I didn’t show my video in class so here it is now if anyone is interested!
I didn’t show my video in class so here it is now if anyone is interested!
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.
We’ve all seen a lot (too much?) of Kendall Jenner recently. Her modeling career is blowing up– and with it, her, I guess, signature cornrows. This is a style that, when worn on black men and women, risks garnering unwanted, racialized attention and pernicious discrimination. I’m sure that Marcia Mitchell would have been relieved to skip all that chemical processing on her hair once in a while and sport braids for a modeling job or two. As a black woman in fashion, though, she is not afforded the luxury of letting her hair show the way it grows naturally out of her scalp. Print and editorial simply aren’t ready for that! But suddenly, when tight braids are seen on a white girl’s head, it’s fashion forward and edgy. Perhaps the worst part of Marie Claire’s inane fascination with Kendall’s hairstyle is that they hail it as something “new,” thereby invisibilizing and delegitimizing black women’s age-old contributions in hair. It suggests indifference at best (at worst, aversion to) black hair styles on black bodies and celebrates these styles when they are grafted onto white bodies. Whoever styled Kendall’s look in the teen vogue shoot I included was clearly referencing signifiers of blackness (the hair, the hoops, the gold chain… there is even a boom box placed next to her in another shot), but on a thin, white, young woman’s body, these coded symbols are stripped of their violently fraught history and sanitized into supposed novelty, context-free.
White artists stealing and profiting from black art is older than the Beatles, but discourses of calling out cultural appropriation publicly have only begun to gain a foothold in progressive media in very recent years. At this point it almost seems like we go through a routine every time Katy Perry gets on stage or a hopelessly misguided (or arrogantly unwilling to learn) white artist releases a new video that uses black women’s bodies as props. And while I love hearing from the powerful multitudes of voices that make up black twitter every time we inevitably see these problems arise in pop culture, I wonder why we are making such microscopic progress.
But back to hair. In her ethnography of a Dominican hair salon in New York City’s Washington Heights, Ginetta Candelario emphasizes the nationalist project that Dominican women’s hair has come to embody– once in the United States, immigrant Dominican women do the work of “displaying Dominican-ness” via the studied and time-consuming management of their hair. Candelario rejects what she understands to be a paternalistic view of Dominican hair care as a “white wish” and instead positions the beauty world in female Dominican New York as the bedrock of collective “economic, emotional, and social well-being” for otherwise marginalized women. I guess I’m wondering about the tension between this vision and a tweet (image included) I saw from a Dominican woman that critiqued white hair professionals’ unwillingness to engage with black hair. While I fully believe in the sanctity of black spaces and Latina spaces, how can we reconcile this with the clearly harmful racial segregation that is the governing rule of haircare in America? How might we maintain beauty labor spaces for people of color but also work against insularity and intolerance in white America when it comes to dealing with all different types of hair?