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Monday, May 15, 2017

Race and Gender

We used to taught that race was constructed. There is no biological basis for race, except the fact that certain populations of the human race share genes for certain traits that make them look different. But there is about as much genetic variability in Africa as in the rest of the world combined. Racial categories are the product of racism itself, as we can see when we call someone black who has a black father and white mother, and lump in East Africans with West, as though they were the same "race" because of a few visible characteristics that are superficially similar. Other racial categories are deeply confused with religion, language, and cultural identity. For example, someone who is "Hispanic" comes from a country where Spanish is spoken, but could be of any ancestry group or any combination of them. I have friends who are American Indian, but with a vast majority of their ancestry being not American Indian.

We were taught that sex was biological.  Once again, human, like other mammals, come in two sexes. Nobody seriously argues that there is not a difference between a cow and a bull, and that this difference is not biological.  Why is this different for human animals.

We were taught that gender, the set of social and cultural conventions we use to organize this sexual division, is not biological. For example, gender in language is a classificatory system, that is optional since not all languages have it. Wearing a particular kind of shoes is a gendered thing, because when you think about it men's and women's feet are pretty similar to one another, so why are there women's shoes?  

With Judith Butler, we get the idea that sex, too, is a construct, so that the constructedness of gender goes all the way to the bottom. To demonstrate this, she used examples of people who don't fit the male / female divide very well.  (Simplifying her thought greatly here.) This radical anti-essentialism, with the accompanying idea that gender is performance, turned into a very essentializing tendency. Not only can any individual perform any gender it wants, but can also transform itself biologically into the other sex. And if biology has nothing to do with this, then taking hormones or having surgery should not enter either.

So when Tuvel asks why race cannot be performed in the same way as gender, I have to agree with her. Don't the same arguments apply?  Why does gender get to be an individual choice, and race not?  I guess it's because the two communities of scholars she was accused of ignoring have decided to frame their ideas very differently, making impossible any comparison between paradigms. It would have been smarter to write a philosophical article on the incommensurability of two essentialist paradigms, but that doesn't justify her treatment.

You can still see race as an arbitrary construct created by racism, as it is, and argue that people who share the historical fate of having had their ancestors' race defined by racism still get to use racial identity to further their aims.  You can see sex as biological and still advocate for people to perform whatever identities they want to, and to make biological adjustments to make this performance easier, or to change their biology itself.  You can even argue that someone can change their racial identity if they want, and simply debate the issue, with opinions on either side, letting the better arguments have the day.


Thomas said...

"...humans, like other mammals, come in two sexes. Nobody seriously argues that there is not a difference between a cow and a bull, and that this difference is not biological. Why is this different for human animals?"

This reminded me of Pound's "The Serious Artist", where he says:

"From the arts we also learn in what ways man resembles and what way he differs from certain other animals. We learn that certain men are often more akin to certain animals than they are to other men of different composition. We learn that all men do not desire the same things and that it would therefore be inequitable to give to all men two acres and a cow."

The human sciences (sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.) have abandoned what Pound called "the data of ethics", i.e., works of art, i.e., the "reports" of artists about "what sort of creature" the human being is. That's where this whole muddle comes from.

We need to insist on the primacy of the arts in our understanding of what it means to be human. "From the arts we learn that man is whimsical, that one man differs from another. That men differ among themselves as leaves upon trees differ. That they do not resemble each other as do buttons cut by machine. ... These data are sound and the data of generalizing psychologists and social theoricians are usually unsound." Social science treats us like buttons cut by machine.

Leslie B. said...

Well, I am not for the Tuvel pile-on, one can write an article in response.

But especially when I deal with white supremacist types and get a small inkling of what it must be to be black in this society, seen as black, treated as black, I am more and more convinced that it really is true, I couldn't possibly claim that identity and experience.

I'm also not miscategorized as white -- I have the characteristics and ancestry that make up that category now. But the gender changers claim to be miscategorized for biological reasons.

So I'd say Tuvel is right at a certain level but at another, disingenuous. There was a smart Twitter thread about this, that I cannot find now.

Jonathan said...

I agree. The attempt to pass as black, having had all the benefits of having the ancestry I do, would be grotesque.