Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Black Like...": Further Observations on Race and Passing


Emancipated slaves from Louisiana, 1863 (NYHS).


I was queried in response to some of the observations I made on my reaction to Black Like Me—I will take them on one by one, although my replies will be more free-flowing. A prefatory note: for the purpose of responding here, black and white are denoted as terms of racial distinction in America, but we can discuss these terms as misnomers as well in future posts.

Q. “How about now? Do you think black people and white people can share their joy?” In the statement I was making about Griffin, I mentioned that I thought he had missed experiencing the joy that oppressed people still share in spite of their circumstances—laughter and happiness. I have always thought that black people and white could share their joy—and they have. My own racial heritage is a testament to that. I am considered by some to be “biracial,” as my mother is white (she’s also Canadian), and my late father was black (from Galveston, Texas—the deep, deep, deep South part of Texas!). My parents shared their joy through the birthing and raising of their four children.

When I was a kid, it was called being “mixed,” as in “she (or he) is mixed.” That sounds pretty silly to me now, because it always makes me think of cake mix, but that was the term most often used. Today, living in a racially-mixed community, I share my joy (and commiserate as well) with whites and blacks alike. However, when it comes to “racial” perspective, I find that there is often more disagreement on some issues, as our experiences are usually very different, and those experiences “color” our responses accordingly. I have a black, or African-American, identity. It doesn’t erase the other aspects of my genotype (as opposed to phenotype).

There is still an obsession with phenotype—it is how we define, assess, view, and ultimately, judge others. It is sad, but it is a product of racial thinking over the past several hundred years of Western thought. I live in a town where, in certain pockets, an “us against them” (UAT) mentality serves the political aims of some of those in power. It is a structure that has historically doomed the town to be in the grip of old school demagogues who feed on victimization rather than acknowledging that blacks have agency.

Q. Is there a need to go “undercover” to understand each other? For those of us who share a black phenotype, white skin privilege forever excludes whites from truly understanding what it feels like to be black. There will always be a distinction between empathy and “being.” Griffin’s experiment took passing to the extreme, in terms of his health, but given the times, he felt it was a necessary step to take to illustrate to other whites our common humanity.

I think one of my issues with Griffin is his casting of blacks primarily as “victims,” and his (in my view) mistaken belief that the average white Southerner was more kindly disposed to blacks than previously viewed. He expresses great concern at the end of the book with the militancy of the burgeoning Black Power movement. He wants blacks to be treated equally with whites on a social basis while presumably maintaining the white power structure—he is vague on this point—but has a real fear of a possible race war—a “holocaust,” in his words. Maybe folks who lived during the Civil Rights movement or who read Griffin’s book when it was a bestseller could contextualize it better and speak more about the zeitgeist.

The desire to go undercover as someone else in an attempt to covertly observe that individual’s (or group’s) “essence” is a common one among humans (and investigative journalists—ha!). I don’t think there is a need to go undercover, except maybe to expose injustice—which is quite different from “understanding” it. Historically speaking, though, “passing” narratives are very popular, especially (but not exclusively) those that deal with racial passing—they were enormously popular in the 19th century and remain so. Even Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling Nickel and Dimed can be framed as a “passing” narrative—albeit class-based.

Q. I know a lot of "black" people who are as white as me, who identify as black. I know people who have as many white relatives as black, and sometimes more, who identify as black. What makes a person “black” in America today?
I, too, know many blacks of varying complexions—the one-drop rule remains in effect in America. After emancipation, hundreds of thousands of slaves disappeared—passed into white society. It is common knowledge that the longer your family has been in America, the more likely race-mixing has occurred. Yet phenotype is still the dominant signifier of “blackness” (or of any race) in America.

What’s insane is that, because of America’s racial history, the characteristics of black people (and whites) vary. There is no single standard. If you look vaguely like the standard phenotype, you are considered black. It’s why racial profiling persists to this day. Even if you look “white,” the moment you announce that you are black, assumptions that have nothing to do with you or your individual history or circumstances automatically become attached to you. These may be positive or negative, but they are there and serve as stand-ins for who you really are.

One thing we know that black isn’t: it isn’t scientific. No serious scientist believes that race even exists. It’s too bad we don’t live that way. One of the biggest clich├ęs heard in progressive circles is “race is a social construction.” Okay, let’s all acknowledge that—how, then, do we allow race-based thinking to continue? What sort of education do we provide to the vast majority of Americans who believe that dark skin color joined with black vernacular language constitute something to deny full humanity to?

In my view, black is political, black is cultural, black is historical, black is ideological, black is experiential, black is collision, black is rupture--black has never been simply a shared set of physical characteristics (which, as I noted above, remains the primary signifier since it is the most obvious one).

To the commenter who asked about cross-racial/LGBT adoption, the parents of all of the families I know which are constructed in that way (as well as the white children being raised by black LGBT parents!) make sure that their children are raised in multicultural communities with a strong awareness of their American racial identity. I find that these parents are very cognizant of the scrutiny they are placed under when raising children who do not share phenotype or genotype. All the ones I know are more than up to the task.

Race theory is part of my research on the rise of ethnology in early 19th century America. One of the questions posed to me by one of my oral examiners (Dr. Robert Reid-Pharr) was: “Is ethnology the reason we can’t get beyond race?” I will offer more on that in a later post. Race thinking and racial prejudice are so deeply ingrained in our culture that it will take decades (I’m optimistic, aren’t I?) of willful attempts to successfully eradicate it. The strides made over the past 144 years have fueled my hope that one day we will become enlightened enough as a country to continue the really hard work of achieving racial justice. I know I won’t live to see it, but in the historical continuum, I believe it can happen—but only if we collectively move beyond racial demagoguery/essentialist nonsense, confronting it and denouncing it from every quarter (I have an argument against racial essentialism as deeply conservative and antithetical to the goal of true racial justice—I will take that up in a later post).

In Shadow and Act, a collection of essays by Ralph Waldo Ellison, that most American of American writers, he frames a response to the question of blackness and “Americanness”:

It is not skin color which makes a Negro American but cultural heritage as shaped by the American experience, the social and political predicament, a sharing of that “concord of sensibilities” which the group expresses through historical circumstances and through which it has come to constitute a subdivision of the larger American culture.... More important, perhaps, being a Negro American involves a willed (who wills to be a Negro? I do!) affirmation of self as against all outside pressures—an identification with the group as extended through the individual self which rejects all possibilities of escape that do not involve a basic resuscitation of the original American ideals of social and political justice. And those white Negroes (and I do not mean Norman Mailer’s dream creatures) are Negroes too—if they wish to be.

I would direct you to the 1996 film Black Is, Black Ain’t, the late documentarian Marlon Riggs’s meditation on “blackness.” Also, take a look at the work of conceptual artist Adrian Piper, among others.

All best, Rebecca


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Black is a color and not a heritage and seemingly has not worked as an identifier (except maybe during the black power of the 60's).
Other "groups" have a connecting heritage. Whether it be in dress, religion, or language there is a commonality. The American Negro or Black does not have that adhesive to one another. We eat Chinese or Italian food… Where is the "black" restaurant. Sure there are restaurants with soul food or southern cuisine, but the faces there are Paula Dean and Emeril… BAM!

We have spent generations in the pursuit of assimilation only to be reminded that we can not join the club. We are stuck trying to be the man, the "G", the hustler. We are chasing the dream we saw on the movie of the week, what we were told was the American dream. Yet we remain under educated, under socialized, under represented and over victimized. We can not be one of the guys. We can not join the club. We can not be leaders. We can not be President (wait a minute). We are but… black!