Revisiting Transracial vs. Transgender Identity

A reflexive statement to start: I am a White cisgender man and the perspectives I offer here are to be interpreted within that context. I acknowledge the intersectional privileges I experience, including the opportunity to express my viewpoints below at a time of extraordinary violence directed at Black and trans* communities across the United States. My hope is that the ideas I offer in this essay help to bolster the struggle for social justice and further all forms of solidarity with those whose marginalized and oppressed identities I discuss. I thank The Sociologist’s editors and reviewers for their helpful feedback on this piece and I welcome the publication of responses to it.

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A flier for a talk given April 22, 2021, 4:30 pm at a George Mason University Zoom link. The speakers are listed as Robin Dembroff, Yale University, and Dee Payton, Rutgers University. The flier is titled "What The Transracial/Transgender Analogy Misses." It reads: "Almost without exception, people take the question, "Should someone be recognized as a woman?" to be settled by first answer the question "Is that person really a woman?" They do the same in the case of race, taking the question, "Should someone be recognized as a Black?" to be settled by the answer to "Is that person really Black?" We think this reasoning is based on a mistake: what matters is not what race and gender "really are", but rather what race and gender concepts ought to do. We argue that this paradigm shift reveals an important asymmetry between transgender and transracial identification."

Credit: George Mason University Cultural Studies Program

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to attend a highly anticipated local talk on a controversial and hotly contested issue in identity politics over the past decade. At the George Mason University Cultural Studies Colloquium, “What the Transracial/Transgender Analogy Misses,” philosophers Robin Dembroff and Dee Payton shared insights from a 2020 Boston Review article they had co-authored. They called for a paradigm shift in discussions of transracial vs. transgender identity, asking that the debate go beyond questions of whether race and/or gender  “are real,” and instead contemplating “what race and gender concepts ought to do.”

To that end, Dembroff and Payton made the case for race concepts’ relative resistance to transness. They cited research from fields including medical sociology to highlight the intergenerational harms that racism perpetrates on Black people. The findings they shared from these scholarly studies emphasized the material damages caused by generations of harm inflicted on the health, wealth, and overall well-being of Black people in America. The ultimate point was to demonstrate that persons who claim a Black transracial identity have not experienced such intergenerational violence; hence, such an identification is problematic as it undermines the utility of Blackness as a necessary social category to track those who are subject to the intergenerational accumulation of harms associated with Blackness and thus, by extension, in need of reparations.

While acknowledging the material inequalities that gender minorities experience within their own bounded lifetimes, Dembroff and Payton claimed a unique status for racial identity like Blackness given its capacity to be materially transferred parent to child. In short, Dembroff and Payton argued that race is defined by its intergenerational presence in a way that gender is not, a fact that explains why an “asymmetry between transgender and transracial identification” is legitimate to them.

Like many attendees, I was energized by the colloquium’s advancements of the public discourse on a provocative and thorny topic. I found especially inspiring the steadfast commitments to anti-racism practiced by Dembroff and Payton. That said, I left the colloquium wondering about certain assumptions, and corresponding claims, made at the talk, issues that were rooted in what seemed to me to be lurking logical fallacies in these scholars’ conception and use of intergenerationality.

For starters, there is a somewhat simple matter of circular logic. If intergenerationality is how Dembroff and Payton define and distinguish race concepts in the first place, it begs the question to identify the intergenerational manifestations of race and then argue for race’s distinction from gender on the basis of these findings. Put differently, there is a jigsaw puzzle-like quality to putting pieces together that were always already cut from a given puzzle set. It is important to note that there are alternative conceptions of race available, as Charles W. Mills’ (2015) famous essay, “‘But What Are You Really?’ The Metaphysics of Race” highlights. Of Mills’ seven “candidate conditions” for racial identification, only three correspond in any way to ancestry. However, by remaining wedded to the idea that race is a necessarily ancestral identity, Dembroff and Payton simply demonstrate what they had already assumed in the first place, proving the genealogical nature of Blackness by noting an intergenerational transfer of harms to those who are racialized.

I actually believe there is a more salient issue with intergenerationality here, though. In the work of Dembroff and Payton, it serves as a neutral background condition or conduit for the transmission of race-based violence. However, can intergenerationality really be taken for granted as non-gendered? Only if one fails to interrogate what is always already at the heart of intergenerationality within patriarchal societies, namely the fundamentally gendered nature of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction is a significant component of the material/physical basis of intergenerationality, and to ignore the gender politics of sexual reproduction is thus a basic, and all-important, oversight.

Indeed, from Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper and bell hooks to Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins, Black feminist scholars of the past 150 years have emphasized the gender-based violence that is inextricably intertwined with sexual and social reproduction in a White supremacist capitalist patriarchal society. At the very least, a simple acknowledgement is required that gender politics always already condition/structure procreation, and thus the (re)production of generations, which is to say, intergenerationality. After all, gender and intergenerationality share the same etymological root in the Latin verb “generare,” or “to give birth to” – it is hardly surprising, then, that one of Dembroff and Payton’s featured studies measures disparate outcomes for Black maternal health, because if the material harms of racism are to be intergenerationally passed on they must be passed on through the bodies of Black persons who birth the next generation.

Put simply, gendered power imbalances do not stop at the bedroom door, nor are they absent from the family tree. Whether conceptualized as a sphere within which phenomena manifest/transmit or as more of an active process/mechanism, intergenerationality cannot be treated as an apolitical given; instead, it must itself be recognized as a site of profound gender and racial inequality.

For example, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found in 2021 that US households where a woman was the most financially knowledgeable member–and thus more likely to be in charge of finances–had lower median wealth than households where the reverse was true. This wealth gap persisted after controlling for a number of relevant variables such as race/ethnicity, marital status, inheritance, employment status, and so on. The authors concluded that, among other effects, this wealth gap could mean that “female” households are less well-positioned to secure upward economic mobility for their children (Kent and Ricketts 2021).

Thus, when Dembroff and Payton presume race’s uniqueness vis-à-vis gender’s supposed non-transmission of harm across generations, they do not ask if the foundation of intergenerationality itself might in fact be gendered. And if the gender politics of reproduction do indeed undergird racism’s harms, then transracialism’s relative lack of social legitimacy when contrasted with transgender identity cannot be predicated on racism being a uniquely accumulating phenomenon across generations.

I realize how easy it is to identify limitations in others’ arguments, so rather than just deconstruct the work of Dembroff and Payton, I will use the rest of this essay to address the vexing reality that remains at the impasse they leave behind. Why is it that one form of identity is plausible while the other is denied/ridiculed? What is it about the politics of race, as a socially constructed concept, that make it impervious to trans*, while gender’s transness is politically legible in society? Moving beyond descriptive accounts of gender and race on the left and right, like sociologist Rogers Brubaker’s 2016 Trans, I want to examine this social fact building off of, and responding to, the advancements Dembroff and Payton have offered.

To start, as so many conversations about transracialism seem to, it is necessary to discuss the figure of Rachel Doležal. She is by far the most visible cultural symbol of the purported illegitimacy of transracial identity to date. In 2015 her identity ignited a national discussion on the nature of race after the Coeur d’Alene Press published an article demonstrating that she had been born to White parents and was fair-skinned in earlier photos of her life, despite currently identifying and presenting herself as Black (Dolan and Selle 2015). Determining the validity of her identity became urgent and significant in the public consciousness because she was at the time the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, and had a record of reporting racist intimidation against her that could not be independently verified. Broadly speaking, public opinion turned against her quite powerfully, resulting in the loss of her professional positions and appointments. The NAACP’s (2015) statement in defense of her advocacy work regardless of her race, and her own efforts to offer a more nuanced portraiture of her politics, like her interview with sociologist Ann Morning in the American Sociology Association’s popular journal, Contexts (2017), do not seem to have shifted the public’s opinion. Indeed, when Googling the search term “transracial,” Doležal appears front and center as the unofficial spokesperson for the identity, with a photo of her holding a megaphone accompanying the corresponding Wikipedia entry.

A Google search for "transracial". The top result is the Wikipedia entry for the term, which features a picture of Rachel Doležal holding a megaphone.

Credit: David Reznik

Caricatures of Doležal portray her as ridiculously unabashed and woefully ignorant. In subsequent years these characteristics have become associated with transracialism writ large. The shape of this discourse seems to me to bear a striking similarity to the way women are assumed to be ignorant of their own experiences, and transgender women in particular are attacked for their “ridiculous” accounts-of-self. I would thus like to argue that the notion of transracial identity, especially as it is portrayed in popular culture, seems to be inherently gendered. Even in my anecdotal teaching experiences, I have noted that students universally balk/reject transracialism out of hand by invoking the same problematic exemplar every time the concept is introduced during in-class discussions: the dubious and farcical appropriation of Black identity by White women through everything from tanning fads to TikTok dances.

Hence it is impossible to disentangle the concept of transracialism from its gendered assumptions. Specifically, it appears that the anxiety about transracial identity disproportionately emphasizes the role of women. It is a concern with femininity (especially White womanhood) appropriating/consuming/exploiting racial (particularly Black) identity. White women, including White feminists, can be active producers of anti-Black racism as part of their execution of hegemonic femininity (Hamilton et al 2019). This critique is well-established, but it is still frequently repeated in public discourse without further developing the idea (Beck 2021; Schuller 2021; Jackson and Rao 2022; Zakaria 2022). The repetition without development can serve to deemphasize the role of White men and the structure of hegemonic masculinity in producing racism. Indeed, a poster child for present-day White fragility is a woman: the “Karen,” a meme containing multitudes of seemingly timeless gendered tropes about femininity, including hyper-emotionality/hysteria, intellectual/political ignorance, and infantilization/helplessness.

It is not surprising, then, that Rachel Doležal, with all her gendered baggage baked in, has served as the straw person for transracialism. Transracial identity in the public consciousness is less an accurate representation of a potentially important identity politics debate and more a screen upon which to project not only a legitimate excoriation of Whiteness, but a particularly misogynistic version of White womanhood. My point here is that the seemingly unanimous rejection in contemporary society of transracial identity may have lurking within it a critique of femininity, even when it is ostensibly about calling out persons’ supposedly outrageous claims about their racial identities.

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Which brings me back to Dembroff and Payton. If the gendered nature of transracialism, as it has heretofore been socially constructed, is taken seriously, it becomes easier to recognize how gender is erased, yet also a major driver, in their theorizing. On one hand, intergenerationality is treated as a gender-neutral, or at least de-politicized, process through which households/families pass down the damage of racism; the misogynistic violence and patriarchal inequalities operating in/through sexual reproduction are rendered invisible, or at least remain mostly unaccounted for.

On the other hand, their overriding concern with justifying the distinction between Blackness and gender can itself be understood as an unwittingly, but nonetheless avowedly, gendered agenda. The animating impulse for discrediting transracialism, including the Dembroff and Payton project, seems to be the spectral figure of Doležal, whose ghost-like haunting presence in such discussions elicits a visceral social psychological distaste. And I argue that such revulsion is actually gendered, even in unconscious and surprising ways. Compare the case of H. G. Carrillo, a George Washington University professor who passed away in 2020. At the time of his death he presented himself as Afro-Cuban, though subsequent investigation revealed he had no Cuban heritage. Much public attention was given to the lie he lived (Max 2023). However, colleagues and friends have also celebrated the incredible efforts Carrillo undertook to lift up Latine scholars and students, leveraging his “invented” Afro-Latino identity. This extension of nuance is what has been denied to Doležal in the public discourse, demonstrating, I argue, the role of misogyny in understanding transracial identities.

All of which is to say that race and gender are never as neatly separable as they might otherwise appear. To that end, I suggest that what race and gender concepts ought to do is help find political solidarity around their interlocking moments of synergy rather than imagining clear-cut distinctions. In the specific case of analyzing intergenerational transfers of racist harm, that might look like an acknowledgment of how such harm is always already gendered too. And if some identity claims seem suspicious (as, for instance, White persons’ transracial identifications as Black), then sensitivity to how the adjudication of these claims might incorporate unconscious gender bias is in order.

Ultimately, I would like to offer a takeaway for moving forward from what can be characterized as an uncomfortable and somewhat tired debate. Preempting and outflanking the gendered and racialized vitriol that is so often operant within otherwise radical identity politics today is key to building intersectional coalitions. I have already mentioned the almost scapegoat-like status of White women in contemporary anti-racist struggles and the potential misogyny therein. I thus wonder if an explicit acknowledgement of White women’s work in these movements couldn’t offer a countervailing logic to upend such gendered narratives. The same can obviously be said of highlighting the efforts of Black men within feminist politics to short-circuit racist biases that might undermine the visibility and appreciation of such endeavors. Pushing back on internal sexism and racism would facilitate the ultimate goal of creating robust intersectional coalitions in pursuit of political liberation.

It may seem naïve, but I am convinced that such measures would go a long way toward furthering the transracial vs. transgender identity debate. Common to all the ideas in this essay is a sense that there is no easy way out of the politics of identity; at every stage, there are messy dynamics that cut across categories and/or put the various classification systems at odds with one another. So rather than seeking clarity as the solution, I advocate an acceptance of the confusion inherent in the project of identity politics. Revisiting that which might seem resolved can open opportunities for renewed collective engagement, broader coalition building, and hopefully social justice for all.


Beck, Koa. 2021. White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2016. Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dembroff, Robin and Dee Payton. 2020. “Why We Shouldn’t Compare Transracial to Transgender Identity.” Boston Review, November 18. Retrieved May 30, 2023. ( ).

——. 2021. “What the Transracial/Transgender Analogy Misses.” George Mason University Cultural Studies Colloquium Series, Zoom, April 22.

Dolan, Maureen, and Jeff Selle. 2015. “Black like Me?” Coeur d’Alene Press. Retrieved December 12, 2023 (

Hamilton, Laura T., Elizabeth A. Armstrong, J. Lotus Seeley, and Elizabeth M. Armstrong. 2019. “Hegemonic Femininities and Intersectional Domination.” Sociological Theory 37(4):315–41. doi: 10.1177/0735275119888248.

Jackson, Regina and Saira Rao. 2022. White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better. New York: Penguin Random House.

Kent, Ana Hernández, and Lowell R. Ricketts. 2021. “Gender Wealth Gap: Families Headed by Women Have Lower Wealth.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Retrieved December 13, 2023 (

Max, D. T. 2023. “Magic Realism.” The New Yorker, March 20, pp. 30-9.

Mills, Charles W. 2015. “‘But What Are You Really?’ The Metaphysics of Race.” Pp. 41-66 in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Morning, Ann. 2017. “Race and Rachel Doležal.” Contexts, 16(2):8-11.

NAACP. 2015. “NAACP Statement on Rachel Dolezal.” NAACP. Retrieved December 13, 2023 (

Schuller, Kyla. 2021. The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism. New York: Bold Type Books.

Zakaria, Rafia. 2022. Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. New York: W.W. Norton.

By David Reznik

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