When American civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal was revealed to be a Caucasian women who had been passing herself off as African-American for years, she caused an international controversy.
Dolezal wore a wig and appears to have used fake tan to slightly darken her skin and told people that she was African-American. She also worked as a lecturer in African-American studies at Eastern Washington University and was the branch president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
While for some people, Dolezal was playing dress-ups and pretending to be part of a community that she simply could never be part of, others sympathised with her and her identity issues.
More importantly, her case raises a modern question: can a person be trans-race (or trans-racial)? Is race, like sexual orientation, a fluid and transferable means of identity?
It’s a controversial issue and there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer that everyone can agree on. While Dolezal was a high-profile case, people identifying with, or wanting to be part of another race, is not uncommon. In South Korea, racial plastic surgery is incredibly popular, with many women getting double eyelid surgery to look more Caucasian. There are also many cultures across South-East Asia that favour lighter colour skin, and there are dozens of skin lightening creams and lotions on the market to cash in on this desire.
But changing your appearance and living the existence of a person from another race are two very different things.
Is race, like sexual orientation, a fluid and transferable means of identity?
Dr Peter Gale, senior lecturer in race and ethnicity at the University of South Australia, says that not only is being trans-racial is genuine thing but that it can be positive, too.
“There is a general consensus by social scientist that race is a social construct; there is a big difference between biology and cultural identity,” says Dr Gale.
“Much of our identity is around our national structures and many of those have been superseded by globalisation, which includes trans-nationalism.”
As far back as 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared that all humans belong to the same species and that race is a social construct, an argument that is also used when discussing gender.
Although there are biological markers of gender, such as reproductive organs, society is changing its attitude towards gender and acknowledging that gender, too, is a social construct. Gender is assigned at birth and expectations and customs associated with male or woman is distilled into us.
“There is a general consensus by social scientist that race is a social construct; there is a big difference between biology and cultural identity."
But this comparison - between gender and race - is offensive to some people, who argue that the two cannot be compared.
Transwoman Meredith Talusan wrote in The Guardian that: “Dolezal might feel an enormous affinity to blackness – so much that she decided to identify as black – but her decision to occupy that identity is one that was forged through her exposure to black culture, not a fundamental attribute of her existence”.
Choice, and lack of, is the operative word. Transgender people do not choose to be trans; they are born in a body that is not true to their actual identity and gender orientation.
But if she genuinely felt that she was born in the wrong race, and she considered herself a black person, that raises complex questions that could be considered trans-racial.
If someone like Dolezal made a conscience decision to change her appearance simply because she likes black culture and history, then they would not be trans-racial. But if she genuinely felt that she was born in the wrong race, and she considered herself a black person, that raises complex questions that could be considered trans-racial.
Dr Gales prefers to use the term ‘transcultural’, rather than ‘trans-racial’, because it’s more representative of the elements that make up race, among them nationalism and culture.
“All identities are conditional to subjectivity,” he says. “We acquire our identity as we grow up and become adults. It’s not unusual that people can have a cross identification.
“What’s significant is that we all perform our identity - we take those cues from what’s around us. We can identity with a group of people that we don’t necessarily belong to.”
He believes that more needs to be done to educate people on transcultural identity, especially because of the significant historical racial baggage and ongoing racism throughout society.
“It’s a very contentious area. What we’re dealing with is very different experiences of pain, exclusion and suffering and at times, oppression."