I have finally read the controversial article from Hyptia — which I don’t think all those interested in the editorial dispute need do, but which I decided I must do — since I teach gender identity and will be in the future teaching racial identity. It is also somewhat related to my own research, especially on standpoint epistemology, but I wouldn’t normally consider myself qualified to referee a paper like this for Hypatia. (I do referee for them periodically, have published there, and have a long standing paper-and-print subscription.)
My impression from the protest has always been that the article’s serious error is its neglect of work done on the topic by trans people and people of colour. (I list of such sources has been compiled here.) Methodologically this is problematic, and I could see it from the bibliography; but it might not be visible in the steps of argumentation. However, I think I can indicate where it comes out, and I know some people are interested in such an account. I confine myself to two serious objections, and think that shows deep problems with the article.
- On page 265, early in the article, it says, “it is not clear how one can affirm that it is possible to feel like a member of another sex but deny it is possible to feel like a member of another race.” My jaw dropped at that point because the discussion continued speculatively, as a thought experiment rather than attending to the actual evidence of lived experience. This sets the tone for remainder.
- The long literature on passing is never mentioned – which is something I’ve actually done a little research on. Gender passing has been punished in either direction — as male or as female (though often for different reasons). But racially there’s a stark asymmetry. People of colour are punished for passing as white; white people are assumed to have no desire to pass except as a joke. (Clearly the Dolezal case mucks up this picture, but it is the background.) This all connects with “the one drop rule.”
This omission becomes visible (to my quasi-expert eye) when the author fails to recognize the weight of this power structure in page 270’s quotation from Tamara Winfrey Harris. The article focuses only the temporariness of identity and fails to appreciate the weight of Harris’ final words: “I will accept Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.” It’s not that whiteness is harder to shake as a mask than blackness – the interpretation the author gives, but that being accorded white identity allows one to willfully adopt a race or ethnicity when others can’t, which makes it an expression of privilege. The article employs analogies on 271 to challenge this point by Harris, but they regard much smaller scales, less categorical forms of privilege, and have other contrasts that I find altogether make them false analogies.
I am not using the author’s name because I continue to believe that whatever problem underlies this scandal rests in the journal and its editorial process and standards, not with the author. Also, the editorial dispute has received too much attention already from academic gawkers. For what it’s worth, I think the arguments in the article could be rehabilitated into an account of how this sort of transracialism could become acceptable, and it already argues why in the abstract that would be desirable. However, in failing to attend to the obstacles to such progress, it perpetuates certain silences that are among those very obstacles. It so happens that in feminist philosophy that omission counts as a serious error in reasoning. I believe I’ve shown how that emerges as a problem too in more traditional philosophical and argumentative terms.