Danya Lagos



I. Black For Life?

“B-Stylers are Japanese Teens Who Want to Be Black,” reads the title of a recent VICE story on my newsfeed. The accompanying picture features a young Japanese person who does indeed appear as if she has made cosmetic alterations to look Black. At first I roll my eyes. This seems to be typical “weird Asia news” fodder that appeals to a certain reader, who delights in reading about men marrying their pillows, poorly translated English restroom signs, and cartoons featuring tentacles. I fall for the clickbait, however, since it does provoke some questions. While the internet entertainment industry may try to affix some sort of cutesy subculture label to racially-themed cosmetic modification when it happens in Japan, most people in the United States would be far less comfortable with someone in their own country coloring their skin a different color. Blackface minstrelsy has a long history and legacy in the United States dating back hundreds of years among racist white entertainers, and still persists to this day as a way of perpetuating ethnicity-based stereotypes. People who are aware of this legacy cannot help but recognize the specter of minstrelsy lurking behind just about any attempt to cosmetically modify one’s skin color, at least among white people who go beyond a naturally-obtainable sun tan, and it is possible to recognize it in the case of the B-Stylers.

As I looked into the matter further, I found more information through a YouTube video about B-Style that reached over 1.7 million views centered around Hina and a hip-hop clothing boutique that she owns called Baby Shoop, which uses “Black for life” as its promotional slogan, and on many of its clothing items. Baby Shoop is staffed by people who, like Hina, also darken their skin (but not nearly to the same extent) and enjoy wearing clothing that is evocative of what they perceive to be Black culture (actually mostly drawing from a very limited sample of 90s-2000s hip hop attire), and to have a decent customer base who is also pursuing the same effect to varying degrees. Yet, despite what the motto “Black for life” may imply, even Hina, who takes it the furthest, reveals in several comments that however much effort she has put into her own aesthetic transformation, she engages with this aesthetic self-modification from the starting point of her ethnicity of origin – out of a desire to emulate, not to mock. It becomes clear that what ultimately separates B-Style from minstrelsy is that this is a much more earnest and encompassing adoption, one with far less irony and much more appreciation for its object of imitation. In another part of the video, Hina and a friend admiringly watch P. Diddy and some backup dancers make their way across the screen in a music video and comment on the outfits -- “When we wear it, it looks vulgar, but not for black people.” Although it goes far, it seems that B-Style incorporates an acknowledgement of inevitable impossibility of going all the way; failure to actually be Black seems to anchor the lifestyle just as much as the very act of trying to succeed at appearing to be Black (even in the inaccurate, oversimplified B-Style idea of Black).

Just as much as the initial encounter with B-Style is shocking, its built-in failure and earnest nature eventually gives way to a search for any possibility to interpret it charitably. This leads us to ask:

Is it, or can it ever, be possible and moral for someone to adopt an ethnicity different from the one in which they were born?

For a second, however, let’s bracket the built-in failure of B-Style, and consider hypothetically that perhaps Hina or some other B-Styler would seek to fully adopt a new ethnicity. What would be in the way of her doing this? What would she need to consider? How would society eventually have to change to accommodate her? Or, perhaps, to take it out of the context of a shock piece from which it is easy to distance ourselves, how would we feel if one of our friends were to confide their own desire to transition ethnicities? The closest parallel most of us might have processed is gender transition, those of our friends, co-workers, or our own, and it is from this starting point that I hope to begin to put together a picture of what it might look like for someone to embark on a transition between ethnicities.

II. Déjà Vu

The first widely publicized case of gender and sex transition in the sense that we speak of it today (perhaps because it was one of the first medically-assisted transitions) was that of Christine Jorgensen, a United States-born World War II veteran who began hormone replacement treatments and eventually underwent surgery in Denmark after receiving permission from its Minister of Justice in 1951. Just as Jorgensen was beginning to tour the university circuit after around a decade of widely publicized media appearances and advocacy, the debate over transsexuality gained even more steam concurrently with the height of women’s separatist ideology and practice in modern feminist history in the 1970s. Among the central tenets of the separatist feminism of the time was a focus on empowering women as a sociopolitical category apart from, and often in opposition to, any influence of men and male dominated relations of power whatsoever. As people like Jorgensen began claiming transsexual, and later transgender identities, many feminist activists in these separatist groups raised concerns about the potential for trans individuals to present an infiltration or assault on the female-exclusive conditions that women’s separatist feminists had fought to create.

Janice Raymond’s 1971 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male is the classic expression of the feminist separatist objection to gender transition. In the book, Raymond claims that the aim of transition in sex and gender is to “colonize feminist identification, culture, politics and sexuality.” Focusing primarily on the transition between male to female, Raymond presents a picture of transition as one in which the individual’s claim to a different identity cannot be divorced from the broader power dynamics between groups that frame the individual’s anatomy and gender assignment of origin. In fact, according to The Transsexual Empire, any attempt to transition is a conscious and strategic infiltration, a form of violence by men against women even if they claim to have become women, or as she puts it, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves,” in which the extensive means they pursue to physically transition are simply a strategic way to obscure the “most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”

As extreme as Raymond’s argument may seem to readers today, and as difficult as it is for me to find any sympathy with her viewpoint now, she was working within a movement that was struggling to establish a radical new form of feminist social organization whose fledgling ventures and initiatives were indeed quite vulnerable – financially and organizationally -- at almost every step, which sorely needed to create spaces that would indeed be refuges from patriarchal domination. When accusing transsexual women of being an intrusion into the society she aims to construct, she claims that

Sandy Stone, the transsexual engineer with Olivia Records, an ‘all-women’ recording company, illustrates this well. Stone is not only crucial to the Olivia enterprise but plays a very dominant role there. The…visibility he achieved in the aftermath of the Olivia controversy… only serves to enhance his dominant role and to divide women, as men frequently do, when they make their presence necessary and vital to women.

While this accusation does not reckon with the possibility that Sandy Stone probably had just as much need for a space for women as those who were assigned female at birth, it does give us an insight into the difficulty a vulnerable group may have in welcoming a perceived outsider into the fold who might, even unintentionally, replicate dynamics that are not in synch with a separatist ideal.

By looking back at this episode, we are able to revisit the role that a sense of unifying historical struggle played in the feminist narrative, and understand the emphasis on building a collective identity. Feminism at the time had a distinct sense of women as a social class with a location in a historical political struggle, one in which collective action and identity was a key component, in much the same way that frames the current discussion on the role of race in our society. As long as the goal was to build a utopian communal society that started from a common feminine starting point, an individual’s own journey was suspect. An individual narrative that differed in origin was not welcome if it did not meet the narrative that the community wanted to build as a whole.

Eventually, along with the collapse of most of the separatist communal projects came a gradual reduction in the dominance of the demands of collective advocacy over the individual. In popular feminism today, the emphasis has shifted to the empowerment of women as individuals instead of the empowerment of women per se. Very little emphasis is placed on building spaces for this group as a group anymore. Thus, while feminism eventually grew to take a less hostile position towards trans people, it did this as the third-wave emphasis on individuals regardless of identity eventually came to supplant the emphasis on strong communal ties of the 1970s. It did this without really ever reconciling the role of trans people to the grand communal schemes it eventually came to abandon. The problem of how to depend upon each other across difference was never resolved, as depending on each other at all was forgotten.

It is very different with race, in which activists recognize and attend to the unified identity and collective interests of ethnic groups as a whole, consciously and intentionally. There is an overriding sense that the communal support networks provided by ethnic groups can be a source of empowerment. Alongside this outlook comes an emphasis on ties to the original stories and memories that ground a shared identity. If you are not one of the few people descended from the Mayflower, it becomes more difficult and contrived to focus on the events of an original “Thanksgiving” as the source of the holiday’s importance. If your great-great-grandmother did not actually arrive on Ellis Island, how teary eyed can you really get when you visit it? If you are Black in the United States but your ancestors arrived more recently, does this diminish your relationship to the broader Black diaspora in the country? The questions become all the more dramatic when one is entertaining the question of whether it is possible for them to “become” Black, with all that means if, say, one’s white parents are second generation Westchester. The experience of those who would theoretically seek to transition ethnicities seems to be missing an essential ingredient in our conception of ethnicity: the transmission of what is both a narrative-historical and physical-historical animus of reproduction and survival, as well as an intelligible ability to confidently claim a part in in its unbroken or mended trajectory. Questions of origin pertaining to gender were seen as having nearly as much weight as these questions regarding ethnicity hold today.

Decades later, Sandy Stone, the engineer mentioned in Raymond’s book, fired back a brilliantly titled essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” in which she exquisitely unpacks the tension between both the construction and the interests of the individual vis-à-vis culture and culture vis-à-vis the individual, all by way of the body:

‘Making history,’ whether autobiographic, academic, or clinical, is partly a struggle to ground an account in some natural inevitability. Bodies are screens in which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practices within the academic communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body. Each is an attempt to gain a high ground that is profoundly moral in character, to make an authoritative and final explanation for the way things are and consequently for the way they must continue to be. In other words, each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of the individual.

By acknowledging the complicated location of trans individuals in relation to existing communal gender histories, Stone does not seek to defend from Raymond’s accusations by way of rebuttal, eschewing any attempt to be incorporated into a community that operates on those lines, and calls instead for the creation of a trans “counterdiscourse.” This counterdiscourse approaches transition not from a place of wanting to be assimilated into an existing gender category’s unified narrative, but instead capitalizes on the location of trans people outside of this stable discourse to deconstruct and then reconstruct the existing groups around which it has existed. This identity runs counter to the popular narrative that has taken hold around transgender processes today as conducted to “affirm” a case of “being trapped in the wrong body” and moving from one “incorrect” assignment to yet another binary assignment presumed to be the “correct” one all along. Instead, Stone’s ideal trans discourse builds on the unique features and revolutionary potential that a conscious process of working on oneself and making changes to supposedly immutable features can bring to our conception of these categories.

Arguing against the emphasis on “passing” that accompanies a narrative of “wrong body” that she sees as erasure of a history much more complex, politically rich, and full of “polyvocalities,” Stone finds solidarity with what she identifies as parallel narratives among those who have navigated similar ambiguities pertaining to the identities surrounding sexuality and race. “To deconstruct the necessity for passing implies that transsexuals must take responsibility for all of their history,” Stone says. The disruption that individuals who transition bring to traditional categories is one that happens when they “begin to articulate their lives not as a series of erasures in the service of a species of feminism conceived within a traditional frame, but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the refigured and reinscribed body”. Thus, the tension between individuals and the communities that they build off of in their own self-transformation is not one that should be brushed under a rug. Instead, the disruption itself should be brought out into the open, since the process of transition can be the opening for a transformative critique. It is not clear that separatist feminism, in its dependence on utilizing the category of “woman,” itself a product of patriarchal dominance, as the key ingredient to upset the patriarchy, should not have been challenged on its basic premises. As John Stuart Mill points out in “The Subjection of Women,” it is impossible to get to any essential truths about “women” as a category of individuals, without relying upon layers and layers of social conditioning and construction. As Audre Lorde points out, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Perhaps this makes womanhood an imperfect starting point for the individuals who find themselves in that category, and by destabilizing any naturalist claims about identity, transitional expressions provide a way to begin re-orienting liberation politics beyond reliance on false essentialism.

III. Envisioning a Transethnic Counterdiscourse

There remains a prevalent discomfort with the idea of someone changing their ethnicity, especially if they are doing so in a way that touches upon very real historical dynamics of power and oppression. Beyond any questions of medical impossibility--nothing is medically impossible--we still hold on to a notion of its historical impossibility. How dare someone who did not face the challenges that it took for us to grow up Hispanic, for instance, suddenly try to claim a place for themselves after perhaps learning the language and studying abroad for a semester! How dare I lay claim to a culture I did not really grow up with, even if I have done my best to do my research and enter it respectfully? It hits a nerve because many of us continue to go through life with ethnic labels still being applied to us whether we identify with them or not, and the mere possibility of re-thinking them is frightening. These labels are also what we use to come together with others in similar situations in society and history, and to have them adopted by others who are at least not initially in the same situation can threaten their salience. Even if someone were to feel an identification with our group at their very core, this does not automatically make them someone who the rest of the people would want to welcome as a fellow participant in their struggle, or even as an ally. An individual's ethnic dysphoria and subjective interest in joining a group does not seem to override the right of a collective identity group to welcome them.

To offer a less hypothetical situation, I grew up as someone who felt basically “stateless,” as far as both gender and ethnic categories go. This stoked some doubts about just how satisfying these categories might be as an ideal permanent home. “Hispanic” is a messy category, and has been since people started to use it. On the surface, “Hispanic” loosely refers to people who are basically descended from the original inhabitants of the Americas and those speakers of Spanish who arrived with and after the European conquests. It does not specify proportions of which ethnic group contributed more to one’s ancestry, and uncomfortably overlaps with basically any other option on census forms, but most so with “White,” “Native American,” and “Black.” It trips up the people tasked with counting members of ethnic groups in the United States so much that asking whether you identify as Hispanic is often the first point of order before delving into any other ethnic category. One is rarely just allowed to pick “Hispanic,” therefore, and must then sort themselves out into other categories that make more sense in a US context. Both of my parents have their origins in Latin American countries, and so do their parents, but once you go beyond that, my family tree reads like a jumbled record consisting of newer arrivals marrying locals of various tenures, and identities shifting during various waves of social upheaval, political revolutions, and economically-interested immigration. Last names have changed, religions have been abandoned or replaced, people have been orphaned and adopted, and basically all cultural inheritances I have any claim to have mixed into a very strange soup that looks nothing like something that could be clearly marked or labeled with one word.

While atypical by almost all counts, this does not seem all too bizarre for people who have an extensive family history in the United States, the country held up to be the true “melting pot,” but because my parent’s last port of call was in the country directly below, my experience growing up seems foreign to the expectations placed on “Hispanics.” Hispanics, in terms of the popular United States imagination, are all Catholic, are all basically 50-50 Spanish and indigenous, and all have a family life reminiscent of a George Lopez television show. My family basically failed at all of these categories, but it also failed for most of my childhood to live up to the expectations of whiteness held by the Southern California suburb in which I was raised. For most of my childhood, my parents either did not speak English fluently or without a heavy accent, they did not really branch out and make friends with people who were born in the United States, were not members of any majority-white social institutions, along with a vast list of many other things that signified whiteness for my peers. Given our location on the border, we managed to maintain our main social life on the other side, where our unique situation was more intelligible, but each time after the sweaty two-hour line spent in a car trying to get back into the United States, I would be re-introduced to a confusing sense of not belonging to either mass category that the country made available for me. Not being a very politically conscious elementary schooler, I accepted my outsider status as a truth about myself and my family, and internalized a sense of loneliness and isolation into whatever “ethnicity” I may have been. Sure, there were moments when it was possible to find points of commonality with other Hispanics – Spanish helped me in this regard in connecting some of the other recent, displaced arrivals – but it did not ultimately foster the sense of connection or solidarity that one would expect, and that I saw others grow into more naturally as time and awareness progressed.

When I switched to a private high school that was even more white, though, all bets were off and I was treated as a full-fledged Hispanic, which meant getting accused of plagiarism because there was no way my writing was that good, being asked to weigh in on questions about illegal immigration during history class as if I were the expert, and subtle forms of social exclusion. There were very few other Hispanics, so I was on my own, and thus no chance to catch up on building any sense of solidarity around identity politics. I coped in various ways, at times standing up for Hispanics, with very little support. At other times I coped by just keeping my mouth shut or trying to prove that I could at least act “white” too. If I read enough high-end literature to have an edge on all of the white students, stayed out of trouble, and could consistently manage to get grades at the top of my class, I figured my problems would go away (they did not). In college, however, no one really knew what to do with me, since I arrived pretty trained by my high school to fly under the radar and hesitant to identify openly as anything, and most classmates assumed I was white. When I would reveal in conversation where my family came from, people’s reactions would range from bizarre confusion and doubt to “Wow, you don’t even look Mexican!” said with enthusiasm as if it were some sort of compliment. Awkward. When I tried to go to things such as the Organization of Latin American Students, I also seemed to not be read as a full member. I had missed the process of forming ethnically-based political identities and solidarity with those around you that usually starts in high school, since there really was not anyone else around me. Yet, college is a time when many people choose to participate in what could possibly be called a “volunteer identity.” Where perhaps in the past it was considered in vogue to assimilate, being different has become cool on college campuses, and there are many organizations out there that are willing to facilitate the discovery of these roots and to bring people together according to them.

Failing that, at a college that was less dominantly white than my high school (which says a lot about the high school), but still not a place where I found much in common with those around me, I found that my in-between ethnicity eventually lent itself to me being sorted into an in-between whiteness despite any other category in which I would have described myself. Of all of the activities made available at the various student organization “fairs,” perhaps the equivalent of the Detroit Auto Show for the campus identity industry, I eventually found the greatest sense of belonging and meaning doing Jewish things through the various initiatives on campuses that encourage you to “re-discover” the meaning of these things if you are even remotely descended from Jews. I started doing more Jewish things in part precisely because no other identity in the bizarre annals of my family history really had any sort of promise of providing a complete narrative or account that transcends the battering ram of history while admitting to a diversity of origins as a dispersed people. Yet, this too has brought me into a narrative that wasn’t completely mine, since regardless of how conscious I was of all of the other identities that have figured into who I am, I found myself effectively transitioning into whiteness as the “default” category under which I was read by the world. Yet, perhaps since failing to be white has been a historical theme in Jewish ethnic identity, it has served as an ethnic “home” that was ultimately the most accessible way of escaping the ambiguities towards which our society is still hostile, as reflected by Coleman Silk’s transition in Phillip Roth’s novel The Human Stain. It is an uncomfortable position to inhabit, especially when I interact with others who have been far more successful at balancing the two identities, but it is a position that after many years, fits me the most.

Yet, as much as I could try and have tried to fight this sweeping categorical positioning, trying to perform any other way, to be more Hispanic, to be more White, to fully satisfy basically anyone’s questions completely, this seems like an endeavor that would not be completely mine either. To attempt to claim full membership in either massive ethnic category would be to give into the terms placed on my family’s history from the outside, even if it might offer some degree of comfort. Ethnic transitions – whether they be voluntary, accidents of history, or somewhere in between – could potentially open up a conversation about our immutable, genetic concept of ethnicity as a starting point. A de-esentialized understanding of ethnicity could still offer a collective identity around which to gather, while offering those individuals who embark on them the protection of having a default category that is necessary to be intelligible to the world today, much like in the current state of gender. While I make no claims to be transethnic, and have mostly made peace with the fact that any identity I choose will be an imperfect categorization, I could see how others, even teenagers in Japan, might have a legitimate point when they seek to transcend the limitations of an assignment along ethnic lines, and choose an identity far different than the one in which they originate. Although many questions remain to be asked, namely regarding how sensitively one who seeks to transition approaches these categories given historical conditions, once one can conceive of a way that transition can take place without being seen as a threat to the group.

Just as Stone brings out the impact that trans narratives can have on our conceptions of gender categories – emphasizing that the role of all people in performing maintaining, and failing at them over any grounding in nature or even history – perhaps the B-Styler narrative can present a challenge to the discourse on race as well. For every case of someone who might unsuccessfully try to be black by adopting hip hop clothing, be it in Japan or in the U.S., is there not an equally troubling case of someone being accused by their peers for acting “too white,” for failing to stick to certain expectations about how people who are not white behave? The ability to make space in our ways of thinking about ethnicity, and to expand or rethink the borders that we maintain around certain categories out of practical concerns, to accommodate individuals who seek to join an ethnic group from the outside, could have far-ranging and beneficial effects even for those who already find themselves on the inside. Going back to the hypothetical situation I proposed earlier, a new openness may allow us to have conversations more openly with those in our lives who might feel just as uncomfortable or alienated from the ethnic categories according to which their birth seems to have destined them to live their lives. Just as with feminism, collective identities can and ought to be powerful sites of activism, especially when combating discrimination carried out along lines of these identities. However, re-imagining a more porous type of boundary allows a collective identity to remain robust in the face of social change, and to provide a way for identity to function as a tool for an enriched life and improving communities, rather than an overwhelming and insurmountable burden for individuals.

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