Transracial doesn’t mean what Rachel Dolezal thinks it means

By Ellie Freeman

I am transracial. But I am nothing like Rachel Dolezal.

This week, Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was revealed to be a white woman masquerading as a black woman. Just when you couldn’t imagine anything more contemptible than someone from a privileged racial background faking her way into a space for ethnic minorities, Dolezal claimed she was “transracial.”

According to Dolezal and some dark corners of the blogging platform Tumblr, “transracial” is the racial equivalent of “transgender” – meaning a person who believes they are a different race than what they biologically are.

Andy Marra, an LGBTIQ activist, is a trans woman and Korean adoptee. To Andy, who faced coming out to both her adoptive family as well Korean birth family, the state of being transracial is not comparable to being transgender.

 

Whether being transracial is a real condition or not, it doesn’t have any bearing on the fact that this is being used as justification for a series of lies and deception that has upset the black community, the transgender community – and now the very real transracial community.

Many people have seen Dolezal’s use of the term “transracial” for the absurdity her story is. But transracial is actually already a word with its own meaning.

Transracial is a term to describe interracial adoptees and is commonly used in organisational and academic contexts. Simply put, a transracial person is someone raised in a culture or race different from their own. Having been raised by her white parents and choosing to identify as a person of another race, Dolezal does not get to use this term.

I am a transracial adoptee. I was born in South Korea in the late 80s and I am ethnically Korean. My birth family, struggling with sickness and poverty before Korea’s economic boom in the 90s, put me up for adoption. I was adopted to Australia and raised by Australian parents. The people I call Mum and Dad are white. They are of Irish, German, Scottish and English descent and grew up in inner-suburban Sydney. They do not speak any other languages apart from English and some long-forgotten high school German. People would ask my mother if she had an Asian husband. When I was older, neighbours thought I was an exchange student. A creepy man in our neighbourhood with a mail-order bride asked my father, when I was 14, if I was his wife.

For most of my youth, I had zero engagement with Korean culture. I did not see myself as Korean. I didn’t speak Korean. I did not know anything about Korean culture.I didn’t even know any other Korean people. My adoptive parents always made an effort to help me remember my roots, but in the pre-internet days they didn’t know much about Korea either. And I wasn’t interested in it. As far as I was concerned, I was Australian and I didn’t understand why everyone treated me differently to my white Australian friends. This wasn’t a lie. How could I possibly be Asian when I was completely cut off from Asian culture?

The racism I faced – the endless interrogations of who I was allowed to call my “real” parents, being berated for not speaking Korean yet also being assumed to not speak English, the general awkwardness and microaggressions of people who could not get over the fact that I looked “different”, comparing me to stereotypes, the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in Australia in the 1990s and 2000s that eventually became a bipartisan norm – discouraged me further from wanting to have anything to do with my cultural heritage. I saw being Asian solely as the thing that made people uncomfortable around me, the thing that would override any distinguishing features of my personality. There have been many days when I wished I was white, just so people wouldn’t notice me or shout obscenities at me on the street or ask where I was from and just leave me alone.

It wasn’t until I got a bit older and made some Asian friends as a teenager that I slowly started becoming interested in Korea. In 2013, I went back to Korea for the first time to meet my Korean birth parents. In 2014, I signed up for a year-long English teaching contract to try living in my country of birth, get to know my family and learn Korean.

I don’t regret my time in Korea, but I am constantly reminded that no matter how hard I try, I will never truly be Korean – every time I open my mouth and my Australian-accented Korean comes out, when I forget to take off my shoes or hold my right elbow when I give something to someone and all these little rules that I never knew about until 2013. The worst is when I am reduced to communicating with my own family with English and Korean baby talk and exaggerated hand movements. I’m torn between berating myself for not getting my own culture “right” and seeing it through a privileged Western lens, as well as the frustration that I was cut off from it for 25 years through no fault of my own.

This confusion over racial identity is a very common experience for transracial adoptees, and something that I would not wish on anybody.

Being transracial is hardly similar to “feeling black”, like Rachel Dolezal claims. It’s not like gender dysphoria either – the politics of race and gender are not interchangeable in this context. Unlike many black Americans, Rachel’s family background does not carry the trauma of slavery and institutionalised racism. Unlike people who really are transracial, Rachel has not been physically torn between two cultures and denied intimate knowledge of her birth culture. Unlike people who are black and transracial adoptees, Rachel has not had to deal with both of these life-affecting experiences at the same time.

It is normal, and quite healthy, to be interested in another culture than your own. But if the people of that culture cannot pick and choose their own race – whether it’s biologically or through shared history – then neither can you. All you can do is be a good ally.

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Ellie Freeman is a freelance writer with a background in community media, but is currently teaching English in South Korea. She is a Korean Australian adoptee and writes about racial identity, family, adoption and Asian culture. Ellie blogs at roknrollradio about her Korean birth family and travels in Korea.

This article was commissioned and edited by Sunili Govinnage

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12 replies

  1. The author should at least acknowledge that the term ‘transracial’ is not in fact ‘commonly used’ outside of a few groups. The first I’d heard of it was from parody Twitter accounts essentially claiming to be Rachel Dolezal before Rachel Dolezal.
    ‘Transracial’ immediately brings to mind the analogy with transgender, and if all it does is ‘describe interracial adoptees’, why not just stick with interracial ?
    And, as usual with like-minded articles, the focus on race to the detriment of culture is tiring. To come up with just a few examples, a Korean adoptee in Japan, a Vietnamese adoptee in China would likely have their own, similar – yet different – struggles with identity.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I think it’s rare even in academic circles, but my main objection is that, as a term used to describe people ‘raised in a culture or race different from their own’, it is inaccurate – how does it encompass the ‘culture’ part of that definition ?- and puts the focus too squarely on race. Adoptees are confronted with a variety of personal quandaries and dilemmas that cannot be reduced to their skin color.
        The author speaks of her ‘confusion over racial identity’ yet she makes it quite clear that her confusion is over cultural identity. There isn’t any dispute over her being of Korean, Asian, race, ethnicity, skin color (even is she has in the past wished to be white), but a conflict with her Australian upbringing born of her experience of prejudice and personal desire to grapple with her origins.
        To make this about ‘racial identity’ you’d have to go back to a more old-timey definition of race, which encompasses ethnicity, religion, nationality, culture in an imprecise yet eloquent way, which allows you to speak of the ‘French race’, the ‘Jewish race’, the ‘Korean race’ and so forth. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what the author or this website mean by it.

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      • Language is organic and can change over time. Homophobes tried to hold “marriage” to a definition set in stone, but we know they’re wrong, just as we know here that it’s wrong when we see people insist that “transracial” can’t evolve to encompass a more diverse set of people.

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        • If Dolezal called herself transracial from the start, then maybe there’d be some credence to what she’s saying. But she hasn’t. She convinced people she was black for decades. And as the piece says, transracial’s meaning isn’t just related to race, but parental adoption. Not only is it a non-sequitur to try and deem Dolezal as transracial, it erases a group of people who already come under an axis of societal oppression. The definition of marriage doesn’t fit in this context because it evolved to include an oppressed group, not exclude them.

          Ftr, this isn’t even close to the main problems with what Dolezal did, and is doing.

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          • Coming out as trans has its own risks, namely the social stigma and the potential for violence from intolerant people. This is why many trans people will not come out of the closet, as it were. They aren’t lying, only afraid and protecting themselves.

            Rachel didn’t lie, she was true to her identity as a mixed/black woman. To say that she lied is to simultaneously insist that identity itself must pass a test of validity or purity by others. That itself is a dangerous notion.

            To address your other point — inclusion is not erasure. Rachel’s trans status does not threaten adoption, nor does it in any way make it more difficult for those who want to adopt across racial divides.

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            • If she didn’t lie, then why did it take 2 decades for this to come to light? To rip a quote from my last piece, “It’s about what people’s identity means in relation to how they are treated.”

              The problem isn’t just that she said she was black. It’s that she used this identity to speak as an authority for – and to ostensibly help – black people, particularly in her role at the NAACP. If she wanted to help, then why be so dishonest? Why try to claim a struggle that isn’t hers? Why try to then co-opt the struggle of another oppressed group, and use a term that already exists to describe interracial adoptees? How has anything Dolezal done in the past week or so helped the people who need it? Apart from herself, and the media outlets who happily gave her a platform, whose struggle has been made easier?

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  2. What Rachel Dolezal did, regardless of her true feelings, was theft. It seems to me that “passing” is something that someone who is in the minority might want to do for survival and/or to enjoy rights denied them because of their race. But someone from the power-holding group trying to pass as a minority smacks of infiltration. I find it hard to believe that thought did not cross her mind when she started doing this.

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