The Real Meaning Of ‘Transracial’


The revelation that Rachel Dolezal, now former head of Spokane, Washington’s NAACP chapter, is white but identifies as black has prompted a social media and cable news blitz as the country tries to make sense of a person who has artificially constructed her racial identity. Many have dubbed her as “transracial,” while others have decried that “transracial” is not actually a thing. Caught in the crossfire is a group that actually does identify as transracial, but whose identities and experiences in no way relate to Dolezal’s fabrications.

The word “transracial” has appeared over the past week thanks to conflations between Dolezal’s story and the gender transition of Caitlyn Jenner. Fox News’ resident anti-LGBT psychiatrist Keith Ablow, for example, insisted that the two are directly connected, going so far as to suggest, “It doesn’t have to just be race or gender that people assert and then change by tattooing or surgery,” adding age and species to the list of things that he believes people will claim as a trans identity. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), one of the most anti-LGBT lawmakers in Congress, joked on Twitter, “Twisted world: transgender and transracial are ‘in’; and trans fats are out! #jenner #dolezal.” And even though psychologists have been trying to explain that there is no comparison to be made between the two, it hasn’t stopped countless conservative outlets from continuing the conflation.

Dolezal seemed to accept the comparison between her and Jenner’s stories during her interview with NBC News, saying that she “resonated with some of the themes of isolation, of being misunderstood.” But there is no comparison to be made between the actual identities. There is significant evidence that there is a biological origin for transgender identities and that transgender identities are wholly authentic. While conservative estimates place the number of transgender people in the country at 700,000, there doesn’t seem to be anybody quite like Dolezal, whose deception (to herself and others) seems entirely manufactured. In other words, the nature and language of gender identities does not translate into conversations around race; there is no such thing as “transracial” in terms of a person who identifies as a race other than what was assigned at birth. But “transracial” does mean something else, and the people who identify with that word, adoptees raised in a family of a different race, are speaking out.

The transracial response started with a post by Lisa Marie Rollins at the adoption blog Lost Daughters. “For the past 35ish years,” she wrote, “I’ve considered myself to be a transracial adoptee. The ‘trans’ in transracial for me, never meant my race changed. It meant I was a multiracial black girl, adopted into a white family.” She proceeded to explain the challenges of having a race that did not match her family or cultural surroundings, having to “navigate my blackness and my black girlness, inside an often times racist, religious, violent, and rigid white world.” But growing up in that white world “never actually changed my race”; having all of the privileges of whiteness “never made me white.”

Rollins pointed out that families of transracial adoptees can often be significantly impacted by having people of another race in their homes. But neither does this experience change the race of these siblings or parents. At best, it can equip them to be “a different kind of white person, one who can operate as an ally to people of color in a real, thoughtful way.” But Dolezal, Rollins bemoaned, “is a white woman, who made choices, who used and is still using every bit of her white privilege to maintain the power and elite status she has accrued from her deception.”

Rollins’ response added fuel to conversations already happening through social media among adoptee activists, scholars, writers, performers, and their allies. This group of transracial adoptees and their allies have now issued an open letter entitled, “Why Co-Opting ‘Transracial’ in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic.”

“We find the misuse of ‘transracial,’ describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of ‘blackness’ in order to pass as ‘black,’ to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous,” the letter states. “Damaging forces like racism make it virtually impossible for those with black or brown bodies to simply ‘put on’ or ‘take off’ race in the same or similar manner that Dolezal has employed. For transracial adoptees, navigating and negotiating the racism in our families, schools, and communities is a regular and compulsory part of our lives.”

Kimberly McKee, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University and assistant director of the Korean-American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN), helped organize the letter. She told ThinkProgress, “I hope that we recognize that the term transracial describes a specific type of adoption experience. At the same time, I encourage us to use this as an opportunity to ask ourselves why are we not hearing more about the experiences of black women in the US and #SayHerName.” If the term is co-opted to describe Dolezal, “it erases the lived experiences and realities of transracially adopted individuals.”

KAAN works to provide adoptees and their families and allies with a multitude of resources, including adoption studies, birth family search and reunion tools, mental health support, history and culture lessons, and various ways to promote mental health and well-being in the face of racial microaggressions. “We should actively encourage adoptees’ exploration of their racial/ethnic/cultural origins and support them throughout this process,” McKee explained, but “we should not encourage cultural appropriation in adoption or in society-at-large.”

Drew Shives and Andy Marra are both Korean adoptees. CREDIT: Andy Marra
Drew Shives and Andy Marra are both Korean adoptees. CREDIT: Andy Marra

For one of the open letter’s signers, the conflation of transgender identities with a misappropriated “transracial” label is particularly problematic. Andy Marra identifies as both transgender and a transracial adoptee, having been adopted from Korea by a white family. A few years ago, she shared the powerful story of reuniting with her Korean birth mother and coming out to her as transgender in a poignant essay called “The Beautiful Daughter: How My Korean Mother Gave Me the Courage to Transition.” Marra told ThinkProgress that for her, this conversation is about authenticity: “I am open, honest, and proud to claim the various traits and experiences that made me who I am today. And there’s a lot to me too — I am a Korean American, a transracial (and transnational) adoptee, a transgender woman, and a person of color.”

She doesn’t see that same kind of authenticity in Dolezal’s story. “Who I am today hasn’t been actively determined by disingenuous actions. I don’t have to lie or pretend about who I am. There is no deliberate effort to conceal my background. And I’m not following a script or abiding to a rulebook of what it means for me to be authentic.” Marra laments the fact that race and gender have both been defined as social constructs, but that “there has been little progress made to address the tangible distinctions between the two that manifest in our day-to-day lives.”

It is those distinctions that make transgender identities a poor framing for making sense of who Dolezal says she is. “Co-opting the term ‘transracial’ to describe Dolezal’s behavior,” the open letter concludes, “exposes the deep denial and erasure of decades of research, writing, and art of transracial adoptees. That’s why we need everyone to stop trying to make this new definition of ‘transracial’ happen. It’s not (and should not) be a thing.”