Carrie Bourassa, transracialism & where the logic pushes us on gender

Yesterday, The Times reported that Canadian academic, Carrie Bourassa, has been placed on administrative leave from her university after an investigation questioned her claims of indigenous ancestry. She describes herself as being of Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit heritage. However, an investigation by CBC television alleged that Bourassa was of Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakian descent.

Bourassa has argued that she became Métis in her twenties after she was adopted by the community following the death of her grandfather. She states, ‘In our Métis ways, in the event of a loss, community members would adopt the individual who had no family and they would then automatically be seen as family.’

The Times report:

The professor at the University of Saskatchewan introduced herself at a 2019 TEDx talk as “Morning Star Bear” while dressed in a traditional blue embroidered shawl and holding a feather.

“My name is Morning Star Bear,” she said at the talk. “I’m just going to say it — I’m emotional. I’m Bear Clan. I’m Anishinaabe Métis from Treaty Four Territory.”

They go on:

Winona Wheeler, an associate professor of indigenous studies at the university, told CBC: “When I saw that TEDx, to be quite honest, I was repulsed by how hard she was working to pass herself off as indigenous.”

Wheeler, who herself is a member of Manitoba’s Fisher River Cree Nation, added: “You’ve got no right to tell people that’s who you are in order to gain legitimacy, to get positions and to get funding. That’s abuse.”

The case bears striking resemblance to other transracial cases, for example that of Rachel Dolezal or Anthony Ekundayo Lennon. There have also been more recent stories surrounding Jesy Nelson allegedly blackfishing, which is a slightly different phenomenon but not unrelated. This is considered to be a stone’s throw from wearing blackface.

The point here is that it is generally considered inappropriate and wrong to appropriate an ethnic identity that isn’t your own. Blacking up is considered offensive because it is deemed an unpleasant caricature of black people. Blackfishing is not far from doing the same. The cases of Dolezal and Ekundayo – instances where individuals who are white identified as mixed heritage or black – are a step further on still. Trevor Philips, former chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, argued in the Ekundayo case, ‘We should be doing more to help individuals of talent from black and ethnic minority communities, and we cannot do that if the few opportunities that exist are going to white people who are self-identifying as something else’. Dolezal was accused of blackface, cultural appropriation of the worst kind and taking opportunities away from black people. However you cut it, it is (rightly) not deemed acceptable.

Which begs a cultural question. If blackface is (rightly) considered offensive to black people – and is deemed culturally inappropriate – why is drag caricature of women not only deemed acceptable, but lauded and even given its own TV show celebrating it? What differentiates a white person blacking up from a man dressing as a women, applying a grotesque caricature of an entire gender? By the same token, if being transracial is wrong – that is, merely insisting you are black because you feel you are black despite being born white – what differentiates that from being born a particular sex and gender and yet later identifying as another?

Dave Chappelle highlights this particular concern in his controversial Netflix special The Closer. The following video contains several bits of bad language, racial slurs and has been cited as being particularly controversial. If you’re likely to be offended by any of those things, skip it. But I’m sharing it here because it highlights the disparity between transracial identity being (rightly) viewed as utterly wrong whilst transgender identity being viewed as virtuous and legitimate:

Chappelle notes that Caitlyn Jenner won ‘Woman of the Year’ the very first year she identified as a woman. He draws the comparison between that and how black people would feel if, in a a similar award for black people, it went to Eminem. His point is straightforward enough: if we are rightly offended by blackface and we think it is wrong for people to self-identify as other ethnicities, how can it be right for us to applaud those seemingly doing the same regarding gender?

The argument for the transracial discussion is that you cannot change your race. And to claim that you can is offensive to those who belong to a particular ethnic group as well as denying opportunities and protections created specifically for them to counteract the societal issues that attend their ethnicity. It is this same argument that those who are castigated as TERFs make with respect to sex and gender. As Prof Robert Winston stated categorically recently:

The response by Fiona Bruce that ‘there are people who would vehemently disagree with you’ does nothing to change the science being stated by the eminent biologist. Why is saying that you cannot change your sex any different to saying that you cannot change your ethnicity? Why is transgenderism acceptable to many but transracialism is not? The arguments and logic for both are identical.

It seems to me that it is difficult to consistently hold to differing positions on this. If transracialism is inappropriate, then so is transgenderism. If transgenderism is legitimate, then so is transracialism. Both concern immutable characteristics. Both concern biological realities of birth. Both require the same logic to follow. We cannot oppose the one without opposing the other. We cannot support one without supporting the other. The arguments in each case are the same.