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Via Instagram @kayy_mann

Why being transgender is not the same as appropriating an ethnicity


TextKuchenga Shenje

And yes, trying on blackness with make-up is still black face

Last week, I discovered a thread on the internet. The Tweet I saw read “Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram? Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING.” I couldn’t stop scrolling through the replies. There were dozens of photos of white girls from Instagram who looked like they were trying to transform themselves into mixed race and black girls with fake tan, make-up, hoop earrings, tightly permed curls, bandanas (I mean really?) and maybe even a bit of Photoshop to make themselves look thiccer. I cackled at the racial transformations but then my brows crinkled with troubling thoughts staring at the screen.

Whether or not these girls were actually claiming to be mixed race and black, or just trying to look that way, seeing their photos reminded me of how I felt in 2015 when news broke about Rachel Dolezal, the white American woman who decided not just to pose as an African American woman, but to become a black civil rights activist – which is really pushing the envelope. As a black transsexual woman, the media circus around Rachel Dolezal freaked me out. Seeing interviews where Dolezal spoke about drawing herself as black as a child and always knowing she was black inside concerned me because I knew pundits would lump us all in together  – transgender people like me and people like Dolezal, who later described herself as “transracial”.

I knew they would claim that we were all heralding in an Armageddon of Ridiculousness. For a brief moment, I screamed inside: “Centuries of oppression, violence and erasure of trans people and here comes this racial usurper coming to piggyback on our trans narratives, rebrand neo-colonialism and in so doing sink the whole ship!"

When I tell people I am a ‘transsexual woman’ I am telling people my truth. I belong to a family of transgender* people and although we may all be very different in the way we express our gender, what connects us is a meta-narrative of how we arrived at knowing who we really are in spite of being assigned a gender we don’t relate to. The word ‘transracial’ was used to describe parents of one ethnicity adopting children of another until Dolezal-gate came along to colonise this vocabulary also.

Luckily, back then, people took it upon themselves to explain the differences between transgender and transracial. The YouTuber Kat Blaque comprehensively set us straight with her video “Why Rachel Dolezal isn’t Caitlynn Jenner”. Debunking any comparisons between attempting to change your race and deciding to change your gender presentation, Kat explains that, yes, race and gender are absolutely social constructs, but gender is not a biological trait passed from parent to child, while race is. Gender transitioning is aligning your outside with the inside, given that gender is innate; it’s projecting your truth. And then there was the incisive article by Ijeoma Olou titled “The Heart of Whiteness” where she interviews Dolezal. It made me squirm so much with the tension that I skipped yoga that day because I had contorted enough. Olou’s commentary as a black woman well versed in black feminist theory gave me the comfort I needed to join in on the jokes and marvel at Dolezal’s braiding skills.

As I ingested all of this common sense, the panic temporarily abated. But that all changed when two days ago I found myself googling the phrase ‘n*gg*rfishing’, a term I had read on the above Twitter thread to describe girls posing as mixed race and black online, like catfishing, only racialised. My mouth hung open in amazement and again I fretted about what this meant for us as transgender people: “This close to the trans day of remembrance we can't have more material fodder for people who will dismiss our trans voices as merely more evidence that the world has gone mad!” I thought. We once again needed a reminder that the two are not the same, that we cannot conflate transgender identities with these millennial 'n*gg*rfishers'.

Unlike them, I can’t try on whiteness for a day and see if I really was as unqualified for the job as I was told. I will never know what it is like to be cisgender and move through life without ever having my womanhood questioned.

Searching for that reminder, I realised that it existed within these young women’s photos themselves, which portray the small box of blackness which threatens to crush me daily. It is what I confront on dating sites when white men tell me some iteration of “I love black girls!” and I ask them if they love black lives and they respond “All lives matter!” In their minds, black literature, black philosophy, black politics and black history are superfluous. What they desire is a modern fairground where black girls twerk with no need for a break and there are symposiums on chicken frying and there are fountains of Hennessy and Iced Tea and Rum Punch. A cheap plasticised version of blackness without all of that pesky problematic oppression. 

That is the source of my rage scrolling through all of this mess. I’ve waved goodbye to too many white middle-class cisgender boyfriends who get to return to their lives where they have no problem being considered intelligent, trustworthy and employable. This relationship dynamic of wildly disparate positions of privilege was beautifully and complexly depicted in the television series Pose, where the white middle-class man from New Jersey, Stan, takes on an Afro-Latina transsexual mistress, Angel, and they try to love each other across the divides of class and race. The men I have loved have all mirrored Stan in some way. They sample and savour my body as a morsel of exoticism in a discreet location where no one will know of the desire they have for my uniqueness. They get to wash me off of themselves.

The same is true of the girls online who put on a cheap costume of black femininity. But unlike them, I can’t try on whiteness for a day and see if I really was as unqualified for the job as I was told. Similarly, I will never know what it is like to be cisgender and move through life without ever having my womanhood questioned. That is why I am angry when I see the Instagrammers and bloggers transforming their skin colour and their body shape to look black. I know for sure that these n*gg*rfishers are a joke. I’m just not sure I will be the one who gets the last laugh.

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