In other words, both transsexuals like Bruce Jenner and transracials like Rachel Dolezal are merely fooling around with cosmetics. In the central Darwinian sense of biologically propagating human offspring, nobody can change their ancestors or be both father and mother to their descendants.
So nobody is really transsexual or transracial in the crucial family-tree sense.
But it’s also not hard to think of transracial (or transethnic) celebrities in the cosmetic sense that leads other people to change their guesses about ancestry, just as Jenner is getting cosmetic surgery to look more feminine, but that doesn”t alter the fact that he shows up on each of his six children’s family trees as the father.
On a superficial level, however, transracialism is common in the Third World, where most people believe the whiter the better. For example, current superstar of Brazilian soccer Neymar used to look like an average black youth. But now that he’s rich, he’s contrived to look much whiter.
In contrast, in America with its “one drop” rule, passing from black to white has gotten even rarer over the generations due to shifting cost-benefit analyses.
One of the last well-known examples of black-to-white passing was the acerbic New York man of letters Anatole Broyard (1920″1990). A New Orleans Creole of color, an ethnic group influenced by the French and Spanish view that one drop of white blood makes you not black, Broyard served as an officer in the segregated ranks of World War II by identifying as white. After the war, he didn”t see much reason to shift back.
Broyard was generally recognized in Greenwich Village as being of mixed ancestry (novelist Philip Roth recalls being told the day he met him in 1958 that Broyard was an “octoroon“). But he didn”t talk about his ancestry one way or another. He likely would have made more money if he had been officially black, but he managed to make a decent living as a self-made literary critic without having to be a credit to his race.
But it was always hard in America to pass persuasively from black to white because that meant publicly cutting yourself off from your black relatives, as Roth made vivid in his novel The Human Stain. That’s why state-of-the-art DNA studies find that only about 0.05% of the ancestry of self-identified white (non-Hispanic) Americans is from sub-Saharan Africa, in contradiction of the myth of widespread passing from black to white.
An apparent early example of a white-to-black transracial individual was the con man who founded the Black Muslims in the early 1930s, Wallace Fard Muhammad, a.k.a. Wallace D. Fard. Even a Nation of Islam portrait depicts Fard as a fair-skinned man with straight hair.
Wallace D. Fard was likely the same person as the Wallie D. Ford who had earlier been arrested three times in Los Angeles, most strikingly for violation of the California Wolverine Possession Act. Wallie Ford identified himself on the 1920 Census as a white man from New Zealand, while another time he claimed his father was born in Spain. Another theory is that he was an Afghan, while J. Edgar Hoover contended he was a Turk. (By the way, Gore Vidal alleged that everybody who grew up in Washington knew that Hoover was from an old mulatto family that had passed.)
A common contributor to examples of transracialism is coming from a foreign culture with different racial standards. For example, one of my son’s college roommates remarked that in America everybody calls him black, while back home in Jamaica everybody calls him white.
A prominent recent example of refashioning one’s racial affect is New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who was generally perceived as a white conservative when he arrived from Canada and began his career with The American Spectator. But after his 2000 best-seller, The Tipping Point, he grew a giant Sideshow Bob-like Afro. (Here are before-and-after pictures.)
Gladwell claims that the “fro led to his being hassled by The Man, and that inspired his 2005 best-seller, Blink. But calling attention to the fact that his mother was from Jamaica’s mulatto middle class certainly hasn”t hurt his popularity as a sales-conference speaker.
The best-known celebrity to have transformed his ethnic (rather than racial) identity as an adult is the President of the United States. Of course, Barack Obama successfully retconned his identity to be African-American by moving to Chicago, joining Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s megachurch, and penning an autobiography entitled Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. But if you have to write 150,000 words about how you”re black, maybe you have some nagging reason for trying so hard?
The African-American identity that the Hawaiian cosmopolitan assumed at age 24 has of course proved a wildly successful career strategy. But the handful of African-Americans who knew Obama growing up seldom thought of him as one of their own. Washington Post reporter David Maraniss’s 2012 exhaustive semiauthorized biography Barack Obama: The Story makes clear how tendentious Dreams From My Father was in attempting to set Obama up for a political career on the heavily black South Side of Chicago.
Not surprisingly, when Obama ran against a genuine African-American, Bobby Rush, for the Democratic nomination for the House in 2000, he lost badly. This plunged him into depression, from which he revivified himself by giving up his bizarre dream of being elected mayor of Chicago (which is not a job for transplants from Hawaii) and finally admitting that he was the nice white person’s vision of a black politician.
Obama’s 2000 humiliation shouldn”t have come as a surprise to him because Maraniss tracks down repeated examples of authentic African-Americans finding him inauthentic. For example:
Adam Sherman…recalled that his two black roommates…viewed Obama’s racial history and experience as vastly different from theirs and did not think of him as black.
Among Obama’s friends from age 18 to 24″almost all of whom were either foreigners or the son of a Foreign Service Officer”most viewed him as “multicultural” or “international.”
And we may have two transethnic presidents in a row: Jeb Bush, who lives in a Spanish-speaking household, registered to vote in 2009 as a Hispanic.
Daily updates with TM’s latest