The feminist journal Hypatia has issued an apology after more than 400 academics signed an open letter denouncing a recent paper, “In Defense of Transracialism,” as harmful.
The paper, written by Rhodes College assistant professor of philosophy Rebecca Tuvel, explored how the negative reaction to Rachel Dolezal mirrored the negative reaction against transgender people.
Tuvel later said she wrote the paper because of “a desire to think about those who occupy non-normative identities and how we can do justice to them,” adding that such people “are so often misunderstood, body-shamed, excoriated and treated as a big joke by the mainstream media.”
But since the paper ran on March 29, critics have slammed Tuvel, a white woman, for writing the paper, saying at minimum she should have more heavily cited “scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color),” as the open letter put it.
Hundreds called for Hypatia to retract the article, and in an apology posted on Facebook yesterday, the journal said that “clearly, the article should not have been published.”
The journal detailed several “harms” that it claims the article caused, which fall disproportionately on those “who continue to experience marginalization and discrimination due to racism and cisnormativity.” The board would “recognize and mourn” these consequences, the Hypatia apology said.
“Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation,” said the letter, signed by an unnamed “majority” of Hypatia’s board of associated editors.
Since the paper ran, Tuvel has received hate mail, and she said she is also concerned about damage to her professional reputation; she finished her doctoral work in 2014, and this is only her third year working as a professor.
Though Rhodes College as a whole, as well as her philosophy department and dean, have been supportive, she said she’s concerned about her job prospects after. In tears about the situation, Tuvel declined Heat Street’s request for an interview.
In an emailed statement to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tuvel said little of the criticism has focused on what she actually wrote.
“Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article,” she said. “if this is considered beyond the pale as a response to a controversial piece of writing, then critical thought is in danger. I have never been under the illusion that this article is immune from critique. But the last place one expects to find such calls for censorship rather than discussion is amongst philosophers.”
Those comments weren’t met well, either.
“Tuvel bludgeoned trans materiality and then has the audacity to whine about ‘academic freedom’ when her epistemic violence gets pushback,” wrote one University of California San Francisco student, Zoé Samudzi, on Twitter.
On his popular philosophy blog, University of Chicago professor Brian Leiter said he had “never seen anything like this in academic philosophy,” adding that Tuvel may have a valid defamation lawsuit.
“I wonder did any of those professing solidarity with those who specialize in taking offense consider the very tangible harm they are doing to the author of this article?” Lieter said, urging for a petition in support of Tuvel.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.