It is common today to see membership to a particular social group determined by individual identification. The classic example is gender, which many hold to be determined by how one personally identifies, not biology or social class.
Now, if claims to group identity are arbited by the individual’s lived experience then presumably similar categories like race could also be determined by self-identification?
A recent piece in the Boston Review addresses this question head on. This is their conclusion:
They accept that race and gender are socially constructed categories whose boundaries are constantly evolving and up for debate. As a result, an individual’s lived experience is a plausible basis for claiming membership to a certain race or gender. Ultimately, they accept that people’s self-identification is important, but think it needs to be balanced against possible “negative socio-political impact.”
In other words, the social rules we have for who counts as a woman or as Black should be determined by whether they contribute to social justice.
The argument is ludicrous. An example of what happens when you try to have your intellectual cake and eat it too.
Let me start, charitably, within the bounds of their own argument. We are told we must accept self-identification except in those circumstances when there are negative social impacts.
What is the only negative social impact of trans-racial identification they identify in a 4000+ word essay?
It will make it hard to identify racial inequality.
The reason this logic does not apply to gender?
Unlike racial oppression, gender oppression is not passed inter-generationally. Someone identifying as black would not experience the inequality that is inherited by generations of disadvantage (presumably then confusing us as to the true level of racial inequality). Someone identifying as a woman, whether trans or cis, experiences patriarchy equally.
This is a highly questionable claim. Are we meant to accept unquestioningly the idea that someone who lives as a man for most of their life, then transitions to a woman in middle age, experiences the same kind of patriarchy as a cis-woman?
By their own (curiously materialistic) standards of what constitutes intergenerational inherited inequalities – they list health outcomes and wealth – there are plausibly wealthy Black families who might be mistaken as requiring reparations and thus not qualify.
One of the implications of their argument is that as racial equality improved, it would become more ok to identify transracially. Presumably it is ok for non-whites to identify as white, given there would be no confusion about reparations?
I am in full agreement with their claim that the social rules for gender and race are malleable and ever changing. Their inability to provide a compelling justification for their choice of framework should show how problematic it is to reduce any and all social rules to whatever suits some vague definition of social equality.
For writers clearly passionate about social justice, it is concerning how quickly and easily they are willing to jettison the validity of individual self-identification.
At its core, I find their response so unsatisfying because they refuse to acknowledge and grapple with the implications of their non-essentialist reading of gender and race. Instead of accepting that consistency would require accepting trans-racial identification, they come up with this rather desperate intellectual sleigh-of-hand to cover up a conclusion they don’t like.
Check it out and make up your own mind.