Transracial Paradox: The Psychology Behind Racial Identification

Ample amounts of research reveal that most individuals recognize their socially assigned race, even if internally they relate with a differing ethnicity. So when do these feelings go too far, and why has "transracial" suddenly become a buzzword?

June 23, 2015
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The term ‘transracial’ has been discussed in the news a lot recently. Some people in the media are saying it’s synonymous with transgender. However, to compare the two (transracial and transgender) is impossible.

For starters, transracial is an adjective that describes a certain type of adoption process, not a person. Secondly, when discussing the association between multiple races it’s crucial that we know the difference between racial and ethnic identification.

It’s interesting how, in our culture today, the accessibility between our race and someone else’s is so fluid. Take the millennial generation for instance. How many kids have adopted the black culture even when they are not African-American? They mimic cultural facets like hip-hop, hairstyles, slang, and dress, which have all become acceptable by society.

But it can become problematic. Anita Thomas, a health and psychology researcher at Loyola University Chicago, reaffirms the difficulty that comes with racial identification. Many kids brought up in a culture that isn’t within their set ethnicity may feel that they can’t relate to people of their own race.

But where is the line between adopting a culture and completely identifying with one race over another?

Ample amounts of research reveal that most individuals recognize their socially assigned race, even if internally they relate with a differing ethnicity. So when do these feelings go too far, and why has “transracial” suddenly become a buzzword?

Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP Spokane, Washington chapter president, has recently been under fire for claiming to be African-American. Consequently her favorite word is transracial; it’s the crutch to her entire story. Again, transracial is being used incorrectly in her argument since it refers to adoptions NOT the race you identify with most.

The fallout she’s been experiencing is due to her deceitful behavior and motive for advancing her career and placement within her community. Dolezal has participated in various interviews and shuts down the argument that her identification was for selfish purposes.

“[At five years old] I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black curly hair, [that’s how I was identifying myself]…As much as this discussion has somewhat been at my expense recently, and in a very sort of viciously inhumane way come out of the woodwork, the discussion is really about what it is to be human. I hope that that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”

Critics argue that entirely eliminating one’s previous race and assigning another to themselves is merely another element of white privilege, and that “even if someone identifies as another race, they have the luxury of dodging the burdens that come with.” (Essence)

In the past, African Americans who have lighter skin have passed as white to escape oppression. Overall, people are rather ambivalent regarding what race you identify with or even try to pass yourself off as. However, when you begin to completely deceive people for personal gain, this is when problems arise. “Someone who crosses racial boundaries from a privileged one to a marginalized one is much more likely to do so for political purposes or to profit from minority culture.” (The Guardian.com)

Let’s again take Dolezal. She appears to be benefiting from identifying as black without having to experience “a lifetime of racism,” and she’s able to shed this persona if and when she wants. Her actions would be counterintuitive if she didn’t have the option to relinquish her newfound identity.

On a lesser scale, rappers like Iggy Azalea, Riff Raff, and Eminem all benefit from the privilege of being white. They have culturally appropriated themselves through their lyrics and dialect. Iggy Azalea imbues her tracks with southern hip-hop, which consequently skyrocketed her to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Yet outside of her musical persona she’s just another white, blond woman who has cashed in on the popularity of our age’s obsession with hip-hop culture, which originated and is mainly populated by the African American culture.

So what exactly makes a person the ethnicity they claim to be?

Ethnicity is the makeup that someone receives from their family, society, and media. Your ethnicity could be virtually anything since it’s socially constructed.

Brandi Lindsey, a contemporary transracial expert describes how transracially adopted children struggle with ‘fitting in’ because of their appearance and cultural heritage. This is due to their ethnicity lying somewhere outside their assigned race.

Even though race is socially constructed as well, we don’t have the luxury of refusing our assigned race because many times it’s undeniable. Race comes with very real and concrete benefits and consequences.

So for a moment, let’s entertain the discussion of similarities between transracial and transgender. Proponents of the similarities between the two are stating that race and gender are both social constructs. And this is true. However the validity behind this argument stops there.

Race is based on genetics and biology. If your parents are black then you will be black, if your parents are hispanic then you will be hispanic. To get into the technicalities of biology would be incredibly tedious, but it’s based upon evolution and the regions our ancestors were from.

Gender is not based on biology; it’s a social construct used to differentiate between males and females.  This can easily be changed whereas changing races is only accessible to certain people.

To make this more clear lets say we have a black woman named Tiffany and she said that she was white, what would you say?  Chances are you’d laugh and not believe her…at all. Transitioning into a different race is a privilege only certain people can tap into. Now lets use Dolezal for another example. She is able to get a tan, a perm, and find certain outfits that help her assimilate into a different race. The difference between our friend Tiffany and Dolezal is that Dolezal can go home and wash off her bronzer, straighten her hair, and call it a day. Tiffany can’t wash off her race, and that’s something that isn’t defined by makeup.

There is no similarity between the two.

In conclusion, the common thread that’s become rather insidious in our society is utilizing the normative white privilege to further personal agendas. On the surface some of these racial identification complexes may seem innocent enough, but there is a deeper rooted psychological defect that needs to be investigated.  

Instances in history where a minority has attempted to visually morph into a dominant race has been used as a device for personal gain, whether it was to escape oppression or increase chances for opportunity. To say a person in a well established majority isn’t trying to access a benefit by assimilating into a traditionally oppressed race is false.

If people want to identify with a race other than their own they should be doing it with transparency and tact.  But truly, if we want to have a conversation in regards to identifying with a different culture it should be done in the context of ethnicity and race, not through the use of a term reserved for an adoption process. Racial identification is a complex issue that’s been wrought with struggle. However, topics like these frame positive conversations that can hopefully be filled with understanding and compassion.

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Staff Writer