Guest post: Identity and its complications

Originally a comment by Sackbut in Miscellany Room 6.

The various discussions about transracialism and transgender ideology spurred some thoughts that I couldn’t quite fit anywhere, so I thought I’d put them here. It’s possible I’ve already related this story before, but it came to mind again.

My father was black, my mother was white, and I am one of those light-skinned people who might be considered black by the One Drop Rule. When I was in high school, decades ago, before all this “identity politics” and postmodern Critical Theory stuff became current, I was considering applying for an Achievement Scholarship, an award from the same outfit that does the National Merit Scholarship, but reserved for black students. The criteria for qualifying as “black” were not about measuring ancestry, nor were they specifically about any internal sense of identity, but rather “perceived as black by one’s peers”.

I often said I was black, and I have been accepted as black in certain circles, but I never really lived as black. I didn’t have a large number of black friends; I didn’t follow black musicians; I didn’t use black vernacular or slang; I didn’t wear clothing or hair styles popular among black people my age. In contrast, I knew other light-skinned people for whom being black and immersing themselves in black culture was an important aspect of their lives; that was very much not me.

I mentioned the possible scholarship application to some friends, and they obligingly agreed to refer to me as black if asked.

It occurred to me to compare this with transgenderism. Someone who has light skin and has little or no experience dealing with life as a black person suddenly decides to declare he is black and to take resources set aside for black people, and he asks people suddenly to acknowledge him as black, because he was born black and has always known, despite not living that way. This strikes me as somewhat parallel to the case of man who grew up male, lived with all the attributes of being male in modern society, suddenly “discovering” he is female, always has been, and demanding both resources set aside for women and acknowledgment that he is now a woman. The big difference is, of course, that I have a genuine factual basis for my claim, and this other man doesn’t.

But this other man demands society cater to his declaration, counterfactual as it is, and society bends over backwards to oblige, including changing policies and laws. People who even question his claim get called bigots and risk losing their platforms, jobs, children, friends. It makes no difference that he grew up and lived a male life, and it doesn’t matter if he changed his living pattern to mimic the stereotypical situations of women; the declaration is sufficient.

But someone like Dolezal gets excoriated and shunned for making her parallel claim. Dolezal was actually living as black. She was working for the advancement of black people. She would meet the criteria for the scholarship on that basis, despite the pesky factual issue. I, on the other hand, did none of these things. My great-grandfather was one of the founders of the NAACP, but I was never a member and I never worked with them. I just had the right bloodline. My biology was correct, but the scholarship required more than that.

I noted, too, that the scholarship required outside validation of blackness, that this was important. We know that, for people who identify as trans, this outside validation of their “identity” is of paramount personal importance, hence all the emphasis on pronouns and all the policies and laws that require people to validate a trans-identified person’s “identity”. I can’t imagine a similar set of draconian rules requiring validation of declared racial “identity”.

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