Hypatia and Cultures of Critique
By Lisa Duggan
But then things got real. Some readers noticed and complained, social media went berserk, some editors defended while others apologized, articles were written. Things got a little crazy, tone wise. Denunciations! Accusations! Precious little good contextualizing analysis.
It started when the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism,” in their spring 2017 issue. Tuvel, a tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, compares the Rachel Dolezal controversy over transracial identity with debates about transgender politics. She does not engage critical race theory or transgender scholarship. This kind of exclusion is ripe for legitimate critique, especially as practiced by a feminist journal. Legitimate critique there was galore!
On social media, things heated up in a familiar way. The derision and denunciation so often found there migrated, mixed with legitimate critique, into an open letter that called for retraction of the article. It was eventually signed by hundreds of professors, grad students and others. The letter generated an abject apology (reading a bit like a Soviet confession, to my ears) from the associate editors of the journal. This apology produced a disagreement and objection from the editor. And by this time the whole shabang migrated away from social media and onto the blogs, higher ed press, and more mainstream media.
And so by now everyone is in role! The academic journal has marginalized critical race and trans scholarship within feminist philosophy, many of the article’s critics are making self righteous demands and personal attacks, some of the apologizing is positively creepy, while liberal and conservative pundits eschew relevant context to cry Witch hunt! Call out culture! Oy.
Meanwhile back on social media, a few brave souls are cutting through some of the shit. We at Bully Bloggers have picked out a few posts that illustrate a range of thoughtful, regretful and exasperated commentary that appeared on The Book of Faces to share with you here. We will add more as we find the good stuff online. Below are comments from Ani Dutta, with a very nuanced critique, Treva Carrie with a sigh of exasperation and some advice, Talia Mae Bettcher with a cri de coeur and sharp intervention, and Lisa Guenther with some second thoughts after having signed the open letter.
- The big underlying question first, I guess: I am an agnostic on the issue of transracialism and Dolezal’s identity, and frankly not very interested in resolving that debate any way or other, except to argue that I don’t think we need to dismiss the ontological question of transracial identity (and its defenses) in order to interrogate or critique some of Dolezal’s more problematic actions (e.g. lying about her family past, culturally appropriating the ‘Nubian soul’, taking on the NAACP leadership position, etc.), which are related to her position of white privilege. Though race and gender are obviously not exactly analogous, a similarity here is that one can occupy gender-privileged positions while strongly dissociating from related identities – and the Caitlyn Jenner analogy indeed applies here. Two months ago, Chimamanda Adichie made several extremely simplistic and problematic statements about (apparently all) trans women having ‘male privilege’ at some point in their lives, and many trans women in response pointed out that this was often not the case. In my humble view, the most nuanced responses were ones like Jen Richards’ piece where she pointed out that trans women (like any other gendered group) may have very different narratives and histories of gender dis/privilege. Some trans women or trans feminine / gender-variant people experience little or no male privilege due to early visibility or transition (e.g. Laverne Cox’s narrative), and others like Richards and Jenner have grappled with male privilege for much of their lives, both benefitting from and suffering due to their social assignment as upper-class white ‘males’. In slightly reductionist Marxist terms, in Jenner’s case, the surplus value she accumulated due to her erstwhile male- and continuing class-racial privilege literally enabled and financed her medical transition, over the backs of many less fortunate other (both cis and trans-GNC) people whose labor had gone to produce that surplus value. However, in diametrical opposition to Adichie, now it seems that any reference to some trans women’s past lives and erstwhile male privilege can be conflated with transmisogyny (a trend noticeable in some of the public posts/comments critiquing Tuvel). So, we’re stuck between either all trans women have (or have had) male privilege, or no trans women have male privilege and saying so is transmisogyny. I feel that one must remember that ‘privilege’ and ‘identity’ are distinct concepts and resist their conflation, both in the case of ‘transgender’ and ‘transracial’ identities / identity-claims. Indeed, gender is so crossed and constituted by class and race that many cis men might end up having less privilege than elite cis and trans women; and even cis maleness is not always a privilege in itself (as in the case of Black masculinity, often persecuted as a threat and enslaved through the US carceral complex). All to say that ‘privilege’ and ‘identity’ (social or personal) aren’t linearly correlated in any case, and thus, one can neither adjudicate identity claims based on privilege, nor dismiss mentions or critiques of gender privilege as being transmisogynist in and of themselves (unless one overgeneralizes and gaslights trans experiences of oppression, as Adichie did).
- As Tuvel has pointed out, several black/POC and trans scholars have taken complex positions on the question of transracial identity, and people like Kai M. Green and Adolph Reed Jr. have even taken sympathetic stances that inform my own argument in the previous paragraph. Though Reed’s argument, in particular, has problems such as biologically essentializing Jenner at some points, he makes a strong case for the privilege-identity distinction (he doesn’t exactly use that phrase), effectively arguing that one can’t dissociate Jenner’s womanhood from her (erstwhile) male privilege and politics, but the same time hold Dolezal to a rigid notion of white identity. Ultimately, these scholars underline the futility and impossibility of adjudicating ontological identity claims of any sort, and argue that one should rather focus on politics and actions – what one ‘does’ from any given positionality rather than what one ‘really is’. In that regard, as Green argues, the transracial-transgender analogy cannot simply be dismissed in entirety, and trans-POC stances on this issue can’t be essentialized in the ways they often have been in social media discussions during the Tuvel episode.
- This brings me more specifically to the Tuvel article: I agree that it is simplistic and problematic on several fronts, and especially fell short in its understanding of trans issues. As critiques point out, it reduces trans identities to a medical-surgical model of transitioning to another “sex” and ignores the trans-GNC critique of sex assignment (using phrases like ‘biological sex’ and ‘male genitalia’); further, it admittedly ignores non-binary subjectivities or practices, makes the sexed body the basis for both cis and trans identity, etc. Ideally none of this should have made past peer review, but these are far wider problems with entire biomedical discourses of transsexuality and are replicated across many academic disciplines, and even in some trans activism, rather than just this article in itself, and her article is not fundamentally making claims on trans identity anyway so they do not necessarily invalidate her main argument (which could still be critiqued, but that is a separate question). Her ‘deadnaming’ of Caitlyn Jenner – which she has apologized for – is again problematic but not reducible to the deadnaming of trans people in general, given that she mentioned the name specifically as a former appellation and not current description (which Jenner herself does on occasion, too), and also that Jenner’s past public identity and associated privileges are already very well known and hardly amount to violent exposure as such. Thus, to make the argument that the very existence or citation of this article amounts to ‘harm’ or violence against trans people and POC (as the open letter to Hypatia implies), to my mind, trivializes the concept of harm / violence and exaggerates the implications of Tuvel’s article (and inflates the importance and impact of paywalled academic articles in general). While I agree Hypatia and Tuvel should be held accountable to higher scholarly and ethical standards, I am uncomfortable with the scapegoating of this particular article and this (pre-tenure) scholar, sometimes by more powerful and institutionally recognized scholars, for much wider systemic issues that she did not initiate and which will not end with the retraction of any one (or multiple) articles. I also agree with critiques that Tuvel should have engaged more with TOC-WOC scholarship, but again this is a more systemic problem with (even feminist) philosophy and similar disciplines, and I wonder how many other Hypatia articles that deal with race in some form would fare on this count.
- Also, specifically responding to a public post by a colleague, the Tuvel piece has been accused of managerial whiteness and the violence of abstracting and controlling differences, deciding which differences are equivalent or not, etc. I do appreciate and agree with the argument that philosophy, and academic theorization more broadly, is often guilty of managerial violence and the violence of abstracting differences over material bodies and experiences that theorizers don’t inhabit or share. But again, it seems to be a stretch to zero in on Tuvel’s article as a particularly egregious example of a much wider systemic trend – especially given that she does not make a claim on anyone’s identity per se, nor lay out a cartography of valid / invalid identities, but rather, makes a more specific argument about the potential validity of transracialism as a phenomenon (which one could, of course, disagree with), in the face of widespread dismissals of the same. Further, we have to account for ways that many of us in academia are complicit with the violences of managerialism and abstraction even as we might be aware of and endeavor to work against material violence – for example, analysis or theorization of necropolitics and biopolitics (which I have myself done, among many others), is often literally enabled by the violences perpetrated on trans-GNC bodies, even as it lands us prestigious publications and helps us in the path towards tenure. “POC” scholars (such as myself) who follow the same academic-professional trajectories as whites, even if with more hurdles, are no less complicit in the governmental, biopolitical, managerial structures of academia and of academic knowledge production than anyone else. Further, queer-trans academics and activists – white and POC – have often made *careers* out of abstracting differences and laying out cartographies of identity and terminology. Moving beyond the aforementioned post, the general dismissal of ‘transgenderism’ as a potentially valid usage during the Tuvel episode is nothing if not a manifestation of such managerialism, abstraction and universalism – US scholars, many of them white, deciding for all of us which terms for gender-variance are politically+academically acceptable and which are not (even though white trans activists like Serano have themselves argued in favor of non-pejorative uses of ‘transgenderism’ as a term, as Tuvel points out). Many of my trans-kothi-hijra friends and sisters in India regularly use terms like ‘shemale’, ‘cross-dresser’, ‘transvestite’, etc. that are commonly outlawed in US trans activist-academic discourse. What are these tendencies if not managerialism and white / US-POC saviourism in the guise of protecting trans people from epistemic-linguistic violence, given that such attempts can invalidate people’s self-descriptions and alternative meanings? That a cis white ‘outsider’ scholar is being targeted in this particular case does not undo the wider potential ramifications of such attempts.
- Last but not least, moving beyond the specific Tuvel case, it seems important to introspect about why many of us (POC or not) have such a gut reaction to ‘transracialism’, racial self-determination and the analogy between racial & gender identity, while gender self-determination seems to be much easier to accept (even Adichie who generalizes male privilege onto all trans women seems to accept some degree of gender self-determination). Going by my preliminary and not entirely fleshed-out train of thoughts, part of it may have to do with the different ways in which ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are socially constructed, and these differences need to be interrogated more than they have been in recent debates. Broadly speaking, there is a relentless social demand that ‘gender’ be personalized and interiorized. Both conventional cisgender and more trans-inclusive epistemologies of gender (especially in the West) *demand* that we associate gendered embodiments, expressions, behaviors, words / terms, with a deeply *interior* identity (recalling the argument that Foucault famously makes about sexuality) – our gendered actions or embodiments must *mean* something in terms of the ontology of our inner selves, must correspond with a deeply held personal identity (even if that is genderqueer or fluid or agender, inasmuch as these are ‘identities’). Much of our hard-won struggles against biological essentialism and for gender self-determination often remain imbricated in this potentially oppressive ideology, being in some sense the obverse of the cissexist idea that social sex assignment ‘naturally’ corresponds to a gendered essence (inasmuch as an avowal of gender as a deep personal identity becomes the logic for social recognition). ‘Race’, in contrast, is etymologically linked with ideas of common descent and collective lineage, deriving from one’s position within a collective rather than a deeply held personal identity (indeed, US post-racial ideology asks us to [pretend to] forget that race matters for individual identification or social position). To my mind, this contrast between the personalization+interiorization of gender and the collectivization of race seems to be one of the underlying reasons for the discomfort with transracialism and the race-gender analogy. Regardless of the validity or otherwise of transracialism as a ‘real’ phenomenon, it ties us to the oppressive generalization of gender as an inevitable personal essence that all of us must ‘own up to’, in contradistinction to race or ethnicity that are assigned to us or derive from our collective social position. Inasmuch as many of us remain invested in and derive pleasure and validation from personal or ontological identification, I am not, of course, asking for ‘doing away’ with the concept of gender identity as per liberal humanist or TERF arguments. Rather, it is perhaps possible to bracket the question of personal identity in discussions of material differences, social positions and privileges, so as to enable the critique of social hierarchies and individual complicity in power structures, without needing to resort to an adjudication of identity through some external calculus or logic, or the attempt to fix an ontology that we can never really know (whether in the case of race or gender).
or if we’re feeling to need to cannibalize, I’d settle for going for someone like a Skip Gates, with his optimism for the molecularization race, his celebration of Linnean racist world geographies (find your roots, lose your healthcare!), or at least getting hyphy on the resurgence of retrograde cultural nationalism within critical race theory/theories of blackness?
I want to share my thoughts about the Hypatia controversy. But, I want to be clear that this controversy comes at a time of deep personal crisis on the home-front. This has meant that I have not had the time to process the Hypatia controversy as quickly as I would have liked. It also means that it has been considerably less important to me.
Over the past few days, I have posted a few thoughts about accountability. A close friend (and a few strangers) have challenged me to account for gaps and failures in my own scholarship as a feminist philosopher, and for my responsibilities as a mentor to past and current graduate students.