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TransReview - Trans
Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities
by Rogers Brubaker
Princeton University Press , 2016
Review by Guilel Treiber
Apr 11th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 15)

During the summer of 2015 two events in the US colluded in creating what Rogers Brubaker calls a 'trans moment'. A moment in which people not only thought of trans as an identity but thought with trans as a category. A category that epitomizes the fluidity and multiplicity (or lack thereof) of identity and the possibility to move from one to another identity or to remain in an in-betweeness of identities. Even for those living outside the US the two events are quite well known. The first event was the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner (previously Bruce Jenner) as a M2F trans woman; the second event was the 'outing' of Rachel Dolezal, a black activist and the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), by her biological parents as a white person. The reaction to the two, both by media and public, was qualitatively different. While Jenner was hailed as courageous and authentic, Dolezal claims to be a black person in a white skin, were treated as ludicrous and manipulative. The fact that Dolezal has lied on numerous occasions concerning her ancestry and posed as a black person makes her case difficult to generalize to larger issues of race and identity. However, Brubaker is acutely aware of the matter and avoids the trap of discussing the case as a sociologically representative one. What interests Brubaker is the intersection between the two events and the use and quick rejection (too quick according to him) of the term 'transracial'.

Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities is a short (150 pages) tour de force, all the more impressive since Rogers Brubaker is not a gender theorist. Brubaker is a well-established scholar of ethnicity, nationalism, and citizenship and his venture into gender theory is motivated by these interests. He tries to return to his own field (that of ethno-racial identities) equipped with a new concept he finds to be productive and fruitful. This is what makes of his thoughtful, delicate treatment of the concept, a brave one. He has wrested trans out of the monopoly of queer theory and shown, convincingly, that it is a strong concept to analyze our contemporary societies of fluid identities. Brubaker sees the text as an essay. It is an open ended, exploratory text and has no claim for comprehensiveness a monograph may claim to. It is, as he aptly puts it (and as the name implies) an experiment. Nonetheless, it suffers from the limitation of the genre, which are "lack of depth, systemacity and definitiveness" (p. x). In this way, Brubaker protects himself from these kind of critiques and I will try to show later on that there are other issues that may be more urgent than just these three.

What lies at the heart of the book is what Brubaker terms as the 'paradox of gender and race': "Morphological, physiological and hormonal differences between the sexes […] are biologically real and socially consequential. Nothing remotely analogous can be said about racial divisions. Genetically governed differences between socially defined racial categories are superficial and inconsequential; genetically programmed differences between the sexes are neither. Like race, sex is a system of social classification. Unlike race, however, sex is also a well-established biological category. But despite the evident biological basis of sex differences – a biological basis that is utterly lacking for racial differences – it is more socially legitimate to choose and change one's sex (and gender) than to choose and change one's race." (p. 135)

         The book is divided into five short chapters distributed into two parts. The first part, 'The Trans Moment', is divided into two chapters directly related to the Dolezal/Jenner intersection of events, what constitute 'the trans moment'. The second part, 'Thinking with Trans' tries to put into use the category of trans in order to think of race. Chapter 1, 'Transgender, Transracial?' disentangle four positions out of the public debate in the aftermath of the Dolezal affair: (1) That gender and race are essentialist in nature; hence, they constitute an identity that is not open to the agent choices. This position has been used by the conservative right in order to criticize Jenner (and transsexuals in general) through the so-called absurdity of a term such as 'transracial'. (2) The second position, completely opposed to the first one, sees both race and gender as voluntary in character. They can be negotiated, undermined and mis-performed by the agents. As a position it was marginal, though probably the most challenging, and it was supported by specific black and transgender intellectuals. It does seem, by the end of the book, to be the position Brubaker supports too, though he does not state so explicitly. (3) The majority position viewed gender to be voluntary; however, race was to be understood as essentialist. The strategic aim of this position was to protect black politics and agenda from being undermined by the fluidity of trans. Brubaker presents it as incoherent. (4) In the public debate, the last position was defended by no one. The claim, which is that race is voluntary but gender essentialist, was not available as an option given the political character of the events.

The second chapter has important implications for the entire argument of the book, and its title is well chosen (like all other titles and subtitles in the book), 'Categories in Flux'. Brubaker's main point is that identities, specifically gender related ones, but to a lesser degree, racial identities, are becoming evermore fluid. He writes, "The scope for choice and self-transformation […] has expanded dramatically in the domain of sex, gender, and sexuality in recent decades as longstanding assumptions about the stability of basic categories have been profoundly shaken. Similar if less dramatic changes have occurred in the domain of race and ethnicity. The expending empire of choice, in turn, have provoked anxieties about the crumbling foundations of social, moral, and cognitive orders. Old and new essentialism have flourished in response, claiming that basic identities are given, not chosen; objective, not subjective." (p. 67) This in turn nourishes a tension which is both conceptual and lived between a language of choice, autonomy, and self-transformation and a language of objectivity, essentialism, and natural and social constraints.

In the second part of the book, 'Thinking with Trans', Brubaker proposes three ways of thinking, understanding and using trans. Each chapter presents the concept in relation to gender before examining it from the race perspective. The three concepts are the 'trans of migration', the 'trans of between', and the 'trans of beyond'. The 'trans of migration' is the commonly (and mistaken) understanding of trans as a definitive, one-time, movement from one established sex category to another through the means of surgical operation and hormonal treatment. Brubaker highlights two surprising points. The first being that this is a minority practice among transgender persons. Most (like Jenner herself) prefer hormonal treatment, rejecting sex reassignment (or confirmation) surgery, all the while borrowing practices from the aimed gender thus creating an in-between trans identity (which is what is tackled in the fourth chapter). The other surprising point is this kind of 'passing' is also practiced between ethnoracial identities. Brubaker starts by treating migrants as those who travel between identities, but adds examples of individuals travelling between being white and being black in the US. However, and this is what justifies the move to the 'trans of between', it is only in rare cases where abrupt and absolute one-way movements occur. Most individuals prefer to combine elements, thus creating hybrid identities, existing in between categories. However, the 'trans in between' needs a spectrum that exists on a binary system. Between male and female accepts the givenness and naturality of male and female while undermining them (differently from the 'trans of migration' that reaffirms them). The only way to transcend the tacit acceptance of two basic categories is to undermine categorization completely, which is what happens in the 'trans of beyond'. The latter is utopic in character, directed to the future by (at least in a declaratory fashion) creating a space for the 'not yet' in the present. A future in which the category of category would be transcended and the binary structure of both the 'trans of migration' and the 'trans of between' will be superseded.

However, gender and race do remain different categories for two main reasons. There is nothing in race or ethnicity that parallels the distinction between gender and sex, between identity and biology. The distinction allows gender to be understood as disembodied but also to imagine it as re-embodied. While it is understood as distinct from the visible sex of the body (and hence disembodied), it is simultaneously understood to have a 'subjective inner essence' and to be an 'objective constitutional fact' (p. 136). The second reason is inheritance. While gender is highly individualistic in nature, race is inherited through one's biological parents, social milieu, and upbringing. Hence, though it is a rich conceptual tool to think of race, we can neither reduce one onto the other nor treat them as similar.

There are two main points of critique I would like to address:  

There is a structure inherent to western societies in relation to identity, which Brubaker touches upon on a few occasions but without addressing critically. I am referring to the somewhat 'confessional' structure of identity and of which the 'coming out' process is a typical instance. It is the structure where an individual confess to an authentic identity he or she has discovered in the constitutive depth of the self; and which he or she must follow by putting in accordance the exteriority of the body and society with that authentic self. The history of this structure has been traced by Michel Foucault, who has shown that this is nothing but the historical and specific lived experience of Western individuals (Foucault, 2012). It is true that Brubaker does accept it with suspicion, but he does not problematize it or puts it into question. He is content with highlighting the (emotional) strength of this discourse, which we, as a public, find difficult to object. Brubaker seems unsure whether this constitutive depth is a reality that we are still to discover. However, one may claim, as Foucault did that any structure of depth of the self is actually a cultural-historical structure. This does not put into question the lived experience of trans persons, nonetheless, it does not accept the agents' claims for truth as given or as prior to a history of the structure within which his or her utterances are meaningful.    

Another complicated relation of similarity and difference between race and gender, which Brubaker seems to avoid, is the relation between identities and the feelings of shame and guilt. Shame and guilt are two emotions that are crucial in the policing of identities by the collectivities to which they relate; they are not individual emotions (Eribon, 2015). They are social emotions used at times knowingly, at times through the constitution of subjects and identities, in regulating who gets to come in and who gets to leave; who gets to represent and who cannot speak in the name of the collectivity. They are the two emotional obstacles that the individual needs to transcend in order to have access to the discursive structure mentioned in the previous point. Sexuality has been hijacked by an ultra-modern individualistic discourse and completely detached from any collective element (though historically, it was one important aspect in its development). At present, race is much more collectively constitutive and demanding. It does not constitute only individual identities, but mainly communities. These communities, all much more demanding then the gay 'community', create ties of solidarity as well as allegiance and submission, with individuals. However, Brubaker tends to play down the role of privilege in creating access to fluid identities, forgetting too quickly, that communities afflicted with poverty may be more intolerant to their own members both in terms of gender and of race. Hence, though he does speak of the policing of identities, he misses that this policing of identities can be made through the constitutive power of shame and guilt. All this is in direct relation to the community's wealth and privilege. A community besieged by cultural and societal pressures may enact a more severe pressure on its members to align. This would not be done only from the outside, but through the constitution of an identity plagued by these two emotions on any kind of questioning of the primacy of identity.


Sources mentioned:


Foucault, Michel. 2012. Mal faire, dire vrai. Fonction de l'aveu en justice. Bernard Harcourt and Fabienne Brion (eds.) Louvain : Presses universitaires de Louvain.


Eribon, Didier. 2015. Une morale du minoritaire. Paris : Flammarion.



© 2017 Guilel Treiber




Guilel Treiber, Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven, Belgium


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