If you type the word “transethnic” into Tumblr’s search bar, you’ll quickly find that the social blogging platform is filled with people railing against the ideas of “transethnicity” and “transracial” identity. The origin of the two terms is up for debate, but the general internet consensus is that they started as very niche communities within the larger “otherkin” population. Otherkin message boards, forums, and fantasy groups have existed since the early days of the internet. Otherkin, generally speaking, are people who identify with and as beings unlike themselves. By and large, these beings tend to be animals. Sometimes they’re magical animals.
For example: I, a gay black man, could also identify as a dragon otherkin. In other words, I could identify as intrinsically being a mythical, fire-breathing reptile. You know, on the inside, where it counts.
Much like their otherkin cousins, transethnics are people who feel as if there’s an element of their being (be it physical, psychological, or emotional) that is fundamentally missing or lacking within their actual selves. In this case that element is race.
“I am finally going to come out: I am a transethnic Japanese woman,” the now Tumblr infamous yuki-no-monogatari posted to her blog in March of 2014. “I’ve noticed that on Tumblr there is a lot of ignorance and hate about us, and I’d like to civilly redress that."
In her post, yuki-no-monogatari explains how, from her perspective, the transethnic community has been unfairly maligned by social progressives who overwhelmingly identify transethnic people as garden variety identity tourists.
“It is not racist to appreciate and admire a culture different than the one surrounding us,” she wrote. “It is not racist to know that the body we live in is different than our soul. It is not racist to wish to be normal in our culture-but the problem is, our body is the wrong color and makes us stand out.” She goes on:
It’s not just because I love anime and am a fujoshi fangirl-it’s not just because I love everything that’s kawaii-it’s not just because Pocky and ramen are my favorite foods-it’s everything about Japan that defines me and explains who I am as a person.
I’m a typical Japanese girl who loves Japanese pop culture and society and the ancient traditions still manifest in Kyoto. Of course Americans can love Japan, but there’s a difference between being an American otaku and someone whose true satisfaction comes from their Japanese identity.
It’s not clear when, but some time soon after making that first post, yuki-no-monogatari deleted her entire blog and faded back into Tumblr’s ether of GIFs and spirited fandoms. It’s not difficult to understand why, either. Tumblr, a platform known for its concentration of socially-minded, pro-inclusion users, took serious issue with the the way that yuki-no-monogatari co-opted the language of trans experiences in an attempt to conflate liking anime and Japanese candy to actually being a Japanese person. Yuki got laughed off the internet, and Tumblr’s been vigilant about other transethnics ever since. That’s part of what makes Rachel Dolezal’s recent stint in the news cycle so interesting to watch.
By now you, like the rest of the internet, have been introduced to Rachel Dolezal, the 37-year-old white woman from Spokane, Wash. who has apparently been openly identifying as black despite having no black ancestry. Dolezal became internet infamous yesterday when an interview she gave to local ABC affiliate KXLY was posted to YouTube.
Dolezal, who serves as the president of Spokane’s chapter of the NAACP, was speaking out against a racially-driven hate crime that she claims to have been the victim of. She explained that it would have been the eighth instance of her being targeted for being “black.” Even before the interview, suspicions about Dolezal’s ethnicity were growing and so KXLY’s Jeff Humphrey did what any good reporter would do. He asked her if she was actually black:
Spoiler alert: she’s not.
“She’s our birth daughter and we’re both of European descent,” Dolezal's father Larry told BuzzFeed. “We’re puzzled and it’s very sad.”
She has over the past 20 years assimilated herself into the African-American community through her various advocacy and social justice work, and so that may be part of the answer.
It’s easy for a disaffected teenager to latch onto a fandom and wrap themselves in identities unlike their own from the safety of their laptops at home. Dolezal, though, was brazen and unapologetically public with her claims of a non-existent black identity. Rather than identifying as a white woman who was really "black on the inside," Dolezal asserted a feigned blackness with enough insistence that people seemingly believed her.
Elle Hearns is the center regional coordinator for GetEqual, an LGBT organization agitating for queer rights. From Hearns's perspective, Dolezal was able to negotiate access into intimate black spaces by taking advantage of black peoples' willingness to embrace a broad spectrum of visible blackness.
"We literally come in so many different forms and when someone shows up with a complexion that isn’t necessarily darker brown, we don’t always question it," she told Fusion. "Being biracial in America is a real thing."
Hearns stressed the important of recognizing Dolezal's actions for what they were, rather than attempting to excuse it using terms like "transracial" and "transethnic," which Hearns says is damaging to the public's perception of transgender people.
"I don’t think transracial is a real thing," she said. "It’s a thing that’s been created to allow folks to co-opt us in a way that humanizes what they're doing it's wrong. [Rachel Dolezal] felt compelled to pretend to be a black person."
The significance of Dolezal’s ruse is difficult to quantify. While we can all easily have a laugh at her expense, the degree to which her fictive kinship-cum-appropriation was taken seriously is troubling. Tumblr managed to chase away the bulk of its transethnics using GIFs, mockery, and heartfelt discussion. But how do we react to someone like Dolezal outside of Tumblr's self-policing corner of the internet? She's actively participating in the communities she fetishizes unbeknownst to the people around her. Elle Hearns says that there's no digging Rachel Dolezal out of the hole she's dug for herself, but there's a lesson to be learned from her mistakes.
"I’m not interested in making it OK for Rachel, I’m interested in making it for the people she claimed to care about," said Hearns. "It’s never OK when people who are the most impacted by infrastructural violence are not at the center of the conversation."