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.

Social construction of race

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.

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.

Transphobia

The Contexts 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.

White privilege

What follows is an update since this article was first published.

In early May 2017, Hypatia, a feminist journal, published an academic article by a White cisgender woman philosopher, Professor Rebecca Tuval, who argued that transracialism is a valid concept. Tuval was embraced by transphobic commentators, as well as by White cisgender men eager to critique “political correctness” and defend “academic freedom” along similar lines. Among her supporters were the Context editors, as I’ll discuss in a moment.

Tuval’s knights failed to delineate the real issue. Tuval was free to write whatever article she wanted, even though the subject matter was outside of her expertise. Should the article be given academic credibility by a professional journal is a legitimate question; but, more to the point, academic freedom does not leave academics free from consequences. Academics who write an article that promotes the status quo is hardly the pinnacle use of academic freedom. As such, academics from dominant groups cannot expect to be hailed as heroes by the minority groups they damage. Perpetuating stigma of transgender people and doing damage to anti-racism efforts is going to lead to academic debate.

After much criticism, some of the junior editors of Hypatia initially issued a statement vowing to take transgender scholarship more seriously. Almost immediately, however, the senior editors stood by the published article. This was despite critique from minority scholars, chiefly people of colour and transgender researchers. I noted on Twitter that the peer review process is only as good as its editors and reviewers. Hypatia lacks diversity so it produces an exclusionary vision of gender equity; one that ignores racial justice. This is known as White feminism. This limited view of gender equity is also ignorant of transgender activism, and sometimes openly hostile towards recognising the inclusion of trangender women as a feminist project.

The same problems apply to the way in which Contexts magazine managed its article on Dolezal.

So it was that in early May, the cisgender male editors of Contexts published an editorial doubling down on their decision to publish the Contexts Dolezal article, emboldened by Tuval’s article. One of the editors is a White man and the other is a non-Black man of colour. Both are based in the USA and are tenured professors with high-profile in their professional association. They not only defended Tuval but they also disparage the criticism of their Dolezal article:

It was a very interesting, thoughtful interview, which we posted online at the end of March. It sparked a conversation—heated, at times thoughtful, mostly vitriolic. This was mainly on Twitter, so hot and bothered is what you’d expect. [My emphasis]

They also characterise researchers and activists who responded to the Dolezal article as “haters,” whose scholarship they dismiss as nothing more than a “Twitter rant.” (Later edited to tweetstorm, after I pointed out the racist connotation.) Black queer sociologists and women of colour led the critique against the Contexts article. Describing people of colour’s critiques as “vitriolic rants” is a device often used to silence anti-racism scholars. Not only a sign of professional disrespect, the editorial shows the editors dismiss critical thinking of those who are Othered in sociology.

The editors describe the Dolezal interview as “fascinating.” They do so because as cisgender men not impacted by anti-Blackness, they can afford to do so. They evoke the interviewer’s race (“a respected African American sociology of race scholar”) as a defence of the publication, in the broader context of defending themselves as well as a White woman. Much like all the reverent academic and public attention given to Dolezal, White supremacy mediates such a “fascination” with “transracialism.” That two cisgender male sociologists could write a defence of Dolezal and Tuval, without engaging with the scholarship on postcolonialism and transphobia, is a troubling sign of the “sociological imagination” as it currently stands. After all, we are a discipline where men still dominate senior positions, having being founded by White, Western Europeans, and continuing to marginalise positions that question colonial frameworks in our theory and practice.

I critiqued the editorial, noting that our role as sociologists is not to strengthen the platform for White supremacy and cisgender, heterosexual patriarchy. Instead, answering the call of sociology should lead to dismantling these narratives. I noted that the editors were wilfully ignoring minority sociologists. Moreover, their elitist views of scholars who use social media to discuss sociology was damaging. Twitter is a place that unites minority sociologists who are marginalised wherever we work, in many parts of the world. I argued that the editors should seek to recognise and respond to the colonial attitudes expressed in their editorial.

The White male editor was dismissive (“I’ll let you do your thing“) because I had not submitted my critique to his publication. Contexts promotes its articles on social media; the editors cannot, therefore, dictate that critique should be filtered for their approval through their publications process.

The editors did not write a special defence of Black women academics like Assistant Professor Saida Grundy when her academic freedom was threatened. While Contexts published an article by Assistant Professor Zandria Robinson, the editors did not intervene with an editorial to support her scholarship. To defend academic freedom so selectively is fascinating, especially when it promotes the status quo.

Promoting the status quo

The editors continued shelling their support of Tuval alongside their Dolezal article. Rather than taking an opportunity to engage with the scholarship of people of colour and transgender researchers who have been working to dismantle White supremacy and transphobia, they chose to lift up pieces that do the opposite in the name of so-called “academic freedom.”

I pointed out on Twitter that people of colour and transgender people (especially Black transgender people) were the least likely to succeed in senior academic roles in our field. At the same time these minorities are targets of bad science that reinforces gender and racial stereotypes as well as flaming prejudice.

For their part, the editors ignored the seriousness of this discussion, choosing instead to respond with sarcasm and to repeat their logic that, as I had not published with Contexts, they were “at a loss” as to how to consider my critique. I noted that my words and their meaning would not change this inability to grapple with anti-racism and transphobia, regardless of whether or not I migrated my argument to the Contexts domain. I pointed to the power dynamics of a White man suggesting he could not engage unless I submitted to his rules. My discussion was once typified as “hatred.”

Sociology that unpacks what bell hooks calls “imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchy” is not “hatred.” Hatred is emotive language meant to diminish the academic weight of my critical thinking as a woman of colour. It is a patriarchal, racist way to undercut the two decades I have spent as an applied sociologist actively transforming systemic inequality through policy and programs. Whether it’s in tweets, blog posts, academic publications, or the sum total of our practice, the sociological perspectives of women of colour are not any less worthy than privileged men writing from the comfort of the ivory tower.

Retreating into one-word answers and abruptly disappearing after two days of deflection, the editors were befuddled that the very medium we were conversing on—where they promote their publications and other activities, a place that amplifies their status in the academy—could be used for sociological debate.

What I said at the time about the Hypatia article also stands for the article on Contexts. The peer review process does not end at publication. The same goes for critique of editorial choices in sociology publications. The scientific community engages with papers to test or debate robustness of ideas. The response to articles, and to editorial management of public discussion, is part of the usual science process. Scientists who are experts in race and transgender studies are holding publications accountable for the ideas communicated in peer-reviewed journals, as they do for other works in sociological magazines, and in popular culture, and elsewhere.

Had minority scholars who are race and transgender studies experts been part of the review process, the article in Contexts and the paper in Hypatia would likely not have been recommended for publication to the editors.

Academic publishing, including feminist journals and official publications of the American Sociological Association, must diversify their editors and Board members if they want to produce rigorous science. Women researchers in general unite to call out sexism in science publishing across disciplines. We must rise together in the same way to critique of racism and transphobia, wherever inequity appears, including in the name of sociology and women’s rights.

Decolonise sociology, now.

5 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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