All screengrabs taken by author. Background: Pixabay.
“What would you do if your best friend came out as transracial?” asks a Reddit user. The responses are generally unsympathetic. “Tell him to shut up,” says one. “Ghost the weirdo,” chimes in another. But there’s a place for everyone on the internet. And while Reddit says no dice, over on Facebook, a small support group has formed for those who claim to be “transracial” – a disputed term that can be used to define people who identify as a race different to their own. “Society may label you as white or black but you identify mostly with Asian or Amerindian [sic],” the group’s description reads. “This is a place for “choosing the race [you are] most comfortable with identifying with [sic]”.
The concept of being able to choose your own racial identity is often associated with Rachel Dolezal, and more recently Jessica Krug, the white women who passed as Black and held professional positions contingent on their identities. However, this is not the original meaning of “transracial”. Transracial came into use decades ago to describe “the experiences of people who were born as one race and ethnicity, and who are adopted into and raised by families of different races and ethnicities,” activist and attorney Lydia Brown tells VICE. Brown continues: “The vast majority of people on the planet today who communicate in English and who’ve heard of the term 'transracial' associate it with Dolezal. It’s damaging, and even worse, it erases our whole community.”
Dolezal may have wrongly popularised the term “transracial”, but she is a celebrated figure in the transracial Facebook group. In one post, a German woman shares a picture of a signed book Dolezal sent her, which reads: “To Victoria. Follow your heart and find your happiness! Life is too short to let someone else tell you who you are.” Other members, however, are aware of the backlash Dolezal has received. An American man who wants to distance himself from his white identity writes: “I really wish I was black and could be accepted by other Black people, but I'm afraid of being treated like Nkechi Diallo (Dolezal) [sic].”
When I describe the transracial Facebook group to Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, he says that it would be funny – if it wasn’t so deeply offensive. “I can say I’m white,” Andrews says, “but if I go into work and say I’m a white professor, am I going to get treated like a white professor, paid like a white professor? No, it’s not going to happen because race is more about the external. It’s about how the state sees you.”Lina is Turkish but identifies as Korean. She describes herself as “successfully transracial” and offers mentorship to others on the Facebook group. She tells me that she began identifying with Korean culture in early adolescence.“I went to a boarding school where I was very lonely,” Lina says. “My parents divorced and I felt really alone. I didn’t have any friends or family. When I started watching Korean dramas and seeing how family-orientated they are, it touched my heart. When I told my family, they took it very badly. They took me to a doctor and thought I had some kind of mental illness.”Jamie, another member of the group, identifies as white, “but people see me as Asian”. She grew up in America and tells me that “if you're surrounded by a certain demographic your whole life, you tend to see yourself as one of them”. Jamie continues: “I subconsciously see myself as a white person with round eyes and light skin. When I see myself in the mirror, it trips me up because I seriously don't think it's me and it feels as though I don't even know that person.”
Both Jamie and Lina are altering their appearance to present as more white and more Asian, respectively. “I've decided to get plastic surgery,” says Jamie. “I'm waiting until after COVID to go and find a surgeon who can work on my eyes and nose.”
But as Professor Andrews explains, “picking a race is nonsensical because the whole thing is made up”. That is to say, race is not an identity, but a concept. “[Race is] created to put white people at the top and Black people at the bottom and a hierarchy in between,” Andrews says. “It’s not a real thing, race doesn’t actually exist.” However he notes that people trying to pass as white, or whiter, “is not that surprising in Black and Asian communities because sometimes, white is seen as better. That’s why skin bleaching creams exist.”Even within the Facebook group, members have different interpretations of what it means to be “transracial”. Millicent says that her DNA is “made up of native American, African and European” and that she wishes to identify as transracial because she feels that society defines and treats her as “only Black”, rather than multiracial.Millicent also sees no offence in identifying as another race. “I definitely understand why those on the outside looking in could see transracialism as cultural appropriation,” she says. “But in general, it is not. It's simply an identity that the individual has chosen. I think we should have the freedom to identify as whatever race we choose, just like people are choosing gender identities.”
This conflation of transgender and “transracial” issues is dangerous. As Meredith Talusan wrote for the Guardian in 2015, there is “no comparison” between the trans community and Rachel Dolezal. While Dolezal made a choice to identify as Black, trans people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary. “Transitioning is the product of a fundamental aspect of our humanity – gender – being foisted upon us over and over again from the time of our birth in a manner inconsistent with our own experience of our genders,” Talusan wrote. Brown is also troubled by the comparison between transracialism and the right of transgender people to self-identify. “I’m openly transgender as a non-binary person, who was also transracially adopted, so I just find the line of argument that, ‘Oh, well, if you accept that transgender people are real, then you have to accept that transracial people – meaning those like Dolezal – are real’ very offensive,” Brown says.Another criticism of transracialism is that it is a form of cultural appropriation – something that Millicent, Jamie and Lina do not agree with. “Cultural appropriation is not identity-based,” says Jamie, while Lina argues: “I feel like cultural appropriation is a very American term, it would be seen as a compliment where I live.”But the line between appropriation and appreciation is easily distinguishable for Brown. “Appreciation is, ‘Let me learn about your culture’,” Brown says. “Appropriation is claiming it as your own, claiming expertise and profiting, whether literally through financial profit, or metaphorically through social capital. Positioning yourself as someone who should obtain resources meant for a community.”This type of appropriation fuelled the fury around Dolezal and Krug, who took up space and professional positions meant for Black people. While the members of the “transracial” Facebook group see their actions as harmless, they can have a devastating impact on marginalised racial communities. And on a personal level, it seems to alienate many from their friends and family, too. “It’s a difficult term for people to understand,” admits Jamie. “It never seems to sit well with a lot of people, including my boyfriend and my mom.”