“You’re Racist!”: How (Not) to Change Someone’s Mind

Both before and after the election results, Trump’s supporters were lambasted as racist, misogynist bigots. But do these insults work? Will shaming change anyone’s mind? If not, how do you convince people to drop their prejudices? As Vox reports: “a frank, brief conversation.”

[A 2016] study, authored by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley, looked at how simple conversations can help combat anti-transgender attitudes. In the research, people canvassed the homes of more than 500 voters in South Florida. The canvassers, who could be trans or not, asked the voters to simply put themselves in the shoes of trans people — to understand their problems — through a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation. The hope was that the brief discussion could lead people to reevaluate their biases.

It worked. The trial found not only that voters’ anti-trans attitudes declined but that they remained lower three months later, showing an enduring result. And those voters’ support for laws that protect trans people from discrimination increased, even when they were presented with counterarguments for such laws.

…In talking with researchers and looking at the studies on this, I found that it is possible to reduce people’s racial anxiety and prejudices. And the canvassing idea was regarded as very promising. But, researchers cautioned, the process of reducing people’s racism will take time and, crucially, empathy.

This is the direct opposite of the kind of culture the internet has fostered — typically focused on calling out racists and shaming them in public. This doesn’t work. And as much as it might seem like a lost cause to understand the perspectives of people who may qualify as racist, understanding where they come from is a needed step to being able to speak to them in a way that will help reduce the racial biases they hold.

Image result for you're racist gifIt turns out that favorite buzzwords and phrases like “racist,” “white privilege,” and “implicit bias” are often seen by these voters “as coded slurs. These terms don’t signal to them that they’re doing something wrong, but that their supposedly racist attitudes (which they would deny having at all) are a justification for lawmakers and other elites to ignore their problems…What’s more, accusations of racism can cause white Americans to become incredibly defensive — to the point that they might reinforce white supremacy. Robin DiAngelo, who studies race at Westfield State University, described this phenomenon as “white fragility” in a groundbreaking 2011 paper[…]The innate resistance and defensiveness to conversations about bigotry don’t mean that you should never talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, or other kinds of hate. But those conversations may have to be held more tactfully — positioning people into a more receptive position to hear what these problems are all about.”

The entire piece is worth reading.

Maybe both sides oversimplify transgender issues.

spectrum stick figures

I don’t speak out on transgender issues much, for a bunch of reasons. I’m a cis woman, and I don’t really have any idea what it would be like to be trans. I have only a few friends who are trans (that I know of) to even talk to about it. Also, I’m concerned about multiple factors in the debates around this issue, and I haven’t figured out how heavily I weigh each factor and thus what my position is.

I’m irritated at some of my leftist friends for being unwilling or incapable of considering that anyone could have concerns, questions, or objections about trans issues and policies based on anything other than bigotry. I find that ridiculously simplistic and also really counterproductive if the goal is to get more people to understand and accept people who are trans.

I’m also irritated with some of my right-wing friends for depicting these issues as nothing more than a cavalier preference chosen for trivial reasons, as if people just wake up one day and “feel like” being a different gender. In particular I get annoyed at people for greatly oversimplifying biology. My writing today was inspired by a random comment I saw on a friend’s post:

born xy die xy

Whatever your thoughts on the moral, social, political, and legal implications of trans issues, the statement above (and others similar to it) are overgeneralizations. And, as with most generalizations, they won’t hurt most people because most of the time they’ll be true. But they can cause problems for the exceptions, and I think we should be mindful of that.

So, continuing the biology lesson:

(Typically) our mother’s eggs each contain an X chromosome and our father’s sperm each contain either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. When egg and sperm meet, the sperm’s chromosome determines the sex of the resulting child. A person with both an X and Y chromosome is male, and a person with two X chromosomes is female. Generally.

However, when we talk about someone being “biologically female” or “biologically male,” there are multiple  factors to consider. The ones we talk about most are:

  1. Chromosomes (female = XX, male = XY)
  2. Gonads (female = ovaries, male = testes)
  3. External genitalia (female = vagina, male = penis)

Most people either possess all three of the female traits or all three of the male traits. However some people instead have some combination of male and female traits. For example, there are multiple ways an XY person could lack specifically male genitalia (or an XX person could lack specifically female genitalia). Mayo Clinic has a good summary here:

  • A lack or deficiency of male hormones in a genetic male fetus can cause ambiguous genitalia, while exposure to male hormones during development results in ambiguous genitalia in a genetic female.
  • Mutations in certain genes can influence fetal sex development and cause ambiguous genitalia.
  • Chromosomal abnormalities, such as a missing sex chromosome or an extra one, also can cause ambiguous genitalia.

For example, Swyer syndrome is a condition in which an XY person develops female reproductive organs. There are several different gene mutations that have been associated with the phenomenon. People with Swyer syndrome often grow up with the female gender identity and keep that identity throughout their lives.

As another example, a condition called 5-alpha reductase deficiency (5aR deficiency) means XY people don’t produce enough of a certain hormone to form male external sex organs. They typically grow up with the female gender identity, however they may adopt a male gender role later in life.

There are other conditions that can have these kinds of “misalignment” effects. As far as I know, none of these conditions are very common. Swyer syndrome is thought to happen in 1 out of 80,000 people, and 5aR deficiency is rare enough it’s unclear how many people have it.

However I don’t think that because these issues are rare, we should act as if they don’t exist. I imagine it can be very difficult for people with these conditions to process both how they view themselves and how society views them. Insisting there is nothing more to sex or gender than either our chromosomes or our genitalia is untrue and, in some cases, I think it’s unkind.

That being said, intersex issues like the ones I mentioned don’t cover the whole scope of trans issues. In fact if there was a Venn Diagram of the two, I’m unclear on how much it would cross over.

intersex vs trans venn diagrams

Intersex issues occur when a person’s biological traits aren’t all either male or female. Trans issues occur when a person identifies as a gender other than the gender normally associated with their biological traits. A trans man could be intersex: he could have external female genitalia but testes and XY chromosomes (intersex) and identify as male (trans). But a trans man isn’t necessarily intersex: he could have external female genitalia, ovaries, and XX chromosomes (not intersex) and identify as male (trans).

And likewise, an intersex person isn’t necessarily trans. Many intersex people don’t have gender identity issues; they spend their entire lives identifying as one gender and having society recognize them as that gender and it isn’t something they struggle with. In fact, some intersex people really object to having intersex issues conflated with trans issues.

So there is some overlap between intersex and trans people, but the extent of the overlap is unclear. And if we assume it’s 1:1 we ignore all the intersex and trans people for whom the overlap doesn’t apply.

Not only that, but if we assume it’s 1:1 we oversimplify the cultural discussion. Just as it’s too black and white to act as if biological sex is always straightforward, it’s too black and white to act as if trans issues are always, much less solely, based on biological “misalignments.” I object to both those oversimplifications. We should be able to make our points and explore our arguments without having to dismiss inconvenient truths.


I want to visit this topic briefly because, while the subject never seems to leave the news, the fundamentals of the subject come up rarely. In keeping with the confusion that reigns regarding many subjects, transgenderism ultimately is not a question of science. Rather, the question lies in philosophy. I would sum up the question this way: What is the really real which defines a person’s identity? More specifically, in a mismatch between the body and the mind, is the body or the mind in error?

For this reason, the scientific facts of transgenderism only make sense in the light of choosing an answer to the above philosophical question. The possession of a penis or a vagina only proves definitive if you have answered the above question with “The physical aspects of our body define our identity.” Conversely, the fact that transgender people often possess a brain structure somewhere in between men and women definitively rules in this case only if you have first answered “The mental defines our identity.”

In other observations, the debate over transgenderism has seemingly brought gender essentialism back to circles from which it was long ago banished, because you cannot be something unless that something has fixed traits. One clever professor and journalist caught onto this trend during Caitlyn Jenner’s transition:

jenner comment

Now, what is my opinion? I identify the real with the physical body. The topic of transgenderism is, so far as I can tell, the only subject where we identify the real with the mind. When a person experiences a phantom limb, we all identify the really real with the fact that they lack a limb, not with their mind which believes the body still has that limb. On the flip side, when people profess a desire to amputate a healthy limb based on their mental image of themselves as an amputee, we do not amputate the limb because, once more, we identify the body as real and the mind as in error. We also show an abhorrence to amputating a healthy limb based on desires. I believe, in all cases except transgenderism, we unanimously identify the real with the body for good reason. Namely, a common human experience is the individual (and sometimes even the collective) mind in error compared what is real. Making the individual mind into the sole arbiter of the real cannot help but lead to conclusions both absurd and damaging.

As a final thought, I do not want to leave this subject without acknowledging that an immense amount of human suffering is bound up in this topic. We’re not just discussing abstract theories of the really real. We’re discussing people’s lives. I try to be sensitive to that fact. I doubt my opinion will change on this subject, but I am always open to people sharing their experiences because, even if no one changes their opinion, I find it helpful to know what people are experiencing.

Transgender, Transable, Transracial

Does transgenderism conflict with feminism?

What Makes a Woman? (New York Times)

Do women and men have different brains?

Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.

But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.

After Being TKO’d by Fallon Fox, Tamikka Brents Says Transgender Fighters in MMA ‘Just Isn’t Fair’ (Cage Potato)

Transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox earned her second straight win on Saturday, when she TKO’d Tamikka Brents in the first round at a Capital City Cage Wars event in Springfield, Illinois. Brents reportedly suffered a concussion and a broken orbital bone during the two-minute beatdown, and required seven staples in her head.

Brens said:

I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a man or not because I’m not a doctor. I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.

Does transableism conflict with disability rights?

Becoming disabled by choice, not chance: ‘Transabled’ people feel like impostors in their fully working bodies (National Post)

When he cut off his right arm with a “very sharp power tool,” a man who now calls himself One Hand Jason let everyone believe it was an accident.

But he had for months tried different means of cutting and crushing the limb that never quite felt like his own, training himself on first aid so he wouldn’t bleed to death, even practicing on animal parts sourced from a butcher.

“My goal was to get the job done with no hope of reconstruction or re-attachment, and I wanted some method that I could actually bring myself to do,” he told the body modification website ModBlog.

His goal was to become disabled.

Is transracialism bad for racial progress?

Why Comparing Rachel Dolezal To Caitlyn Jenner Is Detrimental To Both Trans And Racial Progress (Huffington Post)

Transracial identity is a concept that allows white people to indulge in blackness as a commodity, without having to actually engage with every facet of what being black entails — discrimination, marginalization, oppression, and so on. It plays into racial stereotypes…