Category Archives: Racism

Discrimination against people of color

Performing whiteness

[Image: Pax’s Northwestern University student ID,  circa 1990.]

There’s a meme going around on social media that’s pissing a lot of white people off. It reads:

Things white people consider to be racism

1. direct, open involvement with the KKK

2. poc saying something about white people

3. literally nothing else

The reactions are predictable.

“Is that what you think of me? I’m so hurt!”

“Not all white people are like that! Stop generalizing!”

“This is reverse racism! What if I posted something like that about black people?”

“How do you expect to get allies if you’re being so divisive? Why not speak with love and bring people together?”

I recognize these reactions because I used to say these things myself. As I posted yesterday, I come from a mixed race family (black mother, white father), and my formative years were spent surrounded by white people in a small town in West Virginia. When we moved back to the city of my birth, Pittsburgh, I was harassed by the black kids in middle school for “talking white” and not fitting in. I pushed back against that, and made mostly white friends in middle and high school.

I didn’t want to think about race. I said I was “color blind.”

When I was accepted to Northwestern University in 1988, I was excited and also hopeful that we would all be there to learn, and put race divisions behind us. I had also recently become a devotee of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, primarily because it resonated with me as a fellow atheist. As her followers hated the Democratic Party (which I had registered to vote with for the primaries as soon as I turned 18), but also hated the Libertarians, I felt I had no choice to re-register as Republican and vote for George H. W. Bush.

Yes, you read that correctly. I was a registered Republican and voted for George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election.

So it was with this mindset that I entered college, applauding capitalism and decrying affirmative action. (Nevermind that I was a beneficiary of the latter. I reasoned that I’d earned the scholarship money thanks to my good grades, not my skin color.)  Again, I made mostly white friends. I didn’t understand why black students all sat together at a table in the cafeteria, all hung out in what they informally dubbed the “black lounge,” or had a “black house” to gather in. Why all the division?

I got a position with the conservative alternate campus newspaper. I had been disturbed seeing black students with T-shirts with Malcolm X on them, holding a gun and reading “By Any Means Necessary,” and also seeing the slogan “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” I wrote an editorial entitled “I’m black, and I still don’t understand,” spewing my vision of color-blind race unity.

In response, I was sent anonymous threatening letters, including anti-Semitic statements about my father and then-boyfriend. One envelope included an honorary membership in the KKK. Copies of these letters were sent to my mother at our home address. She was livid, and called the university to complain.

I didn’t understand the source of this anger at the time. I was truly ignorant. I doubled down even further, ignoring attempts from other black students to explain to me why my writing was so hurtful. I retreated to my studies and my supportive white friends.

By graduation, I realized that objectivism did not accurately reflect the world we live in. I moved to California for grad school at UC Berkeley – again thanks to affirmative action, this time granting me a full fellowship – and returned to my previous liberal politics. But I still made mostly white friends, and married a white man, and then another (Ziggy, my current spouse) after our divorce.

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand the pervasiveness of anti-black oppression and racism in this country, and the source of the anger and desire to be in spaces free from white people. Ironically, becoming an animal rights activist is what really opened my eyes to all of the oppression – against blacks and other people of color, women, LGBTQIA+, the disabled, and on and on. One book that helped me make these connections was The World Peace Diet  by Will Tuttle. Given my background, it’s not surprising, though still depressing, that it took a book by a white man to clue me into these intersections.

Another turning point was reading an essay by a Chinese friend, Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere. His essay on Performing Whiteness helped me realize why I distanced myself from other black people. Raised in a white environment with respectability politics, I really thought that it was the content of my character, not the color of my skin, that would define me to the world.

Now thanks to social media – which was not available in my younger years – I saw one black person after another beaten and killed by the police who are supposedly sworn to protect us. I saw one black trans woman after another murdered, mocked, and misgendered. I saw how the mainstream media used different words and imagery when covering blacks versus whites. And I saw black folks who spoke out against the violence being shushed, being told they were always “playing the race card” (another odious phrase I used to use myself).

I saw every cry of frustration, born of centuries of oppression at the hands of white people, met with the response of “Not all white people.”

I no longer believe in the myth of a color-blind society. I no longer believe that your skin color doesn’t matter as long as you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” I no longer believe all the lies and self-hatred I internalized about being black in the United States of America.

As I quoted previously from Mikael Owunna, I have gotten off the Kool-Aid of white supremacy.

So when I see a meme like the one at the top of this post, and the predictable responses, I don’t rush to reassure white people that no, of course we’re not talking about you, you’re one of the good ones. No, of course we don’t mean literally all white people. No, of course I don’t want to be divisive, we need all the allies we can get. I’ll just go back to the kitchen and be a good quiet house nigga, massa.

Fuck respectability politics.

My black hairstory

[Image: Pax with natural, unstyled hair.]

As anyone reading this blog can probably see, I’m a big fan of Everyday Feminism. I read most of their articles and share many of them. But when I saw an article this week on white people with dreadlocks, I avoided reading it, until a fellow black animal liberationist asked what I thought of it. I read it and thought the author did an excellent job of explaining all of the problematic things about white people wearing this hairstyle, and addressing all of the common retorts that black folks have been putting up with for years. I have basically nothing add to her arguments.

But one of the reasons I avoided reading this article is that hair has been a sore topic – literally – for most of my life. White folks with straight or loose curly hair just can’t relate to what black folks, women in particular, go through to meet society’s standards (aka performing whiteness).  I’m mixed (black/white) and have what many consider to be “good hair,” a term which is all kinds of problematic itself. Yet I too suffered through the burning hot combs, the painful detangling, the damaging relaxers (“creamy crack”), tedious roller sets, and all kinds of stress related to the dead cells on top of my head, growing up as a black girl (pre-transition) in the USA.

Pax in Cape Cod with baby goats
[Image: Pax at age 10, in pigtails with baby goats in their lap.]

When I was a baby, it took awhile for my hair to appear; strangers often thought I was a boy. (Foreshadowing?) But when it finally came in, it grew with abundance. My mother usually styled it in braids. When she decided to style me with lots of little braids, they took hours to put in. My (white) father would joke and complain about my screaming and crying from the pain of having my hair done.

Pax sixth grade class picture
[Image: Pax posing for a class picture in a green jumpsuit, with lots of braids.]

Did I mention that I was the only black and only Jewish student in my elementary school in a WASP West Virginia town? I remember being sad that I couldn’t just take out a comb and run it through my hair like I saw the other girls doing. I insisted on going to school without braids one day, combing my hair throughout the day, and a frizzy nightmare ensued. When I got home, I headed directly to the closet and closed the door behind me, frustrated and humiliated.

At age 12 we moved from West Virginia back to Pittsburgh (where I was born), and I went from a majority-white school with 180 students to a majority-black school with over 1600. I was teased relentlessly by my fellow black students. I didn’t look right, didn’t talk right, didn’t listen to the right kind of music.

But I was told by these students that I had “good hair” and should take care of it better. I was also told this by an adult black man working the cash register at a record store where I went to buy an album as a teenager. I just stared at him in silence.

Pax tuning their bass
[Image: Pax tunes their electric bass. They have straight black shoulder-length hair.]

By high school my mother (still taking charge of my hair) started putting relaxers in my hair, and taught me to put it in foam rollers. This was a tedious process, but if I didn’t do it every night I felt my hair did not look presentable. I only washed my hair once a week because it looked better after not being washed for a couple of days. But this meant more dandruff and itchy scalp. My white friends didn’t understand how or why I could go a whole week without washing my hair.

I was not sexually active until midway through college, and then only sporadically, so I didn’t think about the implications of having someone sleep next to me while I had my hair up in rollers. Not until later in adulthood, when a (white) man asked me how I expected him to get hard when I had curlers in my hair.

By senior year of college, I’d had enough of the relaxers and rollers. I accidentally discovered that if I let my hair air-dry, it sprung into natural curls. But it was difficult for me to manage long curly hair. So I had it cut short, and kept it short and curly for about twelve years.

Honeymoon with Ziggy
[Image: Pax with their spouse Ziggy on their honeymoon. Pax has short curly black hair and is wearing a black bathing suit.]

During these years I gained a lot of weight, and felt bad about it. I was also starting to go gray, prematurely, or so I thought (not realizing how common it is for people in their 30s to get gray hair). I decided to grow my hair out again, and start going to a higher-end salon for color and highlights, as I had a decent income at that time. I read about the Curly Girl method, and finally learned how to care for my locks properly.

Pax with curly highlighted hair
[Image: Pax looks over their shoulder. Their hair is curly dark brown with light brown highlights. Photo by davidhanddotnet]

Pax with windswept hair[Image: Pax wearing a low-cut black tank top and curly highlighted hair. Photo by davidhanddotnet]

While I now got lots of compliments on my hair, it still took a lot of work. If I didn’t put any product in it, it looked like the photo at the top of this post. I had to use a lot of gel, and still never left the house without a scrunchy in my pocket. I considered myself lucky if I could get through an entire day without pulling my hair back into a ponytail.

During this time (my mid-30s), I took a band workshop where we were doing an R&B set, and I was the only black student. We were working on Stevie Wonder’s classic song, I Wish. One of the lyrics refers to him being a “nappy-headed boy.” I joked to the other singer, a white woman, that we’d have to change the lyrics. She laughed and agreed, saying that while I was nappy-headed I was never a boy. I pointed out that my hair was curly, not nappy. I was hurt as I had worked really hard to make it presentable. (The bit about never being a boy is ironic in retrospect.)

Pax with camera
[Image: Pax poses holding a camera with “funcrunchphoto.com” on the strap. They are wearing curly black hair and glasses. Photo by Ziggy.]

By my early 40s, I’d lost weight and felt better about my body. I decided I didn’t want to spend any more time and money on coloring and styling my hair. At age 42, I went into the salon and got “The Big Chop.”

Pax self-portrait with short hair
[Image: Pax self-portrait with short graying hair.]

I soon realized that paying salon prices for this kind of haircut was ridiculous, so I found a barbershop. I showed the barber a photo of Samira Wiley from Orange is the New Black and said “make me look like this.”

Pax with buzzcut
[Image: Pax with a buzzcut.]

A few months later, I bought a hair clipper set from a drugstore for the same price as I was paying for a single haircut at the barbershop. I now cut my own hair each month. I usually keep it slightly longer than the above (#2 blade guard). I’m growing out my sideburns, and impatiently waiting for my beard to fill in.

My hairline is also now receding, which is actually a welcome development. After decades of hair struggles, I’ll be happy to go bald and forget about my hair entirely. But shaving my head now would be more work than just cutting every few weeks.

The irony is that I love long hair on men.* It’s practically a fetish. But the amount of work it takes is just not worth it for my own head. I’ll just enjoy long hair on other people, vicariously.

This post was very emotional for me to write. Every photo above was taken before I began my gender transition (the last one, from August 2013, was just a week before I announced my new name). Many trans people do not like to look at their pre-transition photos, and for some such photos can threaten their safety or livelihood. I don’t think I can ever completely eliminate all traces of my past and go stealth, even if I wanted to, considering the volume of photos and writing I’ve posted online.

I hope this post will give white people some insight of why it’s a privilege to have hair that is considered socially acceptable without going to great lengths (pun intended) to keep it so. If you read all this, and the Everyday Feminism article on dreadlocks and links from that page, and still want to talk about Vikings or personal freedom or reverse racism, just do me a favor and keep your comments off of my space.

* To be precise, my primary attraction is to people with conventionally-male-appearing bodies and a slightly masculine or androgynous presentation. I myself am male, but not a man.

Depression, suicide, and white supremacy

[Image: Ground-level side view of a bus shelter casting a red reflection on the sidewalk.]

I’m having a lot of trouble coping this week, as the weight of oppression and violence in the world is really dragging me down. Living with the knowledge that having brown skin in the USA puts a target on your back, independent of any other factors, is a sobering reality for a biracial person who was raised with respectability politics.

The mainstream media upholds white supremacy to the extent that black folks are called “racist” and “pulling the race card” for even addressing these subjects. Black academics like A. Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan Project worry that they’ll get killed in a sundown town while traveling to promote their work.

Meanwhile ten trans women of color have been killed in 2015. I don’t want to say “so far in 2015,” but it seems inevitable that there will be more.  I shared the news of the latest, India Clarke, on my Facebook wall two days ago. Only person has “liked” or commented on that post thus far.

The black victim of white supremacy who is, understandably, getting the most attention from my Facebook friends right now is Sandra Bland. Found dead in her cell after being arrested at a routine traffic stop, her story raised all kinds of alarm bells when the police claimed she died by suicide.

I have no trouble believing that the suicide story is a cover-up, but I want to share another perspective that highlights some problematic aspects of the “she would never commit suicide” narrative. This short article by Danielle Stevens cautions that we should not assume we know someone’s mental health state, nor reinforce the “strong black woman” stereotype, nor stigmatize those who attempt or die by suicide. She also emphasizes that the state is responsible for Sandra Bland’s death, regardless of whether it was suicide or not.

I use the phrase “die by suicide” rather than “commit suicide” on the advice of this resource guide, which is geared toward LGBT communities but generally applicable to discussion of this difficult topic. I’m no stranger to suicidal ideation, and I did make one near-attempt several years ago, so the dialogue regarding this topic is of concern to me personally. (Yes, I am in therapy, and no, I’m not seeking sympathy or advice.)

Regardless, I, for one, am not joining the “If I Die In Police Custody” hashtag, because I honestly cannot predict what I would do in that situation. As a black trans person, I’m scared to death, almost literally, to go to any prison. I do not belong in a women’s prison, and I can’t imagine I’d survive in a men’s prison. I’d likely be a prime target for rape in either case, if I weren’t put into solitary confinement “for my own protection.” As I’ve posted previously, this legitimate fear of arrest has limited my activism.

Waking up to the true reality of white supremacy, while simultaneously battling against cissexism and speciesism, has been nothing short of shattering. I could turn off the Internet to stop reading the stories of yet another black person being murdered by the police, but it won’t change the situation. And my skin color does not give me the luxury of ignoring racism. This post by Mikael on “Awakening and getting off the Kool-Aid” sums it up:

…And yet, through it all, I still believed. I believed that the color of my skin was just that—a color. I believed that my accomplishments would stand on their own…

And then there comes that moment, so important in the lives of all POC. That moment when the illusion you have built up your entire life shatters. That moment when you realize all of the lies you have been told… even by your own friends and family. That moment when you see the ugly of racism and oppression staring you in the face, and you realize how painfully real they are in your life, and how they stretch out far beyond your immediate surroundings and encircle the world, hurting so many other people both like and unlike you.

That moment when, for me, I finally realized that no matter how hard I worked, I’ll forever and always just be another nigger in the eyes of the world.

And that is the moment, so important in the lives of all POC, when we finally awaken. That moment when we finally “get” these issues and finally get off the kool-aid of white supremacy.

Privilege is not an on/off switch

[Image: A collage of people holding signs, with a question mark in the middle and the Direct Action Everywhere logo at the bottom.]

Edit, June 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), as have several others pictured in the above collage. My points about privilege and ranking oppression still stand.

A lot of people misunderstand the concept of privilege. White people and cis men in particular get very defensive when called out on speaking from a place of privilege. “I’m not privileged,” they cry, “I’m not [rich/straight/Christian/American/etc.]”

Here’s the thing. Privilege is not an on/off, yes/no switch. Nor is it something you can assess with an overall rank, despite what well-intentioned but misleading quiz memes might tell you. Privilege consists of many components, including but not limited to: Race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, physical and mental ability. Today’s article in Everyday Feminism addresses a lot of common misconceptions about this topic.

As a queer black trans atheist, I am a member of several oppressed groups. Despite this, I still enjoy many privileges. I am financially stable, college-educated, US-American, and English-speaking, for starters. I am also relatively able-bodied and slim.

But none of these privileges completely erase the disadvantages I have. My skin color makes me a greater target for police profiling and violence, independent of my class or education. Being a nonbinary trans person means that I experience social dysphoria on a daily basis, even though I have financial access to hormones that help with the physical dysphoria. Being queer means I face possible harassment and violence if I am affectionate with my male spouse in public, even though same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty US states. And being an atheist means that I am in one of the most despised groups of all in this country, independent of anything else about me.

When it comes to privilege, I find it unhelpful to rank oppression. Many animal rights activists correctly point out that we all enjoy human privilege. But as I’ve argued in my post about veganism and white privilege, that in no way means that racism, sexism, or other human issues are trivial by comparison. Rather than telling women, people of color, and others in disadvantaged groups to stop “playing the victim” because they supposedly have it so much better than non-human animals, we should be recognizing and honoring their struggles alongside our fight to end speciesism.

We should all use what privileges we do have to amplify the voices of those who do not share our advantages. The montage at the top of this post shows some of my fellow animal liberationists from Direct Action Everywhere; I took these photos at our annual forum. As also seen in our most recent video (I can be seen briefly at approximately 3:13), we represent a wide variety of races, genders, and nationalities, in a movement that is dominated by cis white voices. We come together to speak for the non-human animals whose voices have been silenced. I will be joining my DxE friends in San Francisco this Saturday, as we light the path to liberation.

White vegans need to check their privileges

[Image: Poster reading “Black Lives Matter: A Vegan Praxis”. Features a silhouette of a person with their hands up in the air. Their torso is the head of a bull with a bullseye between the eyes. Poster design: Alise Eastgate of Eastrand Studios.]

I’ve been talking about veganism a lot less lately because I’m frankly embarrassed to be associated with many of the prominent vegans in the “animal whites movement.” We have foodie vegans singing the praises of expensive juice cleanses, nondairy cheeses, and gourmet vegan restaurants. We have activists like Gary Yourofsky and the Non-Humans First movement saying that oppressed humans can speak for themselves, and nonhumans have it worst than anyone else on the planet, so all efforts need to focus on them, and no tactics are off-limits. And we have white vegans co-opting the BlackLivesMatter hashtag to focus attention on nonhuman animals, and calling black people racist and/or speciesist when we complain about this.

Black vegan chef Bryant Terry summed up the situation thusly in this Facebook status:

Bryan Terry quote on BlackLivesMatter

[Image: Bryant Terry Facebook status: If you have shared innumerable posts about how humans can be more compassionate towards animals and you have not said one peep about police terrorizing and killing little black girls and boys, a terrorist killing 9 black people in a church this month, 6 black churches being burned to the ground in the past week, and the myriad ways that anti-black racism manifests, I encourage you to think long and hard about how you might expand your “compassion” and fight for justice for all living beings.]

Blacks and other people of color don’t have the privilege to ignore racism, whether inside or outside of the animal rights movement. I can’t blame black people for caring more about the bodies of their loved ones being violated and killed by police and terrorists than the bodies of nonhuman animals being violated and killed by farmers and slaughterhouse workers. And given the mainstream media’s slant on the events highlighted in Terry’s quote above, it is laughable to say that we have a voice, while nonhuman animals do not. We have the ability to speak, but our voices are ignored and silenced.

Fortunately, more of us are speaking out on racism in the animal rights community.  [Edit, October 2016: I had embedded here a video by black vegan Rachel Richards, founder of the “Check Your Activism” channel on YouTube, but the video and the channel itself seem to have been deleted.]

I linked to the sites of some other activists who get it in my blog entry on activism with DxE. One I want to highlight today is Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper of Sistah Vegan Project. I read her Sistah Vegan anthology several years ago, before my transition to male. I was excited to see an entire book of essays by black female vegans. I also felt a kinship to Dr. Harper as a practitioner of Buddhism; while I don’t currently identify with Buddhism as a religion, the Buddhist concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence, is central to my ethics (which is why I chose Ahimsa as my middle name). Her blog is filled with excellent, thought-provoking essays on racism, sexism, food justice, and many other issues, in addition to (and in conjunction with) veganism.

Dr. Harper organized an online conference, “The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter“,  which I attended earlier this year. It was an excellent, interactive series of talks, covering racism, sexism, cissexism, and many other issues that are usually ignored by the mainstream vegan and animal rights movements. Recordings of the conference are available for purchase, and a book will be forthcoming.

I’ve contributed to the Sistah Vegan Project’s fundraising campaign on GoFundMe, which has been running for over two years now and has raised just over $10,000 to date. In contrast, when the popular high-end vegan restaurant, Millennium, announced that they had to leave their San Francisco location and started a Kickstarter campaign to fund their move to Oakland, they raised over $100,000 in less than a month. This is, to put it bluntly, fucked up.

I’ve seen this racism and classism in the the trans community as well. From the linked article:

…in a popular queer group a white trans man posted his fundraiser for top surgery and raised roughly half his funds within a day. He also garnered a lot of support from members of the group. A trans woman of color posted her fundraiser for living expenses because she was fired from her job due to discrimination and she was asked to promptly remove the post because it violated “community policy”.

After reading the above, I gave money to the Free CeCe documentary campaign, to elevate the voices of black trans women. Even with the backing and promotion of Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, that project is not yet fully funded.

If animal liberation is to succeed, the movement must address the concerns of oppressed humans as well as nonhumans. The BlackLivesMatter movement must not be co-opted or ignored by  white vegans. Black voices, vegan or non-vegan, need to be heard.

 

Whose holiday is it again?

[Image: The face of a steer, Brahma, partially superimposed over the face of the author, Pax.]*

Tomorrow, many US-Americans will celebrate the birth of a country that was founded by and for the benefit of  white heterosexual cisgender theistic men, on lands stolen from indigenous people, with the forced labor of black slaves.

Many will feast upon the flesh, milk, and eggs of non-human animals, who did not and could not consent to having their lives and children taken away from them. Many vegans will feast on plant-based treats right alongside them, but few will say a word about animals.

Some will drink too much alcohol. Some will get behind the wheel of a car, intoxicated. Some of those who make it home safely in this drunken condition will turn on their spouses and children.

Many will enjoy fireworks that scare the living daylights out of companion animals, as well as many humans with posttraumatic stress and sensory processing disorders. The show will often conclude with a song celebrating military victory.

America, fuck yeah.

* Brahma was rescued from the dairy industry by the humans at PreetiRang Sanctuary.

Why gender is not black and white

Originally published on LiveJournal.

Since Caitlyn Jenner revealed her new name and appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair two weeks ago, the Internet has been teeming with conversations about gender. And now, with the revelation that a white woman named Rachel Dolezal has been masquerading as black and heading a local NAACP chapter, people are asking why, if a person can be transgender, there can’t be “transracial” people as well.

As a black trans person, these conversations – and the accompanying cissexism, racism, and transmisogyny – have given me no end of grief. But I can’t just shut off the Internet to avoid this issue, because being black and trans is my life. And I feel obliged to weigh in on the conversation, which is being dominated by cisgender and white voices. (Though one of the best responses I have seen thus far is from a black trans woman, Kat Blaque; I encourage you to watch it. Text transcript included.)

Like Barack Obama, I have one black parent and one white parent. When given the space and opportunity, I do mention that I am mixed-race. But like our president and many, if not most, other US-American folks in my situation, I normally simply identify as black. Why not white?

I have brown skin. I was born with it, and I will die with it. This is not something I can change, nor do I wish to.

It isn’t a matter of identifying with black culture or history in my case. It is recognizing that every time I show my face, I am seen as a person of color. Though not always black; given my facial features and hair texture, I have been mistaken for Latin@ or other ethnicities on occasion. But it is clear to most viewers that I am not white.

This matters because of racial profiling. Whether I go shopping at a department store, or go for a job interview, or even post a photo on an online dating site, people are going to look at my skin and make decisions about me, whether they’re conscious of it or not. And those decisions are going to affect my life and well-being.

Let’s contrast that with my gender. I was not born female. I was born a baby, and assigned a sex of female. This means that someone at the hospital looked between my legs and wrote “F” on my birth certificate, based on what they saw.

The hospital where I was born did not likely inspect my body for a uterus or ovaries. They did not likely do a genetic test to see whether I had XX or XY chromosomes. They assigned me female, and thus implicitly declared that I would grow up to be a woman, solely based on the presence of a vulva and the absence of testes and a suitably-long penis. (The penis and clitoris form from the same tissue. The difference between an intersex* baby getting to keep their genitals intact versus being submitted to nonconsensual surgery can be a matter of millimeters.)

While my skin color has not and will not change**, I will not die in the same body I was born in. None of us will. No one is born with visible breasts, facial hair, a deep voice, or any of the other secondary sex characteristics that may or may not develop at puberty. No one is born with a propensity to wear dresses or makeup, to talk over others or take up more space, or any of the other myriad clothing choices, mannerisms, and hobbies that make up the nebulous, multi-dimensional space we refer to as “gender”.

It took me over forty years to realize that I was not a woman, because when I was growing up I had no transmasculine or non-binary role models. I thought that you were either a man or a woman, boy or girl, and that was it. I was dimly aware of the existence of trans women, but thought that to be one meant getting surgery and dressing and acting in a stereotypically-feminine way. And so I thought being a trans man, once I became aware that such people even existed, meant top surgery or breast binding, dressing in button-down shirts and ties, and adopting all the problematic mannerisms and attitudes associated with stereotypical masculinity.

I had no frame of reference for being what I now realize that I am: A person who identifies with no gender, yet desires the primary sex characteristics associated with maleness. If I could trade my vulva for a “fully functional” penis without expensive, risky surgery, I would do so in a heartbeat. I may someday have my uterus and ovaries removed, but for now I am content with testosterone therapy.

A transgender person does not actually change their gender. They may change any or all of their name, preferred pronouns, and appearance to better conform with their internal sense of self. Yet a transgender person who does none of these things is still trans, as long as they do not identify with the gender corresponding with the binary sex they were assigned at birth.

Just as trans women do not transition to female in order to take over (cis) women’s spaces, I did not transition to male in order to gain male privilege. Transitioning is revealing our authentic selves. It is taking control of our own identities in a world that insists on linking behavior, preferences, and even intelligence to body parts. A world that ignores that people of all genders have breasts. A world that ignores the substantial amount of variation in sex chromosomes. A world that sees nothing but M and F, X and Y.

A world that links Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner isn’t much evolved from the world I grew up in as a child of the 70s and 80s, recognizing only one narrative of transness: A male-assigned person transitioning into a conventionally feminine-presenting woman. And thus the “transracial” controversy is falsely reduced to one comparing privilege: White vs black, male vs female. It’s a false equivalence because, apart from interracial adoptions (the original, valid origin of the term “transracial”), the folks claiming this “transracial” identity are almost invariably white.

Rachel Dolezal was not born with brown skin, or curly/kinky hair, nor did she grow up with those racial identifiers. She can revert to her white skin and straight hair at any time. Dolezal’s expression of affinity for black culture does not make her black identity valid, any more than a white person dressing in a kimono and doing a traditional dance can claim to be Japanese. This is not identity, this is cultural appropriation.

The real harm of this story is that it’s distracting from really important issues facing black and trans people alike. Police violence, suicides, poverty, health care, job discrimination – all swept aside by a conversation about one white woman heading a local NAACP chapter and another white woman on the cover of a magazine. Can we please stop talking about Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, and work on actually fixing society?

* I am not, to my knowledge, intersex. I include this information because the cisnormative narrative that there are exactly two “opposite” sexes dominates and excludes a substantial percentage of humans.

** Unless I contract a condition like vitiligo, which Michael Jackson suffered from. Please don’t cite this black man – who never claimed to be anything else – as an example of someone “transitioning to white”.