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Race vs Gender

Question Everything

I am a coward.

When I made my very long-winded post about Richard Dawkins and the responses to his tweets (as well as the responses to the responses), I intentionally ignored the other problem with his tweet, which was his claim of equivalence between racial identity and gender identity, which is a whole other can of worms that I was (and still am slightly) apprehensive about opening.

Why? Because even though in real, practical terms it is a false equivalence, race itself, like gender, is a social construct, not a biological one, which means that the equivalence is only false, because of additional factors that affect racial identity (and the appropriation of racial identity) in ways that don’t affect gender identity.

Okay, to start with, some people are probably already angry that I stated that race is a social construct, but it is. There is no biological basis for the collection of different attributes that we associate with a specific “race”. There are genes that affect skin colour. There are genes that affect eye colour. There are genes that affect hair colour, hair type, facial features, and any number of other distinctions we use to define someone as being of one “race” or another. But biologically, there is no connection between all of the attributes that define a certain race. They are simply individual features that a group of people, over time, have come to share, due to reproducing among others who share those same features. As technology makes travel faster and easier, and changes in society make interracial relationships more acceptable, we start to see, in the children and grandchildren of those couples, how disconnected those traits actually are.

Let me propose a hypothetical experiment. Let’s say it were possible, despite the ethical problems, to bring together a large group of people with individual traits you like. Lets say, for our purposes, you wanted very dark skin, blue eyes, red hair, and Asian facial features. If you pair up people who possess some of those traits (even if they don’t possess others), and then from each subsequent generation, only pair up those who exhibit the traits you want, and you do this over and over, for many generations, you will eventually create a “race” of people that have a set of features that didn’t previously exist together in any group of people. Your race was created artificially, but it is no more, or less, a construct than the races that were produced by time and geography.

Race, as a true biological distinction, does not exist.

Gender – or rather biological sex, to distinguish it from gender identity, which is a different (but related) thing – is biological. There are two main sexes, plus quite a few other sexes that are not as common. Right off the bat (temporarily setting aside the issue of people who identify with a different gender than the one that was assigned to them based on their perceived sex), we start with the fact that there are not “only two genders”. There are additional chromosome pairings beyond “XX” and “XY”, and there are various Intersex conditions that can occur, some that are genetic and some that are caused by hormones that did, or didn’t, trigger at a different time than they usually do. As a result, even just at the purely physical level, there are people who simply are not the sex they were assigned at birth and others who can’t be assigned a sex, because the only options available are male or female, and they aren’t either of those.

On top of that, there is gender as an identity, separate and distinct from physical sex. Gender, in this sense, is a social construct, because it’s based on the idea that women are, and do, certain things, and men are, and do, a different set of things. Of course, there are problems with this right out of the gate, because not every woman conforms to the definition we have created for them and likewise, neither does every man. Some women prefer traditionally “male” things or behave in more “masculine” ways, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Humans are just way more diverse that the strict divisions we try to impose on them. What determines that certain toy is “for girls” and another toy is “for boys”? or a specific colour? or a type of clothing? Nothing; it’s just something we, as a society, decided.

Beyond that, there are people whose gender identity simply does not conform with what they have been told they are. It doesn’t matter what genitals they have, in their heart and soul, they are something else. In some cases, their identity doesn’t even fit within the binary gender system at all. Some people are the “opposite” of their perceived gender; some people are both or neither; and some are sometimes more male and sometimes more female. Arguably, without the social construct of what is male and what is female, and all the baggage that comes with it, nonconforming gender identities might not even exist, since there wouldn’t be any artificially-created roles to conform, or not conform, to. Although on the other hand, it may be something more than that.

In any case, that’s where we are with sex and gender identity, and now we start to touch on what makes it different from racial identity. While transgender people themselves have been subject to years of repression, there is no inherent issue with the specific genders they identify as. The anger against them doesn’t stem from maleness or femaleness itself, but rather from the fact that trans people don’t fit into the nice, neat, imaginary boxes that have been constructed for them.

This is where race differs. There is a long history of people of certain races being horribly treated, just for being the race that they are, on top of which their race has been mocked, belittled, and turned into the butt of a joke, often by performers portraying exaggerated stereotypes (such as performers in black-face). As a result, a white person “identifying” as black has a deeply rooted (and well earned) negative connotation that doesn’t exist when someone who was labelled female identifies as male, and there’s where the false equivalence comes in.

Personally, I think the argument could be made that without all that history and all the negative associations that go with it, there might not be anything wrong with taking on aspects of a culture you admire, or perhaps even identify with more strongly than your own. For example, I grew up in the Deep South of the United States, but I never felt like part of that place or that culture. I have always identified strongly with British culture and always felt as if that was where I should’ve been from. But again, the difference between that and feeling as if you “should have been” a different race is all of that other “stuff” that turns it into another slur against that race. It might not be fair, but neither were the things that people of other races were so often subjected to.

So, back to Dawkins’ tweet and the false equivalence that he sets up between Rachel Dolezal claiming to be black, when she wasn’t, and a man “choosing” to identify as a woman (his words, not mine), with the implication being that if she was wrong to say she was black, then a trans woman is wrong to say she’s a woman; or if it’s okay for trans people to identify with a different gender, then it should’ve been okay for her to identify as a different race. The problem is that there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between those two things (for all the reasons I discussed above). One is harmful to the people of the race she’s appropriating and the other simply does not do that kind of harm.

I think this is something that should’ve been called out and discussed, but I was too apprehensive about it to do so. It is important to me that my words do no harm, especially to those who have already been harmed so much, and I was afraid that this is exactly the kind of topic that is difficult to discuss without potentially hurting someone. I hope I’ve managed to thread that needle and discuss the subject in a way that doesn’t further marginalise any of the groups I’m talking about. If not, I apologise.

As with the last post, I think I’ll end with something from my own life. When I was a child, I loved stuffed animals. My father thought it was a little “girly”, but he grudgingly tolerated it. As a result, my room was covered with stuffed animals. I had them lined up across my bookshelves and all my favourites were on my bed. One day, out of the clear blue, my dad suddenly announced that I was “too old” for stuffed animals. I’m not sure what triggered it, but I had somehow passed some mysterious chronological threshold and the stuffed animals all had to go. He was going to throw them away, but I begged him to let me give them away instead. He said that if somebody would take them, they could have them.

I had an aunt who was my age (born only a few days apart, which is another story for another time) and when I asked her if she wanted them, she said she would love to have them. So we loaded them up in the car and took them to her house. As we were leaving, I cried, which made my father even more angry (because “boys don’t cry”, of course).

It wasn’t until after we got home that it hit me that my aunt is the same age as me. If I’m too old for stuffed animals, then why wasn’t she? Don’t get me wrong; I was glad she had them, but my dad seemed to feel that it was perfectly appropriate for her to have them, but not me. So, breaking one of the cardinal rules of my childhood (“Thou shalt not ask questions”), I asked me dad why it was okay for her to have them, but I was too old for them. His response was, “She’s a girl.” So… stuffed animals are okay for boys, up to some age, but okay for girls regardless of age. WTF? I thought that had to be one of the stupidest things I’d ever heard (although I would later hear many gender-related things that were even more stupid).

That was when I first said something that I have repeated quite often over the years, “What has the contents of my trousers got to do with whether or not I can have stuffed animals?” (Yes, I said “trousers” – I was already appropriating British culture, even back then.) I have never received a satisfactory answer to that question. It reminds of learning German (which I am now trying to do), where you have to memorise the “gender” of every noun you learn, because some are male, some are female, and some are gender neutral. Woman? Female, makes sense. Man? Male, okay. Child? Gender neutral. Boy? Male. Girl? Gender neutral. Huh? From there it gets even more complicated. Dog? Male. Cat? Female. Water? Gender neutral. Coffee? Male. The Sky? Male. The Wind? Male. The Air? Female. A Star? Male. The Sun? Female. Fire? Gender neutral. And so forth. So, what does this have to do with gender and toys? Simple, I had the do the same thing with them. Dump truck? Boys. Doll? Girls. Jacks? Both (in essence, gender neutral). And so on, and so on. It always seemed so obvious to everyone else, but I genuinely had to ask, because none of it ever made sense to me. If I want a doll to ride around in my dump truck, why is that a problem? Because you’re a boy. And they always said it as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and that I must be a little thick for not “getting it”.

In any case, I’ve veered way beyond the scope of this post. Sorry about that. The point of the story about the stuffed animals, as it relates to the subject at hand, was… well… I’m not sure how it relates, except it was about gender. So, this is probably a good place to wind up another long-winded post (although I’m sure some of you are saying I should’ve done that a few paragraphs back). Thanks for reading it and comments are always welcome. Please try to be civil though. I know that Race and Gender are both very emotional subjects to a lot of people, but lets try to avoid being mean-spirited or making personal attacks. Okay? Thanks!

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