Recently, the evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins stirred up controversy with a tweet wondering about the differences between transgender identity and so-called trans-racial identity a la Rachel Dolezal. This upset people for many reasons, but one of them is his word choice: saying that transgender people “choose” to identify as the gender opposite to the sex they were born with. The backlash resulted in Dawkins having his 1996 Humanist of the Year award revoked by the American Humanist Association, which caused its own controversy.
I don’t want to dissect the tweet and try to extract Dawkins’ intentions about whether he was attempting, with malicious intent or not, to be disparaging of transgender people or not, or whether he was being racist or not, or even whether he should have his award revoked (suffice to say I don’t think the AHA ought to have revoked it, for reasons stated by others).
What I want to do here, essentially, is answer Dawkins’ query. Why is it that a person can be transgender but not transracial? At a cursory glance, a person might be confused. There is less difference between the brains of your average black woman and average white woman than between your average man and your average woman, so wouldn’t it be easier for a person to be transracial than transgender?
Deceivingly enough, this is actually the reason why a person can be transgender but not transracial. What would be the biological mechanism for a person to be born as the wrong race? If the brain of your average black woman and the brain of your average white woman are not significantly different, biologically speaking, then what is it about a person’s brain that causes their racial identity? It would have to be something other than genetics/biology, namely social construction. (Obviously, having skin of one color or another is due to biology, but a person’s identity as a certain race is couched in the particular cultural milieu in which they were born and raised).
Gender, on the other hand, can, and does, have a biological mechanism. I’ve written about it here. What it means, though, is that because there is a difference in the biology of the brains of men and women, then it is hypothetically possible for a person born with a male body to develop a female brain or vice versa, because there actually is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain. And the hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that transgender people do, in fact, exist. There is no black brain and white brain, however, so the hypothesis that a person could be transracial is unsupported (biologically speaking).
Interestingly, the anti-biology identity-as-social-construct theories popular in some leftist circles would fail to explain why transgender people can exist but transracial people cannot. If identity is purely a social construct, then it would at least be hypothetically possible for a transracial person to exist, if they were brought up within the culture of another race than their own. Of course, people are treated in certain ways based on how they look, which is an important aspect of social construction. So if, say, a white person was brought up by black parents in a black community with black culture, they would still be treated as a white person by the world at large. However, this is why it would also be more difficult to explain how transgender people exist using the identity-as-social-construct theory, because a transgender person is going to be treated as the sex with which they present. How would social construct theory explain how, say, a person born female could begin identifying as male if they are socialized as female in their early years?
My point is, though, that Dawkins’ query, if we ignore the insensitive wording, does actually have an answer when we look to biology and neuroscience and not to any anti-science social construct theories.