Judith Butler’s Trouble: Why do white academics speak for trans people of colour?

[CN: White privilege gone rampant]

I am reeling after just reading a recent interview with so-called “the beloved philosopher and author of Gender Trouble” entitled Why Do Men Kill Trans Women? (it’s a donotlink, because I don’t want to give it any more traffic.) At first sight it is simply an academic who shares their views on killings of trans persons of colour in the USA; upon closer inspection, it is appropriation of all the work trans activists of colour have been doing, regurgitating their work and narrative without any attribution. In academic terminology, it would – in my opinion – be close to plagiarism. But more galling is the continuing trend of privileged, white, academics speaking for communities they do not belong to. The world has seen amazing activism of transgender people of colour, transwoman and transmen, non-binary and gender non-conforming activists of colour who have bravely stood up; yet their voices are simply silenced as a white academic decides to speak about them, for them, and in words that objectify them.

Judith Butler comes out with suggestions such as: “what is really needed is an anti-racist, anti-transphobic movement that draws from the feminism of women of color and its trenchant critique of racism and police power” … as if such a movement does not exist? As if trans people have not been integral parts of movements such as Black Lives Matter? As if there are not many trans people of colour working hard within such movements?  There is either a clear ignorance or willful dismissal of these activists in how she speaks; I cannot speak as to which one, but as a “beloved” academic (to use the adjective in the introduction of that article) they should know better. At some point they say that they wonder “[…] whether the younger trans women are being mentored and protected, or whether they are operating outside of networks.” There are so many problems with the underlying responsibility that Butler puts on the transgender community for (failing) to keep young trans women safe; at this point they came close to blaming the communities of trans people of colour for these killings.

Judith Butler recycles the work of the brave activists who risk their lives just walking down the street, who work hard to create a better place for their communities, and it is disrespectful; the only persons they give, at some point, the slightest credit to are Ken Corbett and Gayle Salamon. Butler’s narrative seems as if they are the first to realise the need for intersectionality between movements and issues, while this intersectionality has been the lived experience of trans people of colour, and is sure something they understand and speak to. At some point she says: “I think that trans people have to answer that question“, yet only in response to a question that asks almost abstractly whether “[…] being transgender ultimately about accepting natural human difference at large?” Only at this point Butler admits their inability to represent transgender persons, let alone trans persons of colour, while they conveniently forget this when presenting the very solutions and strategies that activists have been working on as if they are their own ideas.

As much as this is about killings in the USA, and an American academic doing this, it is a common trend even in South Africa. The sheer detachment with which privileged academics speak about the lives of transgender people of colour, as if their profession gives them the right to analyses and present in cold facts the reality that trans people of colour have to navigate every day is galling. Even white trans people who live the academic life are not free from this, as they often forget their white privilege in how they approach their academic projects; they often forget the radically different experience that white privilege awards them, even if they are trans.

The currently prevailing academic approach is one of objectification, one of a power dynamic and separation between “researcher” and “subject/participant” that is presented as “objectivity”. When such research is then done from a position of privilege, often white and cisgender lived realities are thus “accepted” as a norm against which one is measured again, especially when it comes to white cisgender researchers interrogating trans persons of colour. This needs to stop, in 2015 such an approach cannot be justified, and the privilege of especially white cisgender academics with which they speak about our lives needs to end.


29 thoughts on “Judith Butler’s Trouble: Why do white academics speak for trans people of colour?

  1. The points you’re making about white privilege and academia are definitely right, I just don’t know whether it makes sense to to use Butler, and particularly in the context of this (very strange) interview, to drive those points. It seems rather unfair to me to take an interview where they are being asked many detailed questions on various aspects of the issue of violence against trans women, and expect Butler to simply say “I’m a white academic so don’t ask me that”, or expect them to attribute every thought they had to a trans activist/writer, even if they may have learned those ideas from the broader discourse in which many trans women of colour take part.
    You also made many points in this article yourself about privilege, appropriation, victim blaming, etc., but you didn’t make any attributions either; and many of those ideas came from black feminists and black queer theorists. (Furthermore, Butler was one of the first writers to critique the objectification, power dynamics, and privilege in academia; so I would actually attribute that idea – at least partially – to Butler herself). I’m not pointing this out to criticize the your article or your ideas – I’m just pointing it out to say that I think it’s ok sometimes, if you’re given the platform like Butler was in this interview, to amplify the *right ideas*, even if you may forget to or can’t remember the source.
    And in terms of whether or not Butler had the “right ideas,” I agree that they could have said more about existing activism from the trans community, but it doesn’t seem to me like anything Butler said is actually problematic. They’re clearly taking an intersectional lens and talk specifically about the way gender is intertwined with class and race; they also affirm that “the lives of transgender women of color are not accorded the same value as white women who are cisgendered”. The “what is really needed” quote you take issue with also seems less to me like she is saying that that kind of movement doesn’t exist, but rather that that movement needs to be centered in discussions around trans issues (particularly in the context of policing – which is the premise of the question that was asked). Not to mention Butler specifically says “…movement that draws from the feminism of women of color,” which by definition excludes Butler’s own feminism/writings. Butler is directing the attention away from themselves to women of colour; they’re essentially checking their own white academic privilege here.
    Lastly, I have to disagree with your read on the “whether the younger trans women are being mentored and protected” quote. Butler says this in response to a question that asks them specifically about why young trans women of colour are especially vulnerable to violence. To wonder if that is because young trans women of colour may not have networks of protection seems to me like a valid response/thought to have, without necessarily attaching itself to any actual victim-blaming. To say that young trans women of colour are vulnerable because they may not have protection is not to say that they, or the trans community at large, are *at fault* for not providing that protection.


      1. Thanks to you. I saw your article yesterday, and today some french gay journalist did a paper about butler’s interview, so I thought : we need this article in french before everybody start saying butler is so great blahblahblah…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Just to clarify: are you claiming that Butler is cisgender? If so, that’s not accurate. It would be interesting to see if other academics, such as C. Riley Snorton (black FTM) and Dean Spade (white FTM), would have as incensed responses to the Butler interview as you do. I’m not entirely sure that they would.


    1. What I am specific to is white academic privilege, which is the major issue at hand here. Furthermore, I relate in comments to a lot of white CIS academic privilege as well, not necessarily specifically in relation to Butler. In terms of Butler, whether cis or not, they positions themselves in the interview as not being able to speak to trans identity personally, ergo they need to draw this line through to its logical conclusion.

      In terms of Dean Spade, someone I really respect, but I’ve given my opinion on white trans people still having white privilege. I am not entirely familiar with C. Riley Snorton, but if they have a different opinion, I am eager to find out; however, that doesn’t mean I would change mine necessarily, or should be expected to.


    2. All of the trans people of color and white trans people I have seen post this have done so positively. But, that doesn’t mean HeJin Kim’s critiques aren’t valid. Both can be right and it looks like good conversations were started.


  3. I posted this as a reply to darkmatter on facebook, but it makes sense to give you the opportunity to respond here since you actually wrote the article:

    I don’t read Butler because academic texts tend to be hard for me. It seems though like this interview is not something Butler had complete control over, the interviewer and Vice did. don’t know what was cut or missed and I don’t think Butler had control of the questions. I also see several places where Butler says she doesn’t have answers and says that trans people are who should be consulted and she nods to movements in South America, South Africa, and elsewhere.

    I agree it is lacking in her mentions of US activism and some things could be worded better. I see the issue that saying antitransphobic woc are needed suggests they don’t already exist. I see how she could have given credit to even more people and how this interview could read like she is the brand new authority on issues twoc have been fighting without recognition- but, I don’t see Butler acting like she was the first to come up with these issues.

    I guess the question is, how should white academics use their privilege best to be better allies? Is it completely refusing interviews like this and suggesting twoc instead? Is it making sure to redirect all questions onto quotes from twoc and other folks of color doing the work? Is it to avoid the topics entirely because white folks shouldn’t be speaking for folks of color?


    1. I think regarding your question as to how to use this privilege. There is a video (I think on YouTube) of Butler standing up in 2010 at Berlin Pride that I really admire. They rejected and award and spent entire speech highlighting the specific work, naming local organisations, that are more deserving. I linked an article regarding this in another comment. Just one example, of how this should have been approached.


  4. Wait, how exactly is anyone bringing attention to these issues a bad thing? Are you saying academics should just ignore trans people? That doesn’t seem like a very pragmatic point of view.


    1. I am saying that when speaking about trans persons of colour, white academics should understand that they speak from a position of privilege; furthermore, they should give proper credit to the work that trans activists of colour do, rather than recycling their ideas without proper attribution.


      1. It is difficult for me to see that Butler attempted to speak for trans people of color. She is a philosopher. When asked questions, she thought through possible explanations. As far as taking ideas from trans activists of color, that’s a serious accusation. Two thoughts on it: first, sometimes people who haven’t met come to similar conclusions. I have certainly had the experience of reading someone after I’ve already finished writing and realizing that they’ve already addressed something that I wrote about.

        Second, philosophers don’t usually cite activists. It’s not the nature of the business. Philosophers cite written text and much of the activism you describe involves the bravery of “walking down the street” and “work[ing] hard to create a better place”.

        But, let’s be clear. She really doesn’t *cite* anyone in this essay–not Gayle Rubin, or Derrida, or Foucault, or Jasbir Puar. It’s just not that kind of interview.

        In the end, I don’t think that she has stolen ideas without attribution. At worst, I think she is not aware of activist work that she doesn’t participate in and that hasn’t been written down. I do not think, in any way, that she is attempting to present herself as an authority or discoverer.

        It seems to me the most constructive thing to do would be either a) to point out exactly from whom she has stolen ideas and exactly where she took credit for discovering them or b) to publish a list of alternate authorities to consult, who are either activists or scholars.

        But I just don’t think JB is THE ENEMY.


  5. Very important article, first off. I think it is important that we start right now to decolonize academia and bring voices of the people of colour, where we have been objects of knowledge for so long. However, I would also like to point out that your critique, whilst having salient points, largely becomes unfair towards the end. Specifically this point-
    > The currently prevailing academic approach is one of objectification, one of a power dynamic and separation between “researcher” and “subject/participant” that is presented as “objectivity”.
    That is a huge disservice to Butler and her work on post-structuralism that decenters knowledge from subject-object relations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Regarding the last paragraph, that comment is more about academia in general tbh. However, even in purely theoretical fields (philosophy, etc.) white voices are prioritised, and whiteness is used as the de facto “norm” when theorising. In terms of post-structuralism and Butlers (somewhat hard to read) work on this, I can appreciate this aim to decenter knowledge from subject-object relations; however, if this is the case, I am then really surprised at this interview she did even moreso… Though of course, putting theory into practice in daily life (or in general) is no small deal – for anyone.

      If I would point to good work Butler has done, I would point to a moment in 2010 when they went on stage at Berlin Pride and rejected an award citing the racism at Berlin Pride. In her speech then, Butler listed dozens of local community organisations that should have been given the award instead. Here is a link to this http://www.blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2010/06/28/judith-butler-refuses-award-at-berlin-pride-citing-racism/ (there is also a video somewhere online of the speech she made…)
      That moment, Butler had all my respect… Unlike what some people think, I don’t view Butler as the enemy; rather I am sorely disappointing, upset, and angry, at their – now – inability to see her privilege, to do the thing she did in Berlin in 2010, which would have been the right thing to do.


  6. I’m not sure how Butler’s intervention is supposed to be an example of ‘white privilege gone rampant’.

    Also, you write of ‘their profession giv[ing ‘privileged’ academics] the right to analyses and [to] present in cold facts the reality that trans people of colour have to navigate every day’. This is an interesting way of seeing it; I always assumed they never think much about whether they have a right to say this or that. They simply take it. In fact, I believe everybody always simply took it; nobody ever -had- the right to anything. And you? Well, you might have just taken yours too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being a trans person of colour and former sex worker I have every right, unlike white cis academics who objectify us and write about us, build careers on our lives.

      There is an element of white privilege here. It concerns whose voice academia and society values more. Butler’s whiteness inevitably plays a part in this. Her appropriation of especially narratives of trans persons of colour shows this even more.


      1. Still not sure how writing in solidarity is supposed to a) objectify people who are trans persons of colour and former sex workers (other than through the inevitabilities of grammar, that is) and b) how it is a bad thing if somebody uses their privilege to offer you support; to state that your cause is a just cause. And then, c) ad hominems aside, where do you disagree with what she said?


      2. Lastly, let us understand what “solidarity” and “allyship” is not: it is not appropriating the narrative and ideas of the community one is talking about it without attribution and respect; it is not erasing the work these communities have been doing by speaking about what such movements “should be doing”, as if they don’t know and aren’t already doing this; it is not ignoring one’s own white privilege in how you address and approach the issues… etc.

        they did not write “in solidarity”… that is clear, they recycled the ideas and work of trans activists of colour without attribution, and that is wrong. Someone using their privilege is not a bad thing IF they understand and take responsibility for their privilege, Butler did not in any way do this. They did not “offer support”, they appropriated using their white privilege.

        Lastly, in one of the statements I quoted in my articles, she essentially victimblamed the trans community; it was perhaps subtle in a way, but still it is problematic. So yeah I disagree. I disagree when she says that there is a “need” for this intersectional movement she speaks about, because it already exists and is led by trans people of colour!


      3. Just one last thought. The alleged victim-blaming is not entirely clear to me:

        Butler says: “I wonder whether the younger trans women are being mentored and protected, or whether they are operating outside of networks.”

        There is nothing in that statement that says that older trans women are responsible for the deaths of younger trans women. Butler could be referring to a) the fact that too many trans women are rejected by their families of origin, b) the fact that some trans women are isolated and have no community, or c) the fact that police and social services often fail to provide the shelter and protection they should.

        It’s not clear that Butler blames older trans women, unless (of course) we decide in advance that Butler is the devil. If we hold off on that, then there are plenty of other ways to read it in which she is not working alongside our enemies.


      4. In response to your latest reply (the “Lastly, let us understand what “solidarity”” one) … I must say that given the points you raise (especially when you claim that she claims that there’s a need for an intersectional movement which doesn’t exist yet) it appears to me as if you haven’t read the article you’re criticising too well. She simply didn’t say those things in that interview. Sorry.

        And I don’t get the point about the appropriation of other people’s work at all. I just don’t see what you mean. Also, what do you mean when when you say she’s ‘erasing’ somebody else’s work? Do you mean to imply she’s making other people’s work ‘undone’? How? What? Sorry, I think you lost me.


      5. The implications in the language she uses is clear. I’m sure you will continue to disagree, and I have no interest in further engaging as it will lead to nothing in the end. If people cannot see the inherent white academic privilege here and how it becomes appropriation given that privilege, it shows how prevelant and rampant this privilege actually is.


      6. Why don’t you just show how ‘the implication in the language she uses are clear’ – this shouldn’t be a problem if things are so clear anyway, should it? Or at least give examples. I’d love to understand your point better, but so far you’ve failed to substantiate any of the accusations you’ve made and sidestepped each question I’ve asked you.

        I mean, criticise whoever you want. Criticism is good. But don’t make a fool out of yourself. Just because you fight for a just cause doesn’t make it okay to be as irrational and as fiercly passionate as, for instance, Donald Trump. I believe this is a huge disservice to progressive activism.

        And don’t assume I’m white.


      7. I’m not assuming anything about you. What I am stating is that the inability for many to see the effects of white academic privilege is a sign of how problematic this privilege is


  7. I understand that it is inappropriate to appropriate trans activists’ work without attribution.

    > The currently prevailing academic approach is one of objectification, one of a power dynamic and separation between “researcher” and “subject/participant” that is presented as “objectivity”.

    I do not exactly understand this, however. Is it okay if you clarify?


  8. It seems to me the problem is not Butler, as an individual, but rather a closed circle that keeps returning to her for questions, when there are others who could be consulted. Perhaps she doesn’t know their names. Perhaps the interviewers don’t know their names. I think it would be helpful if you would provide some names and links. Then, any future failure to consult could not in any way be ascribed to ignorance but, instead, to the superstar system in academia, star-f!cking, and the insularity of white folks.


    1. I agree that people returning to her and seeking her out to speak is a major issue, but it is in a wider context of white cis voices being prioritised due to prevailing privilege; this is especially visible in academia.

      Regarding not knowing the names of activists or their work, in the age of Google this is no excuse to me; a simple search got me a storify which I hyperlinked in my post that speaks to this, showing the great work they do. A search using the hashtag #BlackTransLivesMatter or #TransLivesMatter will provide treasure troves of voices of trans activists of colour. As an academic I feel Butler has no excuse, especially considering her field of work; one would expect that she would be able to at least provide reference to those voices that are out there, or at least give credit in general to trans activists of colour. And if she doesn’t know the work of trans activists of colour, I would argue that this speaks to a problematic disconnect between academia and the real world…


      1. You haven’t listed trans activists of color that she should have referred to either. Google offers a lot of garbage with the good. Would you mind suggesting who you think she should have mentioned?


      2. Honestly, when I googled trans women gender theory, trans women gender theorists, and other terms, the only people that came up were white (cis probably?) academics. This is a problem for sure, as I am sure many nonacademic people are qualified and trans people and people of color have less access to academia. It’s also problematic that academia is usually the authority news outlets go to for interviews. But, can you really blame Vice choosing Butler, and Vice being responsible for the content, including anything they cut out, on Butler? Isn’t that on Vice for not googling?


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