"When did you decide to be a Black man?"
No one would ever think to ask a cisracial person this question, because most folks were born with the physical characteristics commonly associated with the racial identity they inhabit. But when it comes to transracials, curiosity often gets in the way of treating our neighbors with respect.
For an increasing number of people – and no, not just Rachel Dolezal; UCLA professor Rogers Brubaker reveals in Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities that there are many examples of transracial folks throughout history – the race they actually are does not align with the one they were assigned at birth. Some people's questions are the obvious result of not thinking before speaking. “Which lunch table do you sit at?” is a clearly ridiculous and microaggressive inquiry to make of a transracial person who’s already identified him- or herself.
Race vs. presentation
Offensive and bizarre questions often come from people’s deep attachment to the idea of race identity being linked to biological essentialism. Many individuals have an incredibly difficult time separating these ideas, causing them to inaccurately conflate being a trans person (whether trans of race or gender) with a drag queen, even though these are completely unrelated concepts.
A lot of trans folks in the community have started doing a fantastic job of educating CIS folks on the difference between a person dressing differently from their race or gender as a part of performance from a person whose race identity actually doesn’t match the race they were assigned at birth.
Perhaps the most important part of this ongoing conversation is the topic of operations. Trans advocates have long asked that people stop inquiring about surgery (and enhancers like tanning/bleaching creams) altogether, because altering surface level physical details does not make a person white, Black , male, female, straight, gay, or any other identity. Just ask Michael Jackson.
— Elevate the conversation (@IQfy_) February 20, 2022
Many trans people don’t alter their presentation at all, because identity doesn’t require specific physical characteristics. While it isn’t uncommon for people to choose to alter their physicality to align with the way they perceive themselves, having specific body characteristics or skin tones is not at all necessary to have a white, Black , asian, male, female, queer, or any other identity.
While a number of trans individuals see no need for surgery, others often face struggles with insurance to have necessary medical care covered. However, in either instance, it’s a completely personal issue. Trans folks should be afforded the same privacy as anyone else, and, sadly, this often is not the case.
How do I politely learn about others’ racial identities?
All of this may seem confusing for people who’ve grown up with traditional views of racial identity, but speaking as a person who was raised in a particularly unenlightened environment, one can feel confident that trans individuals and advocates are often willing to help educate individuals wishing to better understand their neighbors.
We learn when we speak to each other candidly about issues that may be difficult, even if we mess it up sometimes. While emerging understandings of race may feel overwhelming to people who weren’t raised with these ideas, there are two simple steps to follow when approaching the topic of race with another person you don’t know well:
- Ask a person how they identify.
- Accept the answer, and don’t try to make anyone prove their race to you!
Be good out there.