The Co-opting of Academics for Political Ends: Or, why I got a women’s studies degree
Every so often, I think back to one of the most frustrating conversations I had with a friend during my first term at Oxford. It was with someone who eventually became one of my closest friends, with his dry sense of humor and quick wit. He’s a black man from Canada, and he was there studying philosophy.
Having an undergraduate background in philosophy and deciding not to pursue it as a discipline, I have a rocky relationship with the discipline itself. There are times when I don’t see the point in asking some of the questions philosophy does—and worse, there are times when I believe the asking of the question itself could constitute an oppressive action in itself. So when my friend, curious about phenomenology and moral philosophy and wanting to know why I rejected a current “feminist” writer who was being protested at a local university, starting asking seemingly harmless questions about transgender identity and identity formation.
I remember becoming deeply frustrated with him, at one point asking him how he felt about his questions if they were about his identity as a black man. My phrasing wasn’t the best: “You’re a black man! How can you allow this line of questioning?”
This was just a couple of months following Rachel Dolezal’s outing as a white woman pretending to be black. The case had inspired much comparison between Dolezal’s identity and that of Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman who had come out and transitioned very publicly earlier that same year.
But, as I argued then and as I argue now, the comparison is a false one, as racial identity is hardly as malleable as gender, and the theory behind the construction of both is vastly different. While both arrive at the same conclusion, that X is a social construct, the methodology for arriving at that conclusion (and thus the methodology of identity formation re: race and gender) is miles apart.
And with a new philosophical take published in Hypatia, an academic journal focused in part on gender studies, my answer to the fundamental question has not changed. But we must examine why Rebecca Tuvel’s take is fundamentally flawed and ultimately fails to persuade.
Tuvel’s argument is a fairly simple one after the academic language is parsed. She proposes first that identity transformation/transition has two main elements: 1. Self-identity (the acceptance of the self) and 2. Acceptance into the communal identity. This second, she argues, is the crux of why Dolezal has not been seen as legitimate, because societal acceptance hasn’t verified her “transracial”* identity, and with some casting out of basic racial theory and selective ideas about how racial identity is formed, we can possibly see a path in which what Dolezal did was not an inappropriate exercise of fetishizing white privilege.
Tuvel’s main academic sin is simple: the failure of citation. But it not merely the lack of citation (which implies plagiarism)—it is what that lack indicates, which is a lack of scholarship and grounding in existing theory and ideas. In her section explaining the nature of trans identity, Tuvel fails to call back to important scholars on gender theory, and fails to contextualize the uptick in transgender visibility with a corresponding uptick in visibility and popular acceptance of feminist gender theorists in the mainstream. How you can discuss transgender identity without at least nodding to Judith Butler is beyond me.
She does this throughout the paper, engaging only once in a serious manner with the existing scholarship on the issue of race—in order to refute it. In a section on privilege, in which she characterization the use of privilege as a physical resource (which is a strangely economical way to look at it), she fails to engage with leading research on the issues of privilege and apply their criticism in any recognizable manner.
This lack of context and extant understanding of the discipline with which she’s engaging hamstring her argument, making it, as Noah Berlastky called it, “fundamentally unserious.”
The lack of engagement with existing scholarship is demonstrated most saliently in a section in which she argues simultaneously that Dolezal’s identity is possible because we (as a society) “accept” transabled individuals as disabled after they “transition”—that is, after they purposefully disabled themselves by removing a limb or otherwise changing their bodily appearance.
Unfortunately, this argument actually makes the opposite point, as existing scholars on the issue of disability point out in their critiques of transablism.** The argument that physically, visibly disabling oneself as a result of a transabled identity leads to social acceptance of one as “disabled” is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of a transabled identity that leads to such moves—namely the fetishization of disability. The importance of this fetish within the disabled community is an important context that Tuvel completely misses when she calls upon transability to support her argument for transracialism.
And this missing out/ignorance of fetishization ends up undermining her argument in entire, as when she addresses the issue of white privilege directly in the case of Rachel Dolezal, she insists that she does not see a logical way in which Dolezal’s “giving up” on white privilege by becoming black is part of white privilege itself. But, journalist Ijeoma Oluo has already dissected this particular idea in a revealing and fascinating piece on Dolezal for Seattle’s The Stranger. Oluo writes:
I am more than a little skeptical that Dolezal's identity as the revolutionary strike against the myth of race is anything more than impractical white saviorism—at least when it comes to the ways in which race oppresses black people. Even if there were thousands of Rachel Dolezals in the country, would their claims of blackness do anything to open up the definition of whiteness to those with darker skin, coarser hair, or racialized features? The degree to which you are excluded from white privilege is largely dependent on the degree to which your appearance deviates from whiteness. You can be extremely light-skinned and still be black, but you cannot be extremely or even moderately dark-skinned and be treated as white—ever.
By turning herself into a very, very, very, very light-skinned black woman, Dolezal opens herself up to be treated as black by white society only to the extent that they can visually identify her as such, and no amount of visual change would provide Dolezal with the inherited trauma and socioeconomic disadvantage of racial oppression in this country.
Mere visual change does not imbue Dolezal with a black racial identity, nor does mere “feeling,” as “feeling” can be easily a form of fetishization. Purposefully decontextualizing Dolezal's presentation, persona, and defenses , decoupling such contexts from the discussion of transracialism explicitly prompted by Dolezal’s presence, results in an essay that ultimately fails to grasp the entirety of context surrounding the issues at hand. You cannot compare Dolezal to Jenner based on societal acceptance alone, which is what Tuvel attempts to do by purposefully dismissing arguments about communal understandings of racialized identity and the power structures that build and create that identity in people who are not white.
But what I think has been most fascinating about this lackluster essay has been the response following its publication. I’ve watched as numerous “gender critical” and outright transphobic voices have latched onto and defended the essay as the victim of leftist attacks and attempts to silence. Jesse Singal, writer for the New Yorker and all-around thin-skinned, defensive, and often irrational Twitterer, called Berlatsky “sexist” for daring to critique Tuvel’s essay, pointing out that Berlatsky has no background in philosophy. Upon my engagement with the topic, my mentions, likewise, have filled with white men seeking to defend the topic as a legitimate area for philosophical study, and this essay in particular as a serious, weighty piece of academic scholarship, much of it on the basis that it is a white woman writing, and women are rare in the philosophy world.
This is fascinating to me, as these arguments don’t actually work when I, as a woman, critique Tuvel. I am a cisgender, bisexual woman. I have a background not only in philosophy, but in political philosophy, phenomenology (study of the body and comportment of the body), visual film theory, and theological ideas of suffering. I have three higher education degrees, the most recent of which was at the top-rated school in the world. You can’t necessarily argue that I am “attacking” Tuvel as an non-academic outsider, despite the fact that I no longer work in academia, or that I am being sexist, as I share identifiable indicators with Tuvel.
This defense of Tuvel as a symbolic beacon of the oppression of thought is strange, in that Tuvel is pushing for the acceptance of further identities, something which those who argue against identity politics would, naturally, be against. And yet, because of the strong reaction to this lackluster piece of scholarship, we find people suddenly switching positions and using the identity of the writer as a cudgel to bludgeon the left as “sexist.” Sexist, racist, whatever-ist tend to show up when privileged leftists who think every oppression is economic want to “turn the tables” on people like me who believe identity has a very important role to play in the world of political thought and anti-oppression activism. This kind of twisted, single-minded defense is not nearly so clever as Singal thinks it is, as people who actually study and have a background in theory about power and privilege and race and gender look at his argument and wondering why he’s talking at all.
More fascinating is the strange fight that arises whenever an academic paper causes controversy outside of the academy. Namely, a lot of people suddenly become experts and believe that the publication in a journal validates any and all opinion, not realizing that some articles are simply a high-end version of shitposting. It’s part of why, whenever these controversies arise, I pull out my credentials, because if we’re going to have an appeal to authority, I might as well establish it.
But in reality, the authority imbued upon academic thought simply because it happens within the academy does not really lend it much veracity. It is still subject to logic, to fallacy, to careful dissection of ideas. Backgrounds and context flesh out an argument and the lack thereof reveals holes that my freshman comp students could spot with a little bit of reading. Tuvel’s article is a prime argument against imbuing something or someone’s voice with authority simply because it is academic. I didn’t need my degree to dismantle her argument (though it helped). I needed thought, and the fallacy of academic authority is that thought isn’t needed, studies don’t need to be dissected, and an argument once published is an argument settled.***
So, the argument isn’t settled. This latest salvo over the bow has unfortunately plopped unceremoniously into distant waters. What Tuvel teaches us is that decontextualizing an argument purely to make that argument work is a failure of thought and that we must keep reading, keep pushing, keep learning. Read with pen in hand—it will be your best friend.
*I will use “transracial” through this essay in the way in which Tuvel used it, which failed to acknowledge that transracial has an extant meaning in referring to adoptions across races (eg, a white family adopting a black child). I am using Tuvel’s term in order to mitigate confusion about the topic.
**Indeed, Tuvel’s argument fails to note that transabled-identified folks are diagnosed with a body integrity identity disorder, a medically recognized mental illness, thus further parsing the line between physically/visibly disabled and mentally/invisible disability.
***Please note, this is the impression of academic publishing—academics within the academy recognize that publication is just the first step in an argument, not the last. The rest of the world seems not to see it that way, however.