I recently wrote a book review for the academic journal Theory in Action. The review considers the book Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities (2016) by Rogers Brubaker.
Let’s dive right in with my opening paragraphs:
[S]cholars, students, and every other sort of remotely thoughtful human have certainly been questioning these categories [of gender and race] and distinctions for some time. During the summer of 2015 though, the stability of race and gender were put front and center on the Internet via two news stories gone viral: Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out and Rachel Dolezal’s claimed heritage. Shortly after Jenner made her transgender identity public, Dolezal was outed by her biological parents as white. This touched off heated debates about the stability gender and race: If Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman, could Dolezal legitimately identify as black?
Using these stories as an inception point, their astonishingly coincidental timing alone makes them excellent cases to compare. Rogers Brubaker shows in Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities how our understanding of the categories of race and gender have opened up in different ways — and to different degrees — during recent decades. And while sex (according to Brubaker) has a much deeper biological basis than race, choosing or changing one’s sex or gender is currently more widely accepted than choosing or changing one’s race. Put simply, transgender identities are more widely accepted than transracial ones, which are not really accepted much at all. In Trans, Brubaker attempts to rethink race and ethnicity through the multifaceted lens of transgender experiences. In so doing, he underscores the malleability, contingency, and arbitrariness of racial categories – and thus, the possibility of transracialism.
I then go on to articulate and sum up Brubaker’s primary points and arguments, coming eventually to my own ideas about the book and Brubaker’s concept of “thinking with trans.”
At just about every turn, engaging Jenner and Dolezal as case studies is tricky business. On one hand, these case studies embody an almost perfectly timed pair of examples. Further, we would be remiss to ignore the fact that, for many, Jenner and Dolezal may very well function as the examples of race and gender identity variability. As such, they are obvious examples to utilize. On the other hand however, both cases for various reasons stir negative responses in even the most critically minded of thinkers and activists. Consequently, working through these cases is exceptionally delicate and difficult. This serves to tighten the wires around Trans, making each word chosen in the text both deliberate and difficult. As such, though I do not necessarily connect with every moment written, I commend Brubaker’s efforts to engage what’s an extremely challenging discussion.
Brubaker is correct in his assertion that both gender and race are arbitrary categories, but he never once attempts to suggest that the myriad impacts and inequalities felt when these arbitrary categories are assigned is in some way unreal or inaccurate. He acknowledges the charged nature of the subject of race, even going so far as to deconstruct why our exemplar case of transracial identity – Dolezal – may in of itself be powerful enough to cast a fog of frustration over the entire issue. Even simply writing on these subjects is to engage a multi-faceted minefield of theoretical proportions, with the potential for somewhat uneven attention from non-academic press, scathing peer review, and academic volatility with the topic of trans as a theoretical lens.
Trans works through a complex and loaded subject matter in an even and fair manner. And though not perfect, Trans has a dimension of practicality missing from so much of academic work written at this level. One completes the book with a sense of excitement – I might be able to engage expanded understanding in one social realm to help illustrate concepts we as academics take for granted in another! This connecting of theory and “real life” is something that is lacking in so much of the academy. For that alone, Trans is worth the read.
And there you have it!
You can read my entire review right here, in full and free of charge/unpirated. What do you think?
Here’s some “About” info re Theory in Action:
Theory in Action, founded in 2008, is the leading fully-independent journal of critical thought. TIA is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal, whose scope ranges from the local to the global. Its aim is to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and the discussion of current research (qualitative and quantitative) on the interconnections between theory and action aimed at promoting social justice broadly defined.
The journal does not privilege any particular theoretical tradition or approach and there are no word or page limits for its articles. TIA publishes papers that connect academic scholarship with activism. TIA values radical and unconventional ideas, expressed in different styles, whether academic or journalistic.
TIA is interested in how theory can inform activism to promote economic equality and create democratic political structures. TIA seeks to promote racial, ethnic, and gender equality as well as resistance to all forms of injustice.
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