Meditations on the “Transracialism” Controversy

I know that I’m pretty late writing about this issue. I didn’t think much of the Rachel Dolezal scandal when it first hit the news in 2015, as I had much going on in my personal life. Then the controversy gained publicity again in April 2017 where associate professor Rebecca Tuvel at Rhodes College published an article titled “In Defense of Transracialism” where she made parallels to transgenderism in the feminist journal Hypatia. This sparked immediate outrage where hundreds called for the removal of the piece. Even though Tuvel acknowledged the possibility of Dolezal having ulterior motives, so taboo has this topic become that giving any legitimacy to transracialism results in viscous backlash.

I started contemplating this debate as it relates to an ongoing experience I’ve been having since 2012, which is the presumption by many that I am ethnically Turkish. Granted, there are differences between ethnicity and race, but I’ve come to realize that this assumption is not going away anytime soon and will be something I shall continue to deal with. This has got me thinking about how Turkish fits into my identity in a world where identity politics inspires passionate reactions.

Supporters and critics of transracialism give compelling arguments for each side, which is due to the duality of racial identity, existing both as an internal dilemma and as an external struggle. Those in favor of transracialism naturally emphasize the internal psychological processing of one’s identity while those in opposition emphasize the external socioeconomic realities of marginalized communities.

Disclaimer: I am using the terms transracial and transracialism purely out of lack of a better term. I acknowledge that transracial has been traditionally used to describe a child adopted into a family of a difference race than the child.

Cultural Appropriation

Where one stands on the issue of transracialism will probably have a strong correlation with how one stands on the issue of cultural appropriation.  While I personally believe cultural appropriation does exist to a degree, there are some who I feel have taken it so far that it stunts healthy cultural exchange. Certainly I don’t approve of racist Halloween costumes or celebrities high-jacking cultural dress and traditions for their pop music videos.  Yet I tend to take the position that cultures, like languages, have a fluidity about them. There is a push and pull of many influences that make it impossible to keep them in neatly defined boxes.

But we cannot deny that certain cultures, like languages, have higher sociopolitical status than others, which creates an imbalance, which is why minorities assimilating into a dominant culture should not be classified as cultural appropriation.

Transracialism show that imbalance because there is the issue of privilege at work. Dolezal, with a few superficial changes to her appearance, was able to pass as black in a way that could never be done if a darker-toned black person wanted to identify as white. There are numerous examples throughout  history of lighter-toned blacks passing as white, but not every black individual has the ability to do that. No matter how much a black person may feel white, by the very nature of their appearance they are going to be saddled with all the struggles that society forces upon people of color.

Transracialism can be looked upon as the ultimate cultural appropriation because it follows that dynamic of the dominant culture/people taking from the minority culture/people with the minority unable to do the same, either at all or at least not on equal footing. For many that is enough to delegitimize the whole very concept of transracialism.

Whites Working for Minority Rights

Before my current job I worked for a non-profit organization that was dedicated to saving Native American languages from extinction. They did an enormous amount of good, revitalizing indigenous languages from coast to coast, even one that was already technically dead.

However, we encountered occasional roadblocks in our mission due to the fact that our leadership, while not exclusively, was primarily white. This was by no means ill-intended; in many cases the languages were so close to death that there was no choice but to rely upon the expertise of (mainly white) linguists before handing the torch over to Native speakers. This brought forth some skepticism and closed some doors to funders, especially doors within the social justice circles, who often insisted on non-white leadership.

That isn’t to say their suspicion was not without legitimate historical basis. There were many instances of white linguists in the 19th and 20th centuries who studied indigenous people for their own academic notoriety, all the while doing nothing to promote the interests of those tribes.

Not that I believe lying should be the answer, but from my experience as a white woman doing my small part to promote minority issues, I can understand the pressure Dolezal may have felt and how she may have drawn the conclusion that the only way she would be fully accepted in those realms of activism would be to pose as biologically black. Not saying I condone or excuse it, but I can understand the rationale behind it.

Being Mistaken for Another Ethnicity

This isn’t my first time contemplating everyone’s presumption that I am Turkish. I wrote a poem in Turkish about the subject last year. It’s not just Americans outside the Middle Eastern studies community that are putting this label on me. Arabs, Persians, and even Turks themselves have made this assumption.

Part of it I believe is my education. I obtained my second MA at Sabanci University in Istanbul. While it’s not uncommon for American students to study abroad, completing an entire graduate degree program is a little less common. I think some people presume that I must be Turkish or at least half-Turkish to invest that much of my education in another country. Another component is the fact that I am engaged to an Iranian man. Even some of my future in-laws asked me if I was Turkish. I think there is this idea that he and I must share a Middle Eastern background for us to be so compatible with one another.

I currently work for an organization that requires me to travel to Azerbaijan from time to time, a post-Soviet country where the people’s ethnicity and language are exceedingly close to Turkish, so close that some would argue that the distinction between the Turkish and Azerbaijani languages is more nationalist than linguistic. Because of this, I’m now even starting to receive questions if I am Azeri.

While a part of me is flattered that I could pass as a Turkish woman, given all the hard work that I put into learning the language and the culture, another part of me is saddened by the reality that an American woman devoting her life to another culture is so far-fetched that people’s first instinct is to grasp for another explanation, that the only way for me to care about Turkey is to have a blood link to the country.

I have met Turks in the United States who have tried to minimize or flat-out deny their Turkish heritage because they wanted to distance themselves from their Muslim/Middle Eastern identity and the sociopolitical baggage that comes with such an identity in the American context. Sometimes I worry that people think that I’m one of those Turks unwilling to acknowledge my ethnicity.

The Duality of Racial/Ethnic Identity

Dolezal is right that racial identity is a personal psychological/spiritual journey, but her critics are also right that racial identity is an external force that wider society imposes on people of color, which often results in discriminatory consequences. It is her perceived disregard for that external element that has created a lot of resentment in the black community.

My relationship with the Turkish identity is indeed an internal one where I do genuinely feel more at home in elements of the Turkish culture than American culture, but it is also an external label that has been placed on me repeatedly throughout my adult life.

This assumption of my ethnicity based on certain circumstances of my professional and personal life has resulted in behavior from others that I have no control over. There have been instances where I’ve tried to correct them, and it’s clear that they remain skeptical.

I have been profiled at jobs interviews when recruiters see my Turkish education listed on my resume. I’ve had the bigoted iHop waiter who refused to give me my pancakes because I wasn’t speaking English to my companion. Much worse, I was once detained by Houston airport security for hours because in their eyes there was no reason for a good American girl to have any business in Istanbul.

Now my experiences can in no way compare to what my darker-toned fiancé goes through on a habitual basis. Yet my deviation from the standard cultural template of what a white American woman should be, and the discrimination I’ve endured because of it, has left a bitter taste in my mouth, causing me to seeker further refuge in Middle Eastern cultures.

Closing Remarks

There is no doubt that Dolezal lied about many things. While she may in her heart of hearts believe in transracialism, she nevertheless used deception, or in her words “creative nonfiction,” to lead others to believe that her black identification was biologically based. She has taken on a martyr attitude, doing little to acknowledge that she could have handled her situation much differently.

Despite this, I don’t believe she deserved the level of hate she received from the media and society. Not that she didn’t do wrong, but I do question the motives of her parents. And to be frank, if my relationships with my parents and siblings were that hostile, then I wouldn’t even try to perpetuate what she did for fear of exactly what happened.

In a world where identity politics are always evolving, transracialism and transculturalism are worthy of further discussion. But I hope that eventually, if Dolezal truly believes in these ideologies, she will come to understands that her mishandling of her own self-identification will cause others grappling with issues of identity to suffer.

I personally could not bring myself to say that I am Turkish, trans or otherwise. While I identify more with Turkish-ness, I feel that indulging this assumption that I am Turkish or even half-Turkish would be catering to a narrow worldview that only Turks can speak Turkish, that only Turks can study at Turkish universities, that only Turks can grieve for the political situation in Turkey. I believe there should more fluidity in languages and cultural habits. It should not be so outlandish for a white American to care about what’s going on in the world beyond the bubble of her privileged white community.


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