As someone who’s a person of colour, I feel it’s important I know about my heritage and the homeland where my mother and father came from.
I may be a British citizen but I’m under no illusion how inside me, runs the blood of my ancestors – my DNA and genetic makeup (as far as I know), can be traced all the way back to my motherland, the Philippines.
It would be disingenuous and insulting to claim otherwise.
Which brings me to the curious case of Ja Du, a white transgender woman from New Orleans – however, if she was to introduce herself to you she would tell you she’s a transgender woman who identifies as Filipino, reports the Independent.
Her story made headlines last year and while there was no fuss made about her gender identity – and rightly so – people questioned her after she said that she identified as Filipino, report The Root. Particularly when there was no ambiguity regarding her nationality or the colour of her skin.
For me, as a Filipino person, I found this difficult to accept – particularly her reasoning when she spoke with American news outlet WTSP.
In her WTSP segment Ja Du (who was born Adam Wheeler) said:
Whenever I’m around the music, around the food, I feel like I’m in my own skin.
I’d watch the history channel sometimes for hours you know whenever it came to that and you know nothing else intrigued me more but things about Filipino culture.
In WTSP’s news feature they even film Ja Du operating a tricycle as her prefered mode of transport around her hometown of New Orleans – which she mistakenly calls a tuk-tuk (as they’re known in Thailand).
As I watched and read Ja Du’s explanation for the reason behind her adopted identity, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable.
Parallels exist between this and other stories about people who are born into a race/culture – yet insist they belong to another.
We can point to bizarre cases like Vicky Waldrips, better known as WoahVicky, (who’s only recently come terms with her ‘whiteness’) and Martina Big, both of whom have attempted to affiliate themselves with black culture, but none can be more poignant than the story of Rachel Dolezal as reported by The Guardian.
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Her story sparked outrage when it was discovered she’d lied about her heritage, pretending to be African-American yet coming from a completely caucasian background.
In the coming months, she would argue her case just like Ja Du has, comparing her plight to Caitlyn Jenner’s – and others like her in the transgender community – posing the question: Can the concept of being transracial be equated with the debate for gender identity?
Model Munroe Bergdorf, who’s had to deal with gender and racial discrimination, both professionally and socially, rejects both Dolezel (and by extension Ja Du’s) case for ‘racial fluidity’.
As a transgender model, who also happens to be a person of colour, she believes dragging the trans-community into this argument is damaging for an argument which ‘doesn’t make any sense’ to her.
Speaking to UNILAD Munroe said:
Race and gender are two completely different things and that’s why it’s dangerous for trans people as well.
For someone who isn’t trans the two may seem interchangeable but it’s blurring gender when it has nothing to do with it.
You can be one gender but that doesn’t mean your parents have to be the same gender as you.
Gender identity is not about sex – which is your genetic makeup – it’s how you see yourself, but people’s race is a lineage, it’s your whole family, your ancestry, where you come from and your genetic makeup.
For Rachel Dolezel to come out and say ‘if transgender people can be accepted and transracial people can be accepted’ it: A) cheapens the struggle trans people go through and B) brings gender in an argument where it doesn’t need to be.
Her belief is reaffirmed by Dr Michell Chresfield, a lecturer in race, gender and sexuality at the University of Birmingham.
She also offers a balanced and nuanced take on the instances presented by Du and Dolezel in the transracial discussion.
They are ‘inherently different experiences’ as she puts it and to compare the two is therefore redundant.
She points out ‘dominant’ gender-normative communities aren’t harmed by the presence of those who don’t conform to gender-norms, and thought they may think they’re under threat, the reality is they’re not.
However, Dr Chresfield says:
The perceived notion of being transracial is harmful, to the community whose identity is being appropriated, so it makes sense that as a community you want to gatekeep the culture and those who can be out there representing you.
She explains to UNILAD:
Gender expression is something we get from culture, it’s the denial of a kind of biology.
So even in accepting a kind of transracial identity you’re reinforcing the idea that race is real in a way transgender is not.
Transgender is all about the challenging of these binary categories.
In Rachel Dolezal’s case because she’s very clear ‘race is a social construct‘ but participates in this appropriation, it ratifies the same thing she’s trying to challenge.
A keyword in these discussions with Munroe and Dr Chresfield is ‘appropriation’.
On reading cases for the Dus, the Dolezals, the WoahVickys and the Bigs out there, a major interpretation of being ‘transracial’ seems to coincide with this sense of ‘cultural appropriation’ – which itself is steeped in colonialism.
What’s noticeable in the cases highlighted in the transracial discussion is it seems to stem from someone with a Caucasian background claiming the identity of another race or culture.
It’s insulting for any person of colour to see a white person who has all of the privileges but none of the social stigma or knows what it’s like to have your culture appropriated.
— Marie Claire (@marieclaire) April 2, 2014
She points to Dolezal as a prime example of cultural appropriation, adding:
There’s something going on with Rachel Dolezal that hasn’t been identified, I don’t understand the logic behind her argument, I don’t understand how she can identify as black and her parents are both clearly white.
I don’t understand how she can think that being black is an option and it’s something you decided you’re going to do because you feel an affinity or closeness to the culture.
You can’t just say you have the same body or experienced the same racism as black people, especially when you’re a white person and your part of that system.
It’s insulting because she’s denying the responsibility of being a part of the problem.
Dr Chresfield sees it differently. While objectively the concept of ‘transracial’ and comparing it to the gender debate is wrong and dangerous, she says it also brings up an interesting discussion regarding racial identity.
Chresfield believes while the term ‘transracial’ is ‘problematic’, questioning the meaning of racial identity, is important. Unfortunately, the way they’ve been brought up has been counter-productive to their respective cases.
Dr. Chresfield explains:
What’s interesting in these two cases we’re talking about is they’re part of this longer history of people crossing racial barriers. It’s really interesting to see when communities of colour come into the conversation.
The most interesting thing for me is the way it makes us unpack their own racial identity. Is race something we can tell on its face? Is it something you can authentically establish?
What if you didn’t grow up in black culture?
Whether we like it or not, we’re now in a place where race is much more fluid than it’s ever been and I think it’s both a positive and a negative in terms of speaking about the line at which we place cultural appropriation.
It’s going to be harder to determine especially if people become more encouraged to participate in a culture which isn’t their own.
While the concept of being transracial may be hard for someone like myself and Munroe to grasp, Dr Chresfield believes we’ll eventually reach a point where being ‘transracial’ will be accepted, however, her hope is society doesn’t refer to it as such:
I think it’s perfectly okay and I think the conversations of race Ja Du and Rachel spark are actually positive for the ideas about it. I do think we’re moving to a space where we have more multi-racial people.
Among our youth, their idea of race is so much more open than mine, I think intellectually and socially I see us getting to a place where they kind of meet?
Our boundaries aren’t that neat now, we have so many types of hyphenated people in our world already where we could have a space for them.
The debate surrounding race and culture and how you identify with it will not be solved in a matter years – most likely not within my lifetime – but in the spirit of progress and tolerance, we can ponder whether a strong argument can made be for being transracial.
What defines or gives someone the right to be affiliated and be recognised as ‘part of that culture?’. Is it birth by right? Is it experience or appreciation? Or is it social validation?
The experiences of growing up as a British-born Filipino are too diverse to break down into simple paragraphs and I imagine it to be the same from someone growing up in other parts of the world where you are classed as an ethnic minority.
There are so many layers to one’s racial and cultural identity, so when Ja Du boiled it down to enjoying another country’s music and their food, her story became implausible.
So, while I’m in agreement with Dr Chresfield one day the social construct of how we define race will change – hopefully for the better – I’m also inclined to have the same indignation towards Ja Du which Munroe has towards Rachel Dolezal.
What needs to be presented is an applicable case which goes beyond an affinity for another culture’s food, music and forms of entertainment.
Can someone who’s transracial therefore provide concrete evidence they identify with the pain, suffering, struggle, injustice and terrible experiences afflicted on to the culture they identify with?
If so, then this can be one of the many ways the debate could move forward – and maybe in due time, being transracial could be validated.