The trollish Tumblr roots of the term ‘transracial’

‘Transracial’ supporters are rallying behind a white woman who allegedly claimed to be black.

Yesterday, the world learned that a white woman from Spokane, Washington, named Rachel Dolezal has been pretending to be black while serving for years as president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). While half of us were still trying to wrap our heads around the news, the other half quickly moved on to discussing whether it was OK to be “transracial.”

Dolezal has a surprising number of supporters, especially among local members of her community who say she was a good supporter. But there’s a lot more going on here than a white woman spending years playing blackface. 

As soon as Dolezal became news, the discussion about her was accompanied on Twitter with a sort of ironic transphobia:

Unfortunately, this is nothing new, and it probably won’t stop anytime soon. Although “transethnic” and “transracial have been used in academia for years to describe adopted families, both terms have become standard troll terminology. On Tumblr, bloggers have been claiming to be “transracial” or “transethnic” for years. But these blogs are usually authored by ironic trolls mocking Tumblr culture and delegitimizing and invalidating transgender identity.  In other words, these sites mock Tumblr’s efforts to be respectful of people’s self-identifying terms by taking them to illogical extremes. 

If you’re familiar with Tumblr culture, it’s extremely easy to identify these blogs as parodies and trolls. They always fixate on identity politics—specifically by stridently claiming their right to self-identify as transethnic, genderfluid, pansexual, monotheistic, unicorn otherkins, and so on. 

The concept first made a frisson outside of Tumblr in 2012, after one such self-described “autistic pangender asexual demiromantic trans-asian cat” outed itself as a troll blog run by a team of friends. But these troll blogs continue to be a source of confusion for Tumblr users and others who don’t get the joke. 

Take for instance, the Tumblr checkingoftheprivilege. The profile confirms that we’re in troll territory:

23, femme-presenting queer trans non-binary two-spirit genderfluid, xe/xir/hir/xirself pronouns, pansexual, PoC (1/16th Native American), white-passing except for hijab, Muslim (convert), neuro-atypical (self-diagnosed aspergers), economically privileged, sex-positive, body-positive, vegan, sociology major, loves Disney.

Checkingoftheprivilege doesn’t identify as transracial, but the author staunchly defended Rachel Dolezal in the following post, which has since gone viral:

Leave Rachel Dolezal ALONE!!!!
[TW: racism, colonialism, trans-hate, ableism]

OK tumblr. I am OUTRAGED by the way you are attacking my trans-racial cister Rachel Dolezal. SHE IS 10000000% BLACK. Her skin is black. Her hair is black. Her soul is the soul of a black ciswoman. Just like how everyone’s soul is truly Muslim, her soul was truly black, and now she can live as her authentic self. It is not only racist for you to deny her true racial identity but it is EXTREMELY transph*bic as the struggles of the transgender community are almost identical to those of the transracial community. And the solution to racism is to stop being white. Please evaluate.

Given how over-the-top and absurdist this rant is, it’s clear that it’s a joke. But it’s a transphobic one because it presents support for transgender identity as delusional, even as it’s claiming to be supportive of trans identity. 

Unfortunately, this attempt at “satire” seems to be lost on many Tumblr users: Most of the reblogs are from people outraged at the racism without recognizing the trolling. Those who get the joke appear to inherently approve it and its transphobic intent. 

Numerous people on Twitter have also regurgitated this rhetoric, comparing being transracial with being transgender. Power 105 DJ Charlamagne the God, for instance, posted the following tweet on Friday:

Charlamagne Tha God/Twitter

(Sorry, this embed was not found.)

This kind of trolling/misreading/re-trolling runs rampant on Tumblr, where critical thinking often takes a backseat to kneejerk yelling. Troll tools like last year’s Tumblr Argument Generator and the mocking of so-called “social justice warriors” have long played with this combination of identity politics, linguistic one-upmanship, and outrage. 

All of these are easily distorted and easily mockable aspects of Tumblr culture. But the reaction to Rachel Dolezai illuminates how those troll tools also serve to derail and minimize actual people and their real identities.

While many people sincerely claim “identities” that are head-scratching, from otherkin to fictional characters, it’s important to understand that transgender identity is totally separate from  these things. As of 2013, it has been de-listed as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and trans men and women have been gaining more societal support than ever before. 

That’s why it’s important not to get sidetracked by arguments legitimizing the concept of Dolezal being “transracial.” Such arguments are based in offensive Tumblr rhetoric. As the saying goes: “don’t feed the trolls.” 

Photo via gazeronly/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

Aja Romano

Aja Romano

Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.