In The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies, Robert Boyers notes that “fanatics incensed by what they take to be the unpardonable crime of appropriation [demanded] in a public letter signed by dozens of artists that the painting Open Casket by Dana Schutz be not only taken from the walls of the Whitney Museum but ‘destroyed.’ ” Schutz’s crime: exercising white privilege to appropriate the death of Emmett Till, “a subject that can be fairly represented only by a black person.” The letter declared, “It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.”
In April 2017, Rebecca Tuvel, a white, untenured assistant professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, made headlines for publishing a peer-reviewed article in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia titled “In Defense of Transracialism.” The article was occasioned by the outing of a white woman, Rachel Dolezal, for attempting to “pass” as black.
Tuvel’s argument was simple and straightforward. She said the logical structure of arguments that support transgender identities is identical to those supporting transracialism, so if we accept people’s claims to have changed sexes, we should also accept claims such as Dolezal’s of having changed races. “In any case,” she said, “it is not clear how one can affirm that it is possible to feel like a member of another sex but deny it is possible to feel like a member of another race.” Tuvel’s article analyzed the logical structure of both arguments. She did not question the validity of transgender claims or say that being transracial is identical in all respects to being transgender. She simply argued in support of the possibility of transracial identities.
Despite Tuvel’s restricted focus, Hypatia was inundated with hostile comments by outraged academics. In an open letter, they ignored Tuvel’s thesis in order to press mousey complaints, such as that she was “deadnaming a trans woman.” Other “scholars” were nastier, alternately charging her with “epistemic violence” and racism, and labeling her “transphobic,” a “TERF,” a “disgusting person,” and a “Becky” or “Rebecky Tuvel.” Her article was panned for not having been screened by the appropriate critical race and trans theory “scholars” — who likely would have burned it, if not her, were they permitted. Given its obvious “flaws,” they said, it should never have been accepted for publication. Finally, they insisted that because its circulation would inflict an additional harm on those already marginalized, it should be withdrawn forthwith — which, to accommodate the noble fictions of “diversity and inclusion” as well as the worn-out traditions of academic moral cowardice, the journal promptly did.
What is interesting about this “scholarly” debate is exactly how unscholarly it was. Apart from some methodological mumbling, the “debate” had little to do with philosophy and more to do with ad hominem attacks on Tuvel for attempting to justify transracialism. The critics’ objections were mainly political. Like little Miss Greta Thunberg, they thundered “How dare you!” to anything said in support of Dolezal’s attempt to “appropriate” a black identity.
Some critics became so unhinged, it was as if the Orange Man himself descended upon them. Convinced we are “living in a period of mass extinction,” one said Tuvel’s article forced her to divert her attention from combatting the slaughtering of animals, the acidification and lifelessness of the oceans, and the “relentless police violence and hyper-incarceration of people of colour — and of course the list goes on” in order to deal with the more urgent and, apparently, more important question “what the response to her article says about and does [!] to the state of feminist philosophy and social justice scholarship generally.”
Apart from criticizing Tuvel’s analytical method, panned as being out of touch with history and biography, much of the criticism questioned how she, a white Jewish woman, could possibly know what it is like to be black. Because she’s white and Jewish and the offspring of family murdered in the Holocaust, she is, apparently, qualified to expound on “the philosophy of race … or her own experiences of gender,” but that’s it. Even though she “does try hard to understand the lived experiences of others,” she lacks that experience herself.
And that applies to Dolezal, as well. Even though she identifies and attempts to “pass” as black, she lacks the experience of being “racialized” from birth, and so, unlike those who have been so “racialized,” she is free to recapture her white identity at will. Being white and “privileged” by her whiteness, she and Tuvel can realistically aspire only to “allyship.”
The point of such commentary is to tell white folks to refrain from speaking about “black issues” without clearance from black gatekeepers. Of course, if we restrict what someone may say about race (or gender) to whether or not what they say is acceptable to such gatekeepers and whether or not those speaking are natal members of that group, we will have little to say about anything that crosses identity group boundaries. On this view, since Tuvel is white and has not had the “lived experience” of being black — which, apparently, is identical for all — she cannot presume to know what it means to be black and should not attempt to “pass” as black. She should, thus, either defer to the authentically black or stay silent altogether. Being white, Dolezal should stay in the white “lane” — a command, Boyers notes, delivered to a white woman by a black, bisexual, woman writer, who seemed not to know the implications of what she said.
What is there about being black that blacks themselves have not said or written in words that whites can understand? Given that blacks have written about their racial experiences in works that many whites have read, heard about, or observed firsthand, what is it that precludes whites from understanding them? Their whiteness? It is a strange epistemology, indeed, and one that severely restricts what we can know about the “other” even though we have full access to what those others say about themselves. Are there, perhaps, white and black genes that work to prevent such understanding? If so, geneticists haven’t yet found them.
More likely, the reason for the divide is political. It seems ages ago that MLK said to almost universal approval, “We are all God’s children,” that what unites us is greater than what divides us. Today, though we hear a lot about “inclusion,” — really “exclusion” — only a few may use the words “we” or “us” to refer to others not sharing the same racial or gender identity. For others to do so is said to be harmful.
What is more harmful, in reality, is not straying from “your lane”; it is the very idea that we have “lanes” that some groups own and which should not be entered by non-group members. That “oppressed” or “marginalized” group members “own” their oppression or marginalization and are thus alone fit to understand and comment on them is foolish, divisive, and destructive of social peace. It is foolish because commenting on things we have not directly experienced is inevitable. And the idea that all women, all blacks, or “all” of any other identity group have the same interests and see things the same way is absurd. When people speak as if they do, they are inevitably speaking as self-appointed spokesmen for a group. If ones accepts them as such, the problem rests with oneself, not them.
“Ownership” of issues and commentary is also divisive because it carves the public discourse into isolated fragments that can be brought together, if at all, only by negotiations among elite segments of the various groups involved. It is destructive of social peace, as well, because it implies a model of social and political life in which warring groups of identitarians battle one other for precedence of their specific group interests.
The appropriation battle is thus really about property rights: about who, among us, owns an issue and is privileged to speak about it. But it is ownership and privilege of an unusual sort. Only those on the bottom of the gender, race, or ethnicity piles have the right to appropriate the work of the cissy white males who oppress and marginalize them. If you’re not one of the chosen, you should “stay in your lane”; you have no place in an inclusive community!
Commands of this sort, which used to be denounced as “segregationist,” are today refashioned as “the victim’s privilege” by long-suffering law professors. As Tuvel’s case indicates, however, the battle for precedence, which used to be among those at the top of the power hierarchy, is now a fight among the “oppressed” to determine which among them is the most oppressed, and, therefore, most worthy of power and command.