On being transethnic


One of the circles to be yet squared by the transgender theory and practice is that if gender is, as we are told, a social construct, then being transgender means swapping one particular social construct for another, which seems a rather pointless exercise. But perhaps it makes more sense than the concept of transsexualism. We are, after all, with tiny exceptions like hermaphroditism, biological males and biological females. The feeling that you were born in a wrong body is a subjective one. For all the surgery and hormone therapy options out there, it’s debatable whether one can actually change once biological sex. But you can certainly be, for example, a biological male who adopts a female gender – or the other way around.

We are likewise assured, if not as frequently, that concepts like race are also social constructs (there being no or little biological/genetic basis to race). Ethnicities are mentioned even more rarely in this context, though the concept itself, as well as any meaning that might be derived from it, are generally frowned upon as all too often associated with close-mindedness, provincialism, xenophobia and flag-waving (nations, those “imagined communities”, have long now been considered to be social constructs). ‘Tis much better to be cosmopolitan in outlook, a citizen of the world – simply a human being rather than a member of any narrower category of identification.

Yet while transsexualism and transgenderism are all the rage at the moment (this is not to deny genuine complex instances, but the astronomical growth in such self-identification over the past decade or two is strongly suggestive of social contagion and a fashion trend), the concept of a transracial or transethnic identity is still largely a no-no. It remains permissible to ridicule and castigate those revealed to have adopted a racial/ethnic identity different to the biological/genetic fact of their birth (such as Jessica Krug, an associate professor at George Washington University, who had to recently apologise for portraying herself as African-American while in reality being Jewish). Though, in a partial exception to this rule, any proportion of Indigenous ancestry (such as one great-grandparent) seems to be enough to self-identify as Indigenous, and it borders on a hate crime (at least in Australia, as Andrew Bolt has found out a few years ago) to question the basis and the logic of such identification.

Yet if both gender and race are social constructs devoid of any underlying objective reality (and why not ethnicity too?) then why can’t you feel like you have been born in a wrong part of the world – in a wrong skin? Certainly in Europe, ethnicity in sense of a genetic affinity with a particular community associated with a specific geographic location is being increasingly downplayed in favour of residency and citizenship. Thus, when we now refer to someone as an Englishman or an Englishwoman, we are noting their current legal status rather than their “ancestry”, hence the growing number of African or South Indian English – in addition to the “natives” who can trace their descent from Angles, Saxons, or Normans, or even earlier inhabitants of the Green and Pleasant Land. But if you are English because you live there, why can’t you be English even if you don’t?

Now here comes my confession: I am transethnic. I might have been born a Pole in Poland of Polish parents, but I’ve always felt not a (stereo)typical Slav, instead identifying more as a northern European, and specifically English.

As Romans would have said, nomen omen, but I’m pretty sure that being named Arthur – which, for some unknown reasons, was a pretty popular boy’s name in Poland in the late 1960s and the early 70s – had nothing to do with it. Still, I grew up on Winnie the Pooh and Paddington the Bear, followed by the legends of King Arthur and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes (written by another namesake), before graduating at 12 (after having read through the children’s library) to biographies of English historical figures. Later on still, I learned to appreciate England as the cradle of classical liberalism – all the good bits that went into making the modernity and making the modernity the success it has been compared to all other historical and more recent alternatives. My heart (or at least a part of it) might always remain in Poland, but my mind and imagination are home in England.

But it’s not just the cultural products and the institutions. Over time, I’ve realised my personality and temperament closely match the stereotypical English persona – private, reticent, taciturn, practical, self-effacing, eccentric. I love Irish, and I think they’re lots of fun – the Polish are the Irish of the Eastern Europe in my humble opinion: all that Catholicism and alcoholism, romantic melancholic predisposition, grand doomed gestures, life in the shadow of a powerful neighbour and a long history of emigration and being the butt of jokes (the Irish jokes in Britain and Australia, the Polish jokes, often exactly the same ones, in America – but on the scale of Dublin to London I’m somewhere in the Midlands. That’s where my sentiments and affinities rest.

Sound weird and implausible to you? Well, who are you to tell me how I can feel, you bigot?