Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
How Philosophy Can Address Marginalized Identities
An interview with Helen De Cruz
Image from Helen De Cruz’s website, used by permission.
In 2017, philosopher Rebecca Tuvel wrote an essay comparing Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who had passed as Black, to trans people. The article in Hypatia created a great deal of controversy, and many Black woman and trans people alike argued it was, to put it mildly, unhelpful.
Helen De Cruz (they/them), a philosopher at St. Louis University, recently revisited the controversy at their substack in a post titled “Be Cautious! On writing philosophy on culture war topics.”
I followed the Tuvel debate at the time, and was interested in what De Cruz had to say about racial identity, gender identity, and how philosophy can engage with those topics responsibly. Also, I’ve spoken with Helen on social media, and I thought it would be fun to have a longer conversation with them. The transcript below is edited for length and clarity.
Pitfalls for Philosophers
Noah: What are the worries when philosophers talk about the rights or identities of marginalized people?
Helen: So first of all, I think that philosophers are very specialized these days. So for example, if you want to look at trans rights, there is a huge literature on trans identity that I feel that you should, at the very least be a little bit aware of. When you begin to wade into these topics, many people don't do due diligence.
It seems like one of the problem for philosophers is that with trans literature, for example, a lot of the things you should look at for due diligence are not necessarily analytic philosophy, right? You’d want to look at writing in gender studies, in history, and often many of the important texts aren’t from academics, because if you're trans there are a lot of barriers to getting into the academy.
That is a concern.
And my second concern is that many analytic philosophers have a weird double complex. On the one hand they say, “Oh, I'm only a philosopher.” But on the other hand, they think that somehow analytic philosophy gives you these free floating eternal tools of rigor with which you can just take anything, any topic without looking at the history without looking at people. And you can just sort of abstract those away.
But I disagree. I don't think that works. I think that leads us into error. So that's another worry I have with philosophy doing this sort of thing.
And my third concern is what I call general punditry. If you're one of those philosophers who gets a big platform…I'm just going to give some names, not saying there's anything wrong with these people. But like, Nick Bostrom, or Agnes Callard, or Jason Stanley—they ask these people about all sorts of different things, including things that are quite outside of the scope. But they often feel like—oh, yeah, I'm going to shine my light on this and say something about it.
The term for this is “epistemic trespassing”—this temptation to address topics even if you don’t know much about them.
So those are the three caveats to keep in mind before you begin as a philosopher addressing sensitive issues.
Let’s Not Talk About Rachel Dolezal
The example you discussed in your article was the Rebecca Tuvel article about Rachel Dolezal, in Hypatia. Which, basically, compared Dolezal's efforts to pass as Black to the experience of trans people.
I wrote about this a while back. And I think my piece speaks to your article, because I thought the main problem with Tuvel’s essay was that I really didn't think she was careful. I think she stumbled into a number of the problems you mentioned. It seemed like she thought, this is the cool hip topic, and I'll get a lot of traffic if I write about this.
When I read it, I thought “This should be in conversation with Julia Serano,” who's a leading, theorist of trans identity. But Serano isn't an analytic philosopher. So if you didn't look around, and you’re an analytic philosopher, you might not know her work, and maybe the peer reviewers didn't know it. But that's somebody Tuvel should absolutely have be reading in writing this essay.
The other thing I thought about was Racecraft by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields. It’s an influential argument that race is socially constructed. And again, the authors are a historian and a sociologist; they’re not analytic philosophers.
So it just seemed like there wasn't much due diligence. Which is especially a problem because Rachel Dolezal was already being used by TERFs. As soon as the scandal around her came out, reactionaries and transphobes were eager to use her as a way to supposedly set Black women against trans people.
And also,Rachel Dolezal just isn’t very representative of anything. Somebody who has white parents and grows up white, and then decides, at some point to pass for Black; that’s pretty unusual. It’s not a sweeping social movement that needs a philosophical explanation.
In your article, though, you point out that the parallel that might be more meaningful, and might actually connect to more people, is transracial adoption, or people with multiple racial identities.
I'm mixed race. My mother is white. I grew up in this very, very white village like 90-95% white people. Americans don't quite realize how explicitly racist Europe can be. And so I experienced quite some racism.
But people there were also puzzled that my mother was white. And so I had to think a lot about my racial identity. I don't pass because my father is not white.
So I did think, like, am I white? And then I thought, “I'm not white,” because people keep telling me, “You’re not white.” But my sister, even though she's even darker than I am, she says, “I'm white. I'm not only white, but I'm also white.” And I think that's certainly valid.
So there is a sense of construction of racial identity in mixed race people. And that is an interesting aspect to trans racialism, I think, and that aspect got shut down. Because many people said, “Look, this is completely wrong. This discussion of Dolezal and transracial identity, it's a dead end.” Which I agree with.
But should any sort of comparison between transgender and transracial people be taboo? Prominent people like Robin Dembroff argued you shouldn't make that comparison.
But I'm thinking there are some things that warrant comparison. So, for example, there are certain aesthetic expressions of gender. And there are expressions of being, that I think are an important part of race, as well as gender that can’t just be reduced to relations of oppression and power.
I know, some gender critical people think that gender is purely like, expressions of power and oppression, but I think there are important aesthetic dimensions. And, particularly now that I live in the US, and particularly in St. Louis, which is racially quite diverse, but also very segregated. There is something very joyful about expressions of being Black. There are hairstyles, there’s a vernacular.
So I feel that it is interesting to explore this, particularly for people who are mixed race or people who have experienced transracial adoption. There are so many cases that are not Dolezal that are worth thinking about.
Agency and Identity
You’re mixed race and you’re trans, right?
So I thought for a long time, “I'm not a woman.” But then I thought, you know, I think I’m not a woman because I have internalized misogyny.
But lately I thought look, I'm no longer misogynistic, like, I don’t have this sort of internalized sense of oppression. But I still don’t feel like a woman.
So I'm still thinking, “What am I? So I think now I’m non-binary. But it's difficult.
I do not think that gender is this essential thing that is just waiting there to be discovered. I think it's a constellation of phenomenology— how do you feel in the world, of your sense of self, and there is also like social and historical aspects, etc.
You land in a certain place in history in a certain culture, you have certain upbringing. All those things together, I think, both determine and help you to shape your identity. Because you're not just a passive recipient in how you relate to your race, your identity, and your gender identity.
I think that’s what you were saying before, which is that marginalized identities aren’t solely about oppression or being oppressed.
I recently got into looking at very early abolitionist authors from the 17th and 18th century. And if you look at Africa prior to the 17th or 18th century, people didn't see themselves as Black. It’s an identity that was created in the context of colonial conquest.
But nonetheless, even though Blackness was definitely born out of oppression, they didn't see it as negative. They had pride in Blackness. So even if an identity is created in this colonialist, oppressive context, you still have agency to form it to something that suits you.
We talked about why it could be dangerous for philosophers to jump into controversial political debates. But why is it important for them to do so? What do they offer?
Merleau-Ponty has this beautiful passage in the Phenomenology of Perception. He says something like, philosophy is not when you step out of the world, because he thinks that's impossible. You're always situated, you're always a tiny corner of the universe, you're fully part of the universe, you can't step out of the world and then sort of look at it from a God's point of view. You can't do that.
But he says that with philosophy you can “slacken the intentional threads that bind you to the world.” So you take, mentally, a step back. And I think that's where philosophy really can shine. And that's an enlightenment idea, which I'm actually really on board with.
We can look at things that excite us that make us passionate and look at them and slacken those intentional threads. And then think, what is going on here? Right, let's consider it from some different angles. I think that's where philosophy is really good.
Everything Is Horrible is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.