Posted on December 8, 2023

Good Trans, Bad Trans

John McLaughlin, Aporia, December 7, 2023

For most people, Rachel Dolezal is remembered as a hilarious meme. In 2015 Dolezal, while serving as chapter president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP, was exposed as a racial fraud. For years she had presented herself as Black. She taught Africana studies at university, had a Black husband, 2 Black sons, and even sported tanned skin and braided hair extensions. But she was in fact White. Following her widely publicized exposure, Dolezal doubled down on her Black identity and tried to explain the reality of her mental self-image as a Black woman: “From a very young age, [I] felt a spiritual, visceral, just very instinctual connection with ‘Black is beautiful’.”

Although comical, the Dolezal saga also raised interesting questions. Is it possible to identify more with a race other than one’s own, or to change one’s race altogether? If so, would changing one’s race be permissible? Would it be different from changing one’s gender?

It is the task of philosophy to probe and clarify our concepts and to explore the unforeseen and even uncomfortable implications of our worldviews. In 2017 philosopher Rebecca Tuvel did just that with her paper “In Defense of Transracialism,” published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. Taking Dolezal’s case as inspiration, the paper argued for the possibility of transracialism, or a scenario in which an individual chooses to identify as a member of a different race.


Tuvel’s argument highlights an important point: to be consistent in our philosophical commitments, we must either accept the legitimacy of both transgenderism and transracialism, or reject both. There does not seem to be a convincing way to make one workable without the other. Since both are forms of self-identification – often running contrary to social conventions and our deeply felt intuitions – all the considerations that would prop up one category of “trans” would also support the other.

However, it seems that most observers still do not consider transracialism feasible or morally acceptable. A brief argument against the possibility of transracialism might boil down to these main points:

  1. Race is (at least) partly grounded in heritable physical traits of individuals and/or facts about their ancestry.
  2. In some social and historical contexts, individuals have been – or are currently – subjected to differential treatment based on their actual or imagined racial membership.
  3. Given our current level of technology, it is not possible to alter the racially correlated physical traits subsumed under (1), except only superficially.
  4. Given (1) through (3), since race is (at least) partly grounded in heritable and immutable physical traits of individuals and/or facts about their ancestry – and racial membership may confer differential social treatment – it is not possible to change one’s race.

Let’s examine point 1, likely the most controversial: Race is (at least) partly grounded in heritable physical traits of individuals. To be sure, racial categories involve social construction and thus evolve over time; there is an arbitrariness to our categories stemming from the contingencies of history and politics. Recent examples include the Frankenstein’s monster of “Asian American and Pacific Islander,” and the US Census Bureau’s evolving methods for counting Hispanics.

But racial groups are also marked by distinctions in physical appearance – most obviously in skin color, face shape, hair texture and color, height, and overall stature. It is obvious, for example, that an ethnic Japanese looks different from a White Briton, who in turn looks different from a sub-Saharan African. These characteristic differences in external appearance – perhaps the most relevant markers of race or ethnicity – are not socially constructed. Although social constructions may certainly layer onto them, these physical variations are causally rooted in variations in our genetics and biology. Some broad racial groupings can be accurately predicted from a DNA sample.

Race is more than skin deep. Certain racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by different medical conditions owing to differing frequencies of genetic variants. One of the best-known examples is the case of sickle cell disease (SCD). In America, SCD is much more common in Blacks than Whites: 73 out of 1,000 Black births vs 3 out of 1,000 White births are affected. Why? Because possessing just one copy of the SCD-causing allele confers protection against malaria – an obvious adaptive advantage for populations living in sub-Saharan Africa – while 2 copies result in the SCD disease pathology. The past selective advantage of protection against malaria was enough to preserve this allele over time, despite the negative selection it may have inflicted on those carrying 2 alleles.


The physical variations among racial groups pale in comparison to those between the two sexes. Human males and females diverge strikingly in their physical makeup owing to their different roles in sexual reproduction. Beyond the obvious and significant differences in primary sexual anatomy – males produce the comparatively smaller, numerous, motile sperm while females produce the less numerous and larger eggs – the two sexes differ across a number of associated physical capacities. Men are, on average, taller in stature, possess higher lean body mass and muscular strength, and are responsible for much more of society’s violence than women.


If we take self-avowed identity to be the sole criterion of gender or racial authenticity, we risk stepping into an infinite regress of social constructions that begin from nothing and end with nothing. However circuitously, both gender and race must ultimately anchor in physical facts about humans.

Which brings us to point 3: Given our current level of technology, it is not possible to alter racially correlated physical traits, except superficially. With a spray tan and some confidence Rachel Dolezal may have passed as a Black woman for a while, before being found out. Hormone therapy, while it can often achieve dramatic transformations for FTMs, does not accomplish nearly as much for MTFs due to the entrenched disparities in lean body mass, muscular strength, and skeletal shape conferred by testosterone. And neither hormones nor surgery can as yet transfigure ova into sperm (or vice versa) or recreate the intricate functions of the primary sex organs with great success. {snip}

In totality, all the considerations that would rule out the possibility of an authentic racial transition seem to apply equally or even more forcefully in the case of an authentic gender transition. While many may politely address a trans woman as she, to acknowledge their “social transition,” that is quite different from recognizing them as a literal woman.


{snip} Of the various oppressed identity categories within the left’s political coalition, the racially oppressed occupy the most esteemed place. Holding the correct racial membership is thus a valuable moral and political asset, perhaps more so than for any other identity category.

In short, my theory is that individuals cannot be permitted to change their race for the same reason that the Fed cannot permit foreign nations to print US dollars: it would lead to disorder and decline of the reserve currency of oppression.

How would transracialism work in a society in which Asians and Whites are penalized in elite university admissions and the corporate job market, while Blacks and other racial minorities are given state-sanctioned preferential treatment? In pursuit of those same benefits, the savvy and self-interested would quickly start changing their race, eventually devaluing it as a marker of oppression.


The left’s rejection of transracialism is not grounded in some important metaphysical distinction between the concepts of transgender and transracial identity. It is rather purely political considerations that make the former acceptable (even virtuous) and the latter forbidden. The racially oppressed must serve the role of Atlas, holding the entire intersectional system on their shoulders – they represent the one identity category that must remain anchored in immutable physical facts about humans, lest the entire system collapse.