Can One Change One's Race?

No more than one can change one's species, with apologies to the Cat Man

I raise the title question in the context of my study of  Rebecca Tuvel's controversial article, "In Defense of Transracialism" (Hypatia, vol. 32., no. 2, Spring 2017, pp. 263-278). It raises a number of fascinating and important questions. I will argue that even if one can change one's sex, by having one's body altered by surgery and hormonal 'therapy,' one cannot change one's race, and to think otherwise is to equivocate on 'identity.' 

The Question and One of its Presuppositions

Can one change one's race? Suppose your parents are both white. Can you do anything, or have anything done to you, to become black, say? Common sense says: of course not!  But common sense is subject to philosophical scrutiny.

Note first that our question rests on a presupposition, namely, that race has some sort of reality. It presupposes the existence of at least two different races, the racial terminus a quo and the racial terminus ad quem. In plain English, the presupposition is that there is the race one is and the different race one wants to become. So race has to be real. For if race had no reality whatsoever, there could be no real change from one race  to the other. It is clear, then, that one cannot be an eliminativist about race and racial differences while holding that one can change one's race. There would be nothing one was changing from and nothing one was changing to.

Race and Money 

But from the fact that race is real it does not follow that race is not to some extent socially constructed or construed. For money is surely real without prejudice to its being a social construct. That money is intersubjectively real is shown by the fact that there is a real and important difference between losing and not losing a thousand dollars. That money is a social construct is shown by the fact that without homo oeconomicus there would be no money. Gold ore is not money, nor are gold coins in a human-free world. And the same goes for counterfeit and  non-counterfeit Confederate dollars.  They are not legal tender because there is no social system now in existence that accepts them as such.  As interesting artifacts of the Confederacy, Confederate notes  of course have considerable monetary value. But they themselves are not money. You can't use Confederate notes to buy Confederate notes.  (Buying is essentially different from bartering and trading.) You would have to use 'real' money such as U. S. dollars or Euros or Bitcoin. What makes a bit of metal or a piece of paper real money is its acceptance and use by humans as a means of exchange.

So it is only within a system of social relations that money is money. It follows that it is not the intrinsic properties of coins and notes and cognate instruments such as their size, shape, mass, and color that make these instruments money. 

Money is real; money is a social construct; ergo, some real things are social constructs. So it might be that race is real despite being a social construct. But we need to dig deeper.

Money doesn't grow on trees. It doesn't occur in nature like leaves on trees. Human animals do occur in nature and grow from other human animals, their parents.  A human animal does not have to be accepted as human by other humans to be a human animal. Think of a baby human adopted and cared for by wolves. The biology of that individual is not a social construct. It is no more a social construct than the gold ore of which gold coins are made. The coin is money in virtue of socio-economic relations; the gold as metal is independent of the socio-economic nexus. The same goes for human organisms. They cannot be socialized apart from society, but they can be the biological individuals they are apart from society. 

Now sex and race are grounded in biology; race therefore cannot be a social construct in the way money is if it is a social construct at all.  Granted, racial theories and classifications are social constructs. But what they theorize about and classify cannot be plausibly viewed as a social construct.  Otherwise there couldn't be false theories or mis-classifications. Here, then, are some platitudinous starting points to be presumed epistemically innocent until proven guilty.

  • Race has to have some sort of reality if there is to be racial change.

  • A change in race cannot be a mere relational change but must be an intrinsic change. 

  • The reality of race is consistent with aspects of it being socially constructed. Racial classifications and theories, for example, are social constructs. 

  • Race cannot be a purely social construct.

A 'Temporal' Argument Against Race Change

Can I change my race? No. I can no more change my race than I can change the fact that I was born in California.  I might have been born elsewhere, of course, but as a matter of contingent fact, I am a native Californian.  Despite the logical contingency of my California birth, there was nothing I or anyone, including God, could have done to change or annul that fact about my place of birth.  A change of birth place was thereafter impossible.  

The same goes for race. My race is determined by my biological ancestors. Since both were white, I am white.  To change my race I would have to change a past fact, namely, that I am the product of the copulation of two white parents. But that fact, being past, cannot now be changed or annulled. The argument, then, is this:

1) If I can change my race from white to black, say, then I can change some fact in the distant past, namely, the fact that I am the offspring of two white parents;

2) But it is not the case that I can change any past fact including the fact that I am the offspring of two white parents;


3) It is not the case that I can change my race.

The argument assumes that it is nomologically necessary (necessary given the laws of nature) that parents of the same race have offspring of the same race, that, e.g., white parents have white offspring. The assumption is obviously true. 

A 'Modal' Argument Against Race Change

Although I was born in California to parents both of whom are white, I might have been born elsewhere to the same parents. But might I have been born to different parents? Is there a possible world in which I have parents other than my actual parents?  If my actual parents are P1 and P2, might I have have had a different pair of parents, say, P1 and P3, or P4 and P5?  Not if we accept Saul Kripke's thesis of the Essentiality of Origin.  I share Kripke’s intuition: I wouldn't be me if I had had different parents: my very identity as a biological individual rides on having precisely those parents.  I now argue as follows:

4) It is metaphysically impossible that I have different parents than the ones I have;

5) My actual parents are both white;

6) White parents have white offspring; ergo,

7) It is metaphysical impossible that I be non-white; ergo,

8) It is metaphysically impossible that I change my race.

A Response to These Arguments

The point, then, is that it is impossible to change one's race even if it is possible to change one's sex. Tuvel has a response to something like these arguments. She couches the objection in these terms:

. . . race is a matter of one's biological ancestry, and this is not changeable. If cogent, then changing race would be unlike changing sex. To change sex, we can change hormones, genitalia, and other bodily features. But to change race, we would have to change features external to one's body, such as the fact of genetic ancestry. As a biological reality not restricted to to the body, but dependent on one's genetic heritage, changing race is thus impossible. (266-267)

This is a very powerful argument.  To turn it aside one needs a make a drastic move, which is what Tuvel does. She maintains that one's "race is a matter of social definition." (267) It is a social construct and as such, "race is malleable." (267, emphasis in original) It follows that "there is no fact of the matter about her [Rachel Dolezal's] 'actual' race' from a genetic standpoint. . . ." (267, emphasis in original) There is no "truth" about a person's "real" race. (267)

The point, I take it, is not that race and racial differences are devoid of reality entirely, but that they have the reality of social constructs without a biological basis.  Society assigns you your race. Thus the difference between white and black is not grounded in any biological difference.  To be white/black/Hispanic, etc. is to be deemed such within a given society. If so, "it is at least theoretically possible to change races." (267) " . . . whether is is practically possible will depend on a society's willingness to adjust its rules for racial categorization to better accommodate individual self-identification." (267)

The idea, then, is that if a person identifies as black, say, and society recognizes and accepts this "felt sense of identity," then one is black. (264)

Surely this is preposterous.

Changing the Subject and Playing Fast and Loose with Identity

The question was whether one can change one's race. The answer from Tuvel is yes, one can change one's racial identity by (i) changing one's racial self-identification and (ii) getting society to accept one's new self-identification. But this amounts not to changing one's race but to changing the subject. No doubt one can change one's race in her sense. But race in her sense floats free of the undeniable biological reality of race.  One's racial identity is no more malleable than one's species identity.  As a biological individual, I am an instance of h. sapiens and and there is nothing I or anyone can do to change that. Not even the Cat Man, Dennis Avner, could change his species identity (He died a suicide recently in Tonopah, Nevada.) Similarly with my race. It is bound up with my biological identity.  

On top of that, Tuvel conflates the identity of a biological individual with its self-construal or self-identification as this or that.