Level 1 — Individual Negotiations
Race, like gender, is something that one “does” (West and ZImmerman 1991). People actively practice is in their everyday lives. But “doing race” happens on two distinct levels; within individuals and between individuals… For race theory, this means that individuals can be self-reflexive about what race they identify themselves to be, but that they cannot choose without restriction.
Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain. Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pagaents.
One of the most important concepts I learned through discussions of West and Zimmerman’s Doing Gender ethnomethodology, applied here to race by King-O’Riain, is that of accountability. An insufficient reading of West and Zimmerman might suppose liberation from gender constraints via the realization that there is no biological basis for the gendering of the body, that instead, it occurs through perpetual gestures and motions that we make every day. Gender, then, could be read as a choice, as something that, after proper enlightenment, we can opt out of. And of course, some people do refuse to conform to a hegemonic idea of the gender binary. But at great social risk. The point is that, although gendered performance is being proffered as voluntary by West and Zimmerman, they are also saying that these are highly complex choices that occur under oppressive circumstances. Far from being free to choose as we like, we choose under great constraints, with a deeply felt understanding that we will be held accountable for our “choices.” So it is for race, as well. Individuals are limited by phenotype in selecting the racial identity that they choose to present socially, meaning that on an interpersonal level, we all act as racial police, affirming or rejecting the racial identity given by an individual. Hence the need to differentiate between racial identity that is worked out and held up within the self versus assigned racial identity.
Reading and thinking about the unique position of mixed race individuals this week, I was particularly interested in the idea of what King-O’Riain calls the “racial passport” of those who straddle multiple cultural and racial worlds. While it would be facile and dismissive to call mixed race people privileged across the board, I am thinking about those who transgress our ideas about racial mobility by reaching for this “passport” without social approval. This week, Raven-Symoné sat down with Oprah and made some remarks that sparked overwhelming disapproval. First requesting not to be “labeled gay” after announcing that her partner is a woman, her comments branched off into race: “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African-American, I’m an American… we’re all people; I have lots of things running through my veins…I connect with Caucasian, I connect with Asian, I connect with black, I connect with Indian. I connect with each culture.” These comments are so rich that they deserve much more extensive dissection that I can give here, but without deriding Raven for her identity claims, which is not my place, I want to draw attention to the way in which she has been held accountable for her race work. Raven lays claim to a cross-cultural, transcendent identity here and is outright rejected. Jamilah Lemieux wrote for Ebony about why this post-racial ideology is dangerous and politically atonal. Especially in light of our discussion of Vanessa Williams, it is both fascinating and disturbing that black celebrities still must undercut their racial identity in order to assert a greater allegiance to “Americanness:” as Lemieux says, why doesn’t Raven say that she is both Black AND American? This brings to mind the efforts of Japanese-American beauty pageants, too– they aligned their “difference” in perfect, non-threatening harmony with white hegemony in order to assert an upwardly mobile American status.
As evidenced by the National Geographic photoshopped representations of a racially mixed 2050 America, awash in a singular shade of light brown, our cultural imaginary is quite narrow when it comes mixed race individuals. In the interview, Raven also notes how she cannot be sure of her exact ancestry and how fixed it is in Africa. Essentially, she is asserting a mixed race identity. And while I’m sure she is not wrong about the heterogeneous makeup of her ancestry, she is refused this “racial passport.” All this to say that mixed race is a socially constructed idea, access to which is carefully patrolled.