiple, if contested, factors.
Despite this dead end, commitment to sex essentialism persists. But the prospect of finding a biological trait that all and only women (or men) share in common doesn’t look promising. This is just because, for any candidate biological trait (e.g., having XX chromosomes, having female reproductive organs, producing female gametes) there are people who lack that biological trait, and yet many of us (gender essentialists included!) would say that those people are women. Furthermore, even just within the last 150 years, concepts of biological sex have fluctuated in response to the discovery of hormones and chromosomes, growing medical knowledge of intersex variations, and changing social opinions that split sexuality from sex and moved toward accepting the possibility of altering one’s sex. As such, there is growing support for the idea that gender classification is not simply a matter of biology, but rather is the result of complex and ever-shifting interactions between culture and biology.
Racial classification displays similar malleability. As sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue, a “selection of . . . particular human features for purposes of racial signification is always and necessarily a social and historical process.” Once we adopt a historical perspective, we find that racial categories and rules for race classification enormously vary across time and context.
Just consider the history of the U.S. census. People who took the first census in 1790 were asked to sort themselves and the members of their household into one of three categories: “white,” “all other free persons,” and “slave.” The category “Black” did not appear on the census until 1850, when people were asked to classify themselves as either “Black” or “mulatto,” a category which was supposed to include anyone who was not Black, but had “any perceptible trace of African blood.” Two decades later, the 1890 census distinguished between “Blacks,” “mulattos,” “octoroons” (someone with “one-eighth or any trace of Black blood”) and “quadroons” (someone with “one-fourth Black blood”), categories that reflect what is commonly known as the “one-drop rule.”
Anyone who took the census this year knows that things have changed. At present, the census acknowledges five racial categories: “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,” and “White.” If the racial categories recognized on the U.S. census are a reliable guide to racial categories recognized in society more broadly, then it’s clear that quite a lot about U.S. race classification has changed since 1790.
In sum, essentialism flies in the face of evidence that both gender and race classifications are changeable and challengeable, not fixed and inevitable. Someone deeply committed to essentialism will be unflappable in the face of this evidence. For devout essentialists, essentialism is unfalsifiable—no amount of evidence will convince them to give it up. The fact that various cultures and communities differ in gender and race classifications will not deter the essentialist, who will insist that gender and race have hidden essences—even if essences that we have yet to discover.
While we cannot offer a full response here, we think the primary reason to accept essentialism would be an explanatory reason. If social and historical facts about the imposition of gendered and racial signification on various bodies were unable to explain boundaries of gender and race classification, or physical, psychological, or behavioral inferences based on those classifications, then perhaps there would be a need to appeal to hidden essences. But we are convinced by gender and race scholarship that no such appeal is needed; we can explain all that we need to explain about gender and race without hidden essences.
Let us take stock. The malleability of gender and race classifications suggests to us that the typical conversations about transgender identities and Black transracial identities are the wrong conversations. Almost without fail, these conversations focus on whether people like Jenner “really are” women, or whether people like Diallo and Krug “really are” Black. It is not hard to see why these conversations so often take this sort of question as the central one: it is supposed to have an easy and objective answer, one that resolves the dispute for us. But in fact, these ontological questions do not have fixed and natural answers. As a result, we think a far more interesting and important question is should we change the rules for gender classification? for race classification? In particular, should rules for gender classification accommodate transgender persons like Jenner—that is, count someone as a woman just because they self-identify as a woman? And should the rules for race classification be altered to accommodate people like Diallo and Krug—that is, to count someone as Black just because they self-identify as Black? (We focus here only on Blackness; we don’t assume these considerations apply to all race classifications.)
Asking these questions helps to set the conversation in a more productive direction. Different answers are possible. For our part, we think that the reasons in favor of trans-inclusive gender classification outweigh the reasons against it, and that the reasons against transracial-inclusive race classification outweigh the reasons for it. We won’t provide a complete case for this view here. Rather, we want to make a more limited argument in defense of two claims that help to support this view.
First, there is at least one strong reason to avoid transracial-inclusive rules for the category “Black”—a reason previously overlooked in controversial philosophical treatment of this subject. Second, and moreover, this reason does not apply in the case of gender classification. In other words, a powerful argument against changing race classification to accommodate persons like Krug and Diallo cannot be used against changing gender classification to accommodate persons like Jenner.
Let us make one methodological comment at the start. When considering whether to revise rules for gender or race classification, we think that there are important considerations at both the population level and the individual level. While it is important and good to value a person’s autonomy and respect their identifications, we also think this good must be weighed against the population-level effects of revising our classifications. In cases where revising a classification would have a negative sociopolitical impact that outweighs the good of respecting how an individual identifies, we think that the classification should not be revised. And we think that revising the rules of race classification to accommodate transracial identification into Blackness is a case like this.
To see why, consider a different case: the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Between the years of 1879 and 1996, 30 percent of children of the Indigenous peoples of Canada were forcibly enrolled in the Canadian Indian residential school system (IRS). These boarding schools were created in order to both assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture and remove them from the cultural influences of their home communities. Children enrolled in these schools were separated from their families, forced to learn English and French (often at the cost of losing their native language), and experienced significant amounts of abuse. In the years since, it has been shown that the IRS had lasting effects on Indigenous communities. The IRS has been linked to the prevalence of sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, violence, mental illness and suicide in Indigenous communities.
In the winter of 2006, the Canadian government recognized the damage inflicted by the IRS and established a $1.9 billion compensation package for all former IRS students. This agreement between the Canadian government and 86,000 survivors of the IRS, termed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), was set up to dispense monetary reparations to individuals who were enrolled in the IRS. Importantly, it is not enough to simply identify as someone who was enrolled in the IRS—in order for someone to claim reparations from the government through the IRSSA, that person must have been enrolled in the Canadian Indian residential school system. We hope you share our intuition that this is the right classification rule: self-identification should not be sufficient for claiming these reparations, because the goal of the program is to concretely assist those who were harmed by a historical injustice.
Now return to race. Being Black in the United States is similar to being a person who qualifies for IRSSA reparations in at least one important respect: being Black isn’t simply a matter of internal identification; it is also a matter of how your community and ancestors have been treated by other people, institutions, and governments. Given this, we think that race classification should (continue to) track—as accurately as possible—intergenerationally inherited inequalities. More directly, we need conceptual and linguistic tools for identifying those who are entitled to reparations for racial wrongs, where by “reparations” we mean institutional correction of intergenerational inequality. These might include, but are not limited to: affirmative action in employment and education; compensation for past economic and personal exploitation; debt-cancellation for affected populations; medical, home buying, and college aid; institutional apologies for past harms; and the creation of a standardized curriculum which explicitly addresses the role of racial oppression in state-building.
Central to this argument, then, is the observation that in the case of Blackness, inequality accumulates intergenerationally. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women born in the United States are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. What explains this? Arline T. Geronimus, public health researcher and professor at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, has argued using a series of empirical studies that the intergenerational effects of racism explain a number of decreased health outcomes for Black Americans, including lower birth weights and higher rates of pregnancy-related complications for Black women. Geronimus famously termed this phenomenon “weathering,” a term that refers to the idea that “Blacks experience early health deterioration as a consequence of the cumulative impact of repeated experience with social or economic adversity and political marginalization.”
Differences in the birth weights of children born to recent Black immigrants and the children of U.S.-born Black women have been cited as further support for this weathering hypothesis. In particular, the birth weight distribution of first generation Black immigrant women is closer to that of White women, but subsequent generations of Black immigrant women have lower birth weight distributions, closer to that of U.S.-born Black women who are not recently descended from immigrants. The idea is that this shift in health outcomes can be explained by the adversity Black immigrant women and their daughters faced upon arriving in the United States.
In addition to gaps in health outcomes, wealth gaps between Black and white households also widen intergenerationally. As taxation scholar Lily Batchelder has noted, “White households are twice as likely as black households to receive an inheritance. Moreover, receipt of an inheritance is associated with a $104,000 increase in median wealth among white families, but only a $4,000 increase among black families.” Economists Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity argue that such intra-familial, non-merit transfers of wealth “account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other demographic and socioeconomic indicators.” While many white families accumulate wealth across generations, Black families often have little to no wealth for intrafamily transfer. This gap is not decreasing: in fact, gaps in median wealth (wealth at the middle of a distribution) between Black and white households are larger today than thirty years ago.
Notice that this argument does not apply in the case of gender and gender inequality. Gender inequality, unlike racial inequality, does not primarily accumulate intergenerationally, if only for the obvious reason that the vast majority of households are multi-gendered. While parents often are responsible for ingraining patriarchal ideas and rigid gender norms in their children (it is extremely difficult to avoid!), this is not a “passing down” of socioeconomic inequality itself but, rather, of a socialization that perpetuates gender inequality.
This is not to say that gender inequality is ahistorical. To the contrary, gender inequality is rooted in historical and continuing manifestations of sexism and misogyny, from policies that economically exploit women and undermine their reproductive autonomy to social practices like sexual harassment and rape culture. Young girls inherit the same sexism and misogyny that their mothers faced as young girls, regardless of whether they are transgender or cisgender. But importantly, all women inherit the historical accumulation of societal sexism. This marks a central difference between transgender-inclusive classification in the category “woman” and transracial-inclusive classification in the category “Black.” While transracial individuals like Krug and Diallo eschew much of the weight of anti-Black oppression and white supremacy, trans women and cis women alike are burdened by the legacy of patriarchy.
Feminist icon Catharine MacKinnon recently said, “Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman.” We take MacKinnon to be pointing out that, contrary to what anti-trans activists such as J. K. Rowling claim, the experience of gender discrimination and misogyny is not limited to cisgender women—in many cases, transgender women experience more extreme forms of misogyny than do cisgender women. There are certain forms of misogyny that trans women are less likely to face than cis women (e.g., menstruation stigma); there are forms of misogyny that cis women are less likely to face than trans women (e.g., transmisogyny). However, there are no universal truths about experiences of misogyny: individual experiences of misogyny are deeply impacted, not only by sex assigned at birth, but also by socioeconomic class, race, age, ethnicity, ability, body type, and geographic location. While we think all women should reflect on their respective social positions—particularly when claiming to speak for other women—we think it is a mistake to enter into debate over whether trans women or cis women experience more misogyny. Unfortunately, there is plenty of misogyny to go around, and as transfeminist author Julia Serano argues, it all is rooted in the deeply entrenched social assumption that “femaleness and femininity are inferior.”
Given this, the fact that gender classification is used to track the recipients of sexism and misogyny does not provide a population-level reason to exclude trans women from classification as women. In fact, there are both population-level and individual-level reasons to form transgender-inclusive gender classifications: such classification give us conceptual tools for better identifying those targeted by sexism and misogyny while also respecting trans persons’ self-identifications.
Someone cannot make themself more likely to experience the intergenerational health and economic impact of systemic racism simply by identifying as Black (much less, as philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah observes, simply by refusing the word “white”). This intergenerational inequality is inherited independently of what persons might hope, believe, or desire about themselves, or even how they present themselves. Given the severity of this inequality, we need conceptual and linguistic tools that illuminate populations that inherit this inequality, and are thereby entitled to reparations. We believe the importance of preserving these tools vastly outweighs the good of respecting Diallo’s or Krug’s racial self-identification. Moreover, this logic cannot be wielded against transgender-inclusive gender classification for the simple reason that gender inequality is not accrued intergenerationally and that it affects both transgender and cisgender women. Put simply, then, we think that transracial-inclusive race classification would undermine our ability to track racial inequality, and for reasons that are irrelevant in the case of transgender-inclusive gender classification.
Of course, there is room for debate. But we hope to have convinced you that essentialism will not settle it. Gender and race classifications are historical and always changing. What currently accepted rules say about the gender or race we each “really are,” then, cannot tell us which classifications will best balance the goal of respecting self-identification with the goal of achieving racial and gender justice.
Robin Dembroff is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, specializing in feminist philosophy and metaphysics. Their writing has appeared in venues such as Scientific American, The New York Review of Books, Time, The Guardian, and Aeon.
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