Meditations on Transracialism

“But politics, construed as oppositional or not, never rests on essential identities. It centers, instead, on the figurality that is always essential to identity, and thus on the figural relations in which social identities are always inscribed.”

– Lee Edelman, No Future, 17.


As is to be expected, a Google image search of the term “transracial” conjures up a series of images of Rachel Dolezal whose exposure as having lied about her racial identity and heritage sparked a great deal of controversy within racial and social justice spheres over the past two years. One could safely claim that most of the people who are now aware of “transracialism,” as both a term and a concept, became such as a result of the media coverage of the Dolezal case — even Urban Dictionary uses Rachel Dolezal as the example in its top-rated definition of “transracial.”

Most people who are even marginally involved with the feminist philosophy scene are by now aware that there has been much buzz about an article recently published in the well-respected journal of feminist philosophy, Hypatia. Rebecca Tuvel, an associate professor of philosophy at Rhodes College came out in defense of transracialism in an aptly titled article “In Defense of Transracialism.” Tuvel makes reference to the Rachel Dolezal case to make the essential argument that transracial identity is a phenomenon similar to that of transgender identity and, as a result, should also be taken seriously both socially and politically.

Understandably, there has been a great deal of backlash. A group of philosophers even went so far as to issue an open letter (now closed) to the journal, detailing the problems they pinpointed within the article, and faulting the journal for opting to publish Tuvel’s work.

This backlash has sparked discussion about the issue of call out culture in academia which is spreading into more widely read venues. Academic blogs have sprung into action with all manner of contribution, including a thoughtful analysis by Lisa Duggan and a critique of the critique by The Daily Nous’ Justin Weinberg.

I could go into detail here about whether or not I agree with the direct comparison that Tuvel made between race and gender. Though I’m not a philosopher by trade, I could channel what I know of the often strained relationship between feminist philosophy and critical race philosophy to discuss how historically feminist activists have failed to incorporate critical analyses of race into their discussions, and have even deliberately excluded women of color from their movements.

I could even choose to use my status as “non-binary” to write an emotionally fraught plea that we please take transgender identities and struggles seriously within the academy.  

I have seen plenty of scholars discuss these aspects of the article. Where I want to go is slightly different; I have yet to see anyone discuss Tuvel’s mention of Judaism and conversion in any meaningful way outside of the brief mention in The Daily Nous.

The initial claim put forward by the open letter to Hypatia regarding Tuvel’s use of conversion to Judaism as a supporting example asserts that:

“It mischaracterizes various theories and practices relating to religious identity and conversion; for example, the author gives an off-hand example about conversion to Judaism;”

Here is what Tuvel claims about Judaism and Jewish conversion:

“Generally, we treat people wrongly when we block them from assuming the personal identity they wish to assume. For instance, if someone identifies so strongly with the Jewish community that she wishes to become a Jew, it is wrong to block her from taking conversion classes to do so. This example reveals there are at least two components to a successful identity transformation: (1) how a person self-identifies, and (2) whether a given society is willing to recognize an individual’s felt sense of identity by granting her membership in the desired group. For instance, if the rabbi thinks you are not seriously committed to Judaism, she can block you from attempted conversion. Still, the possibility of rejection reveals that, barring strong overriding considerations, transition to a different identity category is often accepted in our society.”

The Daily Nous article, linked above, makes the following claim:

“It is not clear how this is a mischaracterization. Nor is it “offhand” in any objectionable way.”

Normally, I would be rolling my eyes at a philosopher attempting to use such a short analysis of Judaism in order to make a point (Though to be totally transparent, I am critical of philosophy’s anti-Semitic origins and subsequent tendencies; suffice it to say, I am not a fan of the Enlightenment period). So I am surprising myself probably as much as anyone who has ever met me when I say that I think Rebecca Tuvel could have done more with her analysis of and comparison to conversion to Judaism. It is my belief and assertion that her case would actually have been strengthened by a (careful, historically contextual) investigation of Judaism.

Though basic, Tuvel’s description of how a non-Jew converts to Judaism (in modern day America, at least) is accurate.

Perhaps the writers of the open letter were merely being cautious — rarely have I encountered a contemporary philosopher (outside of those in Jewish philosophy, obviously) who has even a basic knowledge of Jewish history, identity, or practice. And why should they? Jews are a small minority, and those of us who are trained in Religious Studies have it covered: surely. So perhaps the letter writers were doing what I wish all philosophers who think that it would be a neat idea to make a reference to Judaism after, say, reading a Wikipedia article, would do, and assume that perhaps they don’t have all of the information. Or any of the information, really, especially if we are looking at historical context.

In this case Tuvel brings up a really interesting point. For entry into Judaism for those not born Jewish, it is indeed the case that a person self-identifies as Jewish, and must gain entry into the religion/culture/race/ethnicity/etc. through communal recognition of the person’s self-identity. Generally, membership is not granted immediately — most Jewish communities require some kind of class or program (varying in intensity depending on the denomination) to be completed before an individual can officially convert and be considered Jewish. (These programs are also currently a subject of interest within some contemporary Jewish communities, but this is a topic for another day.)

What makes Jewishness hard to pin down is the fact that it is both a religious and an ethnic identity, as well as neither fully religious or racial. This should cause you to scratch your head, and involves a rather complicated discussion of the non-existence of the category of “religion” in the ancient world, from which modern Judaism often traces its roots. Israelite and Judean culture relied upon the concept of ethnos or people group; a category which included not only a geographical center, but also things like oral or written texts and histories, legends, temples, priests, sacrificial rules, etc. Many of these are associated with what we now conceive of as “religion,” but the fundamental association with place and people has been lost to the West after the introduction and proliferation of Christianity. To put it simply, in the conventional understanding of an American, one’s race and one’s religion should not have anything to do with one another (after all, didn’t Paul say “there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ?”).

This partially explains why many Jews today would identify themselves as only “culturally” Jewish, or as Jewish, but not “religious.” This would only be possible if Jewish identity was not completely associated with the profession of a creed, as contemporary Christianity requires, for example.

Conceptualizing Jewishness as an ethnicity is already complicated enough, and has been done in great detail by academics. If you look at the history of the past century in America, Jews were not considered white until fairly recently (here I am referring only to white Ashkenazi Jews — obviously Jews of color are not considered white, and assertions that “Jews in America are all white” profoundly erases the experiences of Sephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews from blended families).

This all becomes even more complicated when we go deeper into history. During the Second Temple Period we have examples of a group known as the “God Fearers,” non-Jews who had a great appreciation for Jewish culture yet who, for whatever reason, did not convert. We even have sources that demonstrate that these people were highly respected by Jewish communities, and were responsible for funding synagogues, instructing children in Torah, and even kept the Sabbath.

On a less happy note, we could even look at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the origin of the word “race,” coming from the Spanish raza and defined as a “Jew” or “Moor” (Muslim). After the forced conversions of 1391 it became clear that the issue lay in the presumed Jewishness of the blood rather than the professed creed.

So what does this have to do with transracialism, and whether or not it should be, for lack of a better word, a thing? I am of the opinion that examining ethnic, racial, and religious identities historically profoundly muddies the proverbial waters of contemporary racial identity in America. Identity within politics is only momentarily solidified or stable, and that seems to be what is happening here. We need race to be a stable, unchanging category, and it needs to be distinct from gender. Gender is currently a large problem for us because the ‘stable’ categories of gender based on ‘biological sex’ that mainstream society functions with clearly does not work for a lot of people, and we are currently seeing much work being done to shift this, both legally and in terms of social perception. Whether or not it is real, allowing for people to legally or socially change their identification within a given social category (such as race) can feel a bit like a slippery slope: what’s next — identifying as an animal? As a kitchen gadget? But let’s keep Gayle Rubin in mind. In her 1981 piece “Thinking Sex” Rubin outlines several impediments to sex discourse, one of which she calls the “Domino Theory of Sexual Peril.” Anyone familiar with gay marriage debates has encountered this impediment, as an argument oft used against gay marriage is that it will result in people marrying siblings, animals, etc.

The aggressiveness with which Tuvel’s article and transracialism in general have been denounced feels eerily similar to these sorts of arguments — the fact that we, as purported objective academics, are so unwilling to create space for nuanced discussion feels like a problem. So I want to pause for a moment and think. Why has this article made us so angry? Why are we seeing transracialism as a threat to the movement for trans rights? Why are we so adamant that race and gender must be entirely separate things, or things that are discussed separately?

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my students live in an alternate universe

So, it’s the time in the semester when everyone’s mental state begins to crumble, at least a little bit.

I, for one, am certainly no exception to this rule.

The students in the class for which I am a T.A. also do not seem immune.

Recently, we have been talking about medieval European conceptions of Jewishness and sorcery. The professor and I decided that having them read a novel that does a decent historical portrayal of that time (while still being an entertaining read) would be a nice way for them to get a solid grasp on the time period, while not having to struggle through depressing primary source texts.

The novel follows several residents of early 17th century Prague, utilizing many of the examples we have been discussing in class (such as the blood libel, the myth of host desecration, and legends surrounding the creation of golems).

I don’t know about everyone else, but generally speaking I assume novels are fictional. Maybe they don’t teach you this kind of thing in elementary schools anymore, so perhaps I need to stop taking this for granted as common knowledge.

Twice in the past week students have asked me if people can actually make golems. A few weeks ago, a different student asked if rabbis could still make calves (referring to a part of a Talmud passage (b. Sanh. 65b, to be exact, which describes two rabbis studying the Sefer Yetzirah and creating a “thrice grown calf”).

In each of these instances I have been at a slight loss for words, and only barely managed to make a reasonable recovery and save face.

Do they think that we, as Jews, can create living beings out of nothing? Do the very medieval conceptions we are trying to teach them about really still run so deep in our thinking that they assume my professor and I could do these impossible acts?

Do they have so little a grasp on what is physically and humanly possible that they really think it is possible to create life?

I am trying to think of this in a positive light. Maybe they have such a sense of wonder that they want to believe these things are possible.

Or, maybe they have such reverence for us as instructors that anything we say must be unarguably true. Maybe they think we have access to powers they can only dream about.

Because this happened multiple times, and I am also a bit at the end of my ropes as it is, I am starting to doubt myself. What do they know that I don’t know? Maybe it is possible to create a calf, or even a human. After all, I’ve never tried, so I couldn’t say for sure that I can’t do it.

Any maybe I’ve got them all wrong. Maybe they feel a little bit like the Jews from Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries. Maybe they are feeling the effects of a toxic political climate. Maybe they are worried for their friends and family. It might be tempting to give into the idea of being able to create some larger-than-life being who will be able to defend them and the ones they care about. Seeing this as a possibility might make them feel as though they have some semblance of control over their futures and over the world around them.

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