Racism and Transphobia in Contexts

Sociology provides critical thinking about society. So where is analysis in this hateful book promo? Contexts: Understanding People in Their Social Worlds has published a racist, transphobic interview with Rachel Dolezal, a White American woman who deceptively lived as a Black woman until her parents exposed her. She has a new book out and, sadly, Contexts chose to sell out to racism by printing Dolezal’s racist fantasies without any analysis.

This article is dangerous. Not only does it give uncritical media attention to a problematic person; it’s a distortion of social theory.

Social construction of race (and gender) doesn’t mean “whatever White people want to believe.” Social constructionism is a critical theory connecting personal biography to history, culture and place. This is Sociology 101, which we would expect to see explored thoughtfully in a sociological publication, especially one that is available to lay audiences. No such luck.

The social construction of race means that ideas about race categories (genetic features) vary in their social definition, depending on cultural and historical context. Nevertheless, racial relations are real in their consequences.

The groups that get to define racial categories depends on history and power relations. Colonialism structures these dynamics. Groups in power also enforce race. Whiteness is within the control of elite groups; oppressed groups don’t define Whiteness.

The social construction of race is how Australia imposed a racial classification system to justify genocide and how it legalised this racial system to dispossess Indigenous people (“quarter caste,” “half caste” and so on).

The social construction of race is why Australia named its immigration policy the “White Australia Policy” and kept it for around 70 years. It’s why Southern Europeans in Australia were defined as “not White” fro 1901 to the 1970s, until new groups of migrants arrived in larger numbers.

The social construction of race is not about individual choices, but how society maintains a racial hierarchy to reinforce inequality.

The article then reproduces transphobia, by likening Dolezal’s “minstrel” to transgender experience. This is not sociology. The comparison suggests that transgender people are engaged in deception, as is the case with Dolezal, a position that has been heavily critiqued by transgender scholars and activists. It creates undue risks for transgender people on many levels.

So as one sociologist to another, Contexts: does the safety of Black and transgender people not matter? Where’s the critical thinking?

Here’s where I remind you: our retention of people of colour in sociology careers is abysmal.

Decolonise sociology, now.

Five women of colour sit behind a table talking, with quote “The social construction of race means…in their consequences.
Photo: WOCinTech Chat, CC 2.0 Adapted by The Other Sociologist.

4 thoughts on “Racism and Transphobia in Contexts

  1. I have not read the book. The idea is not new. In 1959 an American journalist darkened his skin and lived in the deep south. I would not say it was the beginning of the movement for equal rights in the black community. That promise was made during the US Civil War. Black Like Me continues to sell and is used as part of the curriculum in early and secondary education today. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/black-like-me-50-years-later-74543463/

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    1. Hi Dennis. Thanks for your comment. Yes, there’s nothing new about this except that in many cases it’s been a survival mechanism for dark-skinned people to “pass” as White, and there have also been many White people who pretended to be Black for a range of other reasons. John Howard Griffin is a different case again – he did not claim to be innately Black like Dolezal. He was a journalist researching a story, he wasn’t arguing that he was born Black in a White person’s body. Though like Dolezal, White people are overly fascinated with Griffin, who simply recounted experiences that many Black theorists, writers and artists had been sharing throughout history.

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    1. Hi Sergio. Appreciate your comment. I think you’re saying the Dolezal book is pseudo science, which would be correct if I understood your comment correctly. Dolezal misrepresented her race to gain prominence in Black organisations and has since profiteered from her deception. It’s unethical for a sociology publication to allow these ideas without discussion of critical race theory.

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