Rethinking Rachel Doležal and Transracial Theory

Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan (2021)
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Using real-life examples, this book asks readers to reflect on how we—as an academic community—think and talk about race and racial identity in twenty-first century America. One of these examples, Rachel Doležal, provides a springboard for an examination of the state of our discourse around changeable racial identity and the potential for “transracialism.” An analysis of how we are theorizing transracial identity (as opposed to an argument for/against it), this study detects some omissions and problems that are becoming evident as we establish transracial theory and suggests ways to further develop our thinking and avoid missteps. Intended for academics and thinkers familiar with conversations about identity and/or race, Rethinking Rachel Doležal and Transracial Theory helps shape the theorization of “transracialism” in its formative stages. Part I: The Current State of (Trans)racial Discourse The first half begins with five puzzle cases, all based on specific historical figures. Each case poses the problem of someone not being readily “black” or “white” (or “mixed”). The chapter asks readers to think about their assumptions and how/why they might classify any of the puzzle cases racially. Then, with those assumptions and classification processes in mind, Part I outlines particular challenges we face—conceptually, linguistically, politically, and theoretically—as we try to adapt the messy practice of race in the U.S. to a new effort to theorize potential transracial identity. The concerns this half addresses include: how Doležal’s case might be understood alongside the identities of other racial nonconformists; what we think “black identity” consists of and how our language and concepts for race need to be clarified; whether ancestry and phenotype should continue to dominate our discourse; the relevance of political orientation and action to racial identity; and the implications of motive and intention for racial identity. Ultimately, Part I argues that we need to improve the way we are thinking and talking about transraciality in the Doležal era. Part II: Pathways for Further Developing (Trans)racial Discourse Where Part I uses the case of Rachel Doležal and other real-life examples to critique the strains of our existing scholarly discourse on the topic of transraciality, Part II offers broader discussion about some of the ideas that are at play and/or need to be more adequately addressed going forward. Part II outlines some of the problems that I anticipate will trip up the discourse going forward and argues that there are particular ways we (as academics) might navigate them responsibly. My intention here is to identify and explore some of the areas we could strengthen or pay more attention to in an effort to help steer our critical exploration of transraciality in productive directions as the conversation progresses in the future. The concerns raised in Part II include: the linguistic and conceptual problems of “passing”; the very real dangers of conservatism dominating our theorization of transracial identity; the complexities of identity in terms of individual and collective identity and how the process of self-identification affects them; the sensitive and controversial issue of transgender theory (as it relates to transracial theory); and the neglected area of ideal/non-ideal philosophy. Ultimately, Part II argues that we need to avoid significant and harmful mistakes as we decide how to go about theorizing transracial identity and articulates responsible ways we can move forward.



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