Brubaker, Rogers. “Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities”, Princeton University Press, 2018.
A New Understanding
Using the controversial pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” as his starting point, Rogers Brubaker shows how gender and race which have long been understood as stable, inborn, and unambiguous, have opened up in the past few decades in different ways and to different degrees to the forces of change and choice. Now transgender identities have moved to the mainstream very rapidly and ethno-racial boundaries have also blurred. Paradoxically choosing or changing one’s sex or gender is more widely accepted than choosing or changing one’s race and sex has a much deeper biological basis than race. Racial identities are becoming more fluid as ancestry loses its authority over identity, and as race and ethnicity, like gender, come to be understood as something we do, not just something we have. If we rethink race and ethnicity through the lens of the transgender experience (encompassing not just a movement from one category to another but positions between and beyond existing categories) Brubaker shows the malleability, contingency, and arbitrariness of racial categories.
We are at a critical time when gender and race are being re-imagined and reconstructed, and this book explores new paths for thinking about identity. “Trans” lays out current conflicts of identity in a way that can be easily understood. It extends the concept of transgender to examine transracial differences. Brubaker wants us to recognize transracial identities in the same way we accept transgender ones. He asks us to consider new kinds of racial identities that are being created through interracial relations, multiracial movements and generational change. Today the mainstream recognizes transgender yet remains wary of transracial. We still have a huge
controversy over trans identities and settlement is Today we live in “an age of unsettled identities.” To understand the categories of identity and how they are being invoked or subverted, it is necessary to study and work at understanding.
Today American culture is transfixed by ‘trans’ and we must use the space that transgender reveals between culture and biology to understand how we experience race and ethnicity. Brubacker tells us that in the summer of 2015 he became fascinated by the intertwined debates about whether Caitlyn Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman and Rachel Dolezal as black. The debates were dominated by efforts to validate or invalidate the identities that these two people claimed. But at the same time they raised deeper questions about the similarities and differences between gender and race. Unlike transgender there’s no socially recognized and legally regulated procedure for changing one’s race or ethnicity comparable to the procedures that are available for changing sex or gender. However, the term “transracial” brings into focus the ways in which people do move from one racial or ethnic category to another or position themselves between or beyond existing categories.
We can use the transgender experience as a way to think about the instability of racial identities. The distinction between sex and gender allows us to think of gender identity as an inner essence that is independent of the sexed body. This inner essence is understood as natural and changing one’s sex or gender does not mean changing one’s identity; it means changing the way one is recognized and by others. This can also involve transforming one’s body to bring it into alignment with one’s identity. We have no cultural tools for thinking about racial identity as an inner essence that is independent of the body. What is understood as constituting racial identity is located outside of the self and is open to inspection by others. An individual who identifies with an ethnic or racial category to which she is not entitled by ancestry cannot intelligibly make use of the “born in the wrong body” narrative to justify changing racial classification.
While the shift toward public acceptance of transgender has been astonishingly rapid, it has been uneven across regions, generations, institutions, and place.