Transracial Identities And Feminist Orthodoxies

If we respect transgender identities, why not transracial identities? Philosopher Rebecca Tuvel thinks we should respect both. Some feminists agree, or at least deem the matter worth discussing. Other feminists think Tuvel should be condemned and silenced.

Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” was published in the spring 2017 issue of the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. She is an untenured assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Hypatia is a refereed journal, where academics publish in order not to perish. Following normal procedures, her article was sent to independent experts and eventually accepted for publication by the editor on the basis of their reviews.

Tuvel begins with Rachel Dolezal, who presented as a black woman for years and became president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She resigned from that post and was widely ridiculed and condemned after it became known that her parents were white. Meanwhile, Caitlyn Jenner “graced the cover of Vanity Fair, signaling a growing acceptance of transgender identity.” Why the difference?

Tuvel notes that her concern is not to judge Dolezal, whose motivations remain unclear. Her concern is whether, ethically, we owe transracial identities and transitions the same respect we rightly accord transgender identities and transitions. After considering multiple similarities and differences, making arguments, anticipating counterarguments, and providing detailed rebuttals, she concludes that genuinely transracial persons are due full respect.

Agree or not, this is a serious work of moral philosophy. But some of Hypatia’s readers were, shall we say, less than philosophical in their responses. The article was found “offensive” and condemned as “wack shit” and “crap.” Tuvel was deemed “transphobic,” “racist,” “crazy,” and “stupid.” She was accused of “epistemic violence” and “discursive transmisogynistic violence.”

Over 800 scholars signed an open letter urging that the article be retracted because “its continued availability causes further harm.” Ignoring the author’s arguments and scholarly citations, the open letter dismissed the article as a “speculative discussion” by a “white cis scholar” who has failed to show “broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism.” (“Cis,” for “cisgender,” means she is not transgender.)

In support of the open letter, a majority of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors extended “our profound apology to our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy, especially transfeminists, queer feminists, and feminists of color, for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.” Writing on the journal’s Facebook page, they charged Tuvel with “associating trans people with racial appropriation.”

“Clearly,” wrote the Board of Associate Editors majority, “the article should not have been published.” In order to prevent any such article from ever again assaulting readers of Hypatia, they were working on “guidelines to ensure that feminist theorists from groups underrepresented in our profession, including trans people and people of color, are integrated in the various editorial stages.”

Fortunately, academic values soon prevailed, at least for now. Hypatia’s editor-in-chief made clear that the article in question had been properly reviewed, that the reviewers had recommended publication, that she had accepted it for publication, and that she stood behind the process, the decision, and the author. The associate editors were free to state their views but had no authority to speak for the journal.

Then, supporting the editor, Hypatia’s Board of Directors issued a detailed statement signed by all five of its members. They wrote: “Hypatia is bound by principles of publication ethics to stand by its editors, referees, and authors except in specific cases such as plagiarism and fraud. These principles have been thoughtfully designed to establish critical conditions for progress in inquiry.”

So the infamous article remains published and available, and will surely be widely read, at least by the standards of academic philosophy. If you dare, you can read it yourself (trigger warning: Tuvel writes like a philosopher).

But we don’t know what will happen next, at Hypatia or anywhere else. Many philosophers have defended Tuvel, including her department chair. But many faculty and students seek to suppress or censor ideas deemed offensive or harmful to oppressed groups. Advocates for intellectual freedom must remain vigilant. We don’t usually hear about what’s not being published.

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