There are times when a word becomes prominent because it has been coined for something new. There are times when a word becomes prominent because it has become a social media buzzword. But then there are times when the choice of a single word is so inflammatory it can define and fuel a debate and become the single term by which something is remembered. So it is with Transracial.
Transracial is not a new word, but it has now been given a new meaning. Correctly defined as ‘crossing racial boundaries’, and being used for people of one race who are raised in another, the word has shot into into public consciousness because of a redefinition which has proved divisive in the extreme.
The debate started following the story of Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who revealed that despite living as a black woman, she had actually been born white. When she went on television to explain herself, she said that she was ‘transracial’, in other words that she felt like a black woman in a white woman’s body and had made an apparently legitimate decision to change herself in order to satisfy this.
Linguistically, the move is borne of the same convention that allows Transgender or Transsexual, where the issue of someone’s sense of gender and actual gender are at odds with each other. But as many commentators have pointed out, this is not an acceptable parallel and therefore cannot be governed by the same linguistic parallel.
There have been a number of well-thought out and fascinating rebuttals of the use of the term, mainly pointing out that this is not a word of choice, not a word that people can use about themselves in this way. In fact, the argument confirms that it is a destructive term when used like this, because it is taking a word that is used to describe large numbers of people who have had difficult upbringings as a result of being transracial and belittling those difficulties by appropriating it as something that feels like a lifestyle choice. This argument has been well advanced in the media and across Twitter.
So linguistically,what does this mean for the future of the word? Well one thing is completely clear – transracial is not going to be changing its meaning any time soon, the original sense will remain the only sense and the semantic spin that Ms Dolezal utilised will not be adopted.
But that does not mean that the self-deterministic sense will be forgotten. When we come to look at the words of the year, Transracial will be right up there, because there is no disputing it is one of the year’s most used and controversial terms. And while the Dolezal spin will be remembered, it will ultimately be as an anti-meaning, a clear definition of what Transracial is not. In future writing on transracial people, I would expect it to become a touchpoint to rail against, a reference point for everything which people fail to understand about those whose lives this affects.
So, bizarrely, Dolezal has contributed to the debate and the issues of transracial people precisely by getting the term wrong. She has brought the issue as a whole to the wider population, and created a meaning which people can now remember and reject. Probably not what she had in mind.