Race: Past, Present, and Future Tense

Matt Wray

“White culture has been on the fritz lately and I’m not sure it is coming back.” So wrote one of my undergraduate students on her final exam a few years back. I remember laughing out loud at the time, but her pithy sentence stuck with me. Somehow, that image of white culture as a broken-down appliance seems to reflect how many of us see whiteness today: it’s an aging relic, unreliable, no longer able to do the job it was designed to do, ready for the junk heap of history.

And yet, still, we seem to need it. We keep it around, like that refrigerator that always ices up. But we’ve learned to regard it with a wary eye. Like people over 30, whiteness just can’t be trusted.

This wariness about whiteness may feel like an acute symptom of the so-called “post-racial” colorblind era, but, in truth, the anxiety has been chronic. Norman Mailer wrote in 1957 about the “white negroes,” whose disenchantment with white American monoculture led them to appropriate black cultural forms like jazz as their own. Those 1950s hipsters and beatniks gave way to the hippies of the 1960s and ’70s, enamored not just with blackness, but with non-Western religions and icons as well. For a time, young white guys wanted to be either Muhammad Ali or Bruce Lee. The global spread of reggae and then rap and hip-hop gave us white rastas (WASPafarians?) and then “wiggers.” Next time somebody on the subway bumps you with their yoga mat, you can blame the hippies.

Yet the history of white racial appropriations runs much deeper than these 20th-century moments suggest. Cultural historians David Roediger and Eric Lott have pushed back the origins of white anxiety about whiteness into the 1830s, when working-class white men started blacking up as minstrels as a way to cut loose and get wild. Before that, when the original American Tea Partiers launched their revolutionary protest against King George, what did they do? They dressed up as Mohawk Indians. White alienation, it seems, never willingly wears a white face.

Partly because of the massive success of the multiculturalism of the 1980s and ’90s, the search for meaningful identity has become for many young Americans a search for a usable racial past. For whites, part of the erotic allure of people of color is that we imagine them to possess authentic selves forged in the furnaces of racial oppression. This is in sharp contrast to European immigrants, who Anglicized their names, moved to the suburbs, joined the country club, shopped at the mall, and blended into the vast nullity of the American white middle class. This geographic and social distance nurtured in some a romantic fantasy about the cultural richness and purity of the dispossessed, a fantasy with great seductive power compared to the cultural bankruptcy of tainted American whiteness. No wonder so many successive generations have spawned young white subcultures that have wanted to take non-white cultures and make them their own.

Is white culture always going to be on the fritz? The characters in Jess Row’s smart and funny novel Your Face in Mine are betting it is. Kelly Thorndike, a 30-something, well-educated white guy from Baltimore, bumps into a not-so familiar face from his past. He recognizes the face, but not the skin color. His old childhood friend, born Martin Lipkin, is now Martin Wilkinson, unmistakably black as a result of “racial reassignment surgery.” Fascinated and slightly horrified by his friend’s radical transformation, Kelly is quickly drawn into Martin’s plan to make racial reassignment surgery socially acceptable by chronicling his innovative experiment in the same way that Christine Jorgensen—the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery—did in the 1950s, becoming an instant celebrity. “So I’m the Christine Jorgenson of the twenty-first century,” Martin says. “That’s the business model. Only now, of course, we have to be global: everywhere at once. Americans are stuck on the idea of race: no question. Here we’re going to be facing some serious hysteria. At first. But the thing is, there are a hundred other ways to play this in a hundred other places.” Kelly, a radio producer and reporter for public radio, signs on to be Martin’s biographer and publicist, and, together with a team of African American advisors, they embark on an ambitious plan to create a global brand for Martin’s new company, selling racial transformation to the racially alienated.

That it all goes awry is no great surprise, but before catastrophe hits, Row’s characters convince us just how plausible—perhaps even inevitable—racial reassignment is. Radical body modification has become much more commonplace. Consequently, the stigma surrounding everything from tattoos to piercings to sex reassignment surgery has declined. Nearly all of the necessary medical technologies for racial reassignment are already in place. “Mostly,” Martin assures Kelly, “it’s been done before. Collagen, rhinoplasty, eyelid changes, voice box alterations. A lot of nipping and tucking. You’d be surprised at how little it takes to make a difference.”

<i>Vitiligo of the hand in a person with dark skin</i>. Photograph by James Heilman / WikiCommons

What’s lacking is a safe technology for darkening the skin—a synthetic melanin or chemical pigmentation—that would be convincing and practical. Row solves these credibility problems with bits of clever science fiction, but they are not in any event central to his story, which focuses much less on the technological plausibility of such surgery and much more on the historical, social, philosophical, and cultural conditions that would make racial reassignment appealing. Why, he asks, would anyone ever want to switch from white to black? Or, for that matter, from Asian to white or black? Why would anyone ever want to give up the power and privilege of being white? Why would there be a market for that? Are Row’s whites clueless about anti-black racism? They are not. If anything, they are, like the whites that opened this essay, so horrified by it that they no longer want to be white. Again, the analogy to sex reassignment surgery is instructive: given that women earn much less than men, have less status and prestige, and generally suffer from the great inequities of living in patriarchal and misogynistic societies, what man would ever want to become a woman? Why would one ever want to give up male privilege and power? But if you can imagine why, then you can imagine why a white person might want to become black. Both are deeply personal and complicated bids for an authentic self.

In exploring these themes, Your Face in Mine is both compelling and frustrating. Compelling because Row’s characters, born into white privilege, have struggled all their lives to find belonging and to craft authentic selves, only to end up middle-aged and disillusioned. The economic privileges and social advantages of being white feel to them like cultural liabilities. After all, what could it mean to be authentically white? Whiteness as cultural currency feels both grossly overvalued and worthless to them. Instead, they treasure black culture and, in Kelly’s case, Asian culture, as a means to enrich, repair, and reinvent one’s sense of self. Call it what you will—racial alienation, eating the Other, ethnic transvestism, slumming—the “racial dysphoria” experienced by Row’s characters is more than just a clinical diagnosis that sets the stage for surgical reassignment. It is something of a minor epidemic in contemporary youth culture. And, if we are to believe Row’s characters, it is not just privileged white Americans who suffer, although they are the population most afflicted. They suspect the market for blackness in Japan is potentially worth billions.

While we watch Row vigorously hacking away at the thorny thickets of racial authenticity, he never really blazes a clear trail.

There are great themes here: the instability and unknowability of a situation-dependent self and the potent idea that a social construct like “race” can ground a meaningful identity in ways that class or national belonging cannot. Row cleverly draws our attention to these themes by, for example, eliminating quotation marks, foregrounding the problem of originality and “voice.” In Row’s world, no one really owns their words, since his characters are constantly borrowing, assembling, and reshaping the symbolic materials at hand. In such a fluid state of being and becoming, quotation marks become problematic. No unitary self? Then no proprietary voice.

By turns philosophical, comedic, tragic, and darkly sinister, the novel’s shifts in tone and genre foreground the kind of hybridization at the heart of the story. The novel asks us to imagine what happens to authenticity and originality under the twin assault of the commodification of identities and the postmodern blending of cultural categories, but it provides no coherent answers. Perhaps there aren’t any, though this will certainly frustrate readers looking for the moral of the story. We watch Row vigorously hack away at the thorny thickets of racial authenticity, but he never really blazes a clear trail. Racial reassignment surgery offers a way out for anyone who feels that their socially ascribed identity does not match their subjective experience of who they “really” are. But it seems nonsensical to describe the reassignment process, with its regimen of hormones, artificial pigmentation, and plastic surgery, as a bid for authenticity. Perhaps we are to conclude that all identity projects based on race are destined to end in grotesque failure, but that is a weirdly colorblind place for this deeply color-conscious narrative to land.

In contrast, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a long prose poem about the corrosive effects of racism, lands us squarely in color-conscious America. Rankine’s matter-of-fact reportage of racial microaggressions allowed me, a white male, to experience some of the range of toxic emotions she has experienced as a black female when confronted with subtle racial insults and hostility. When she speaks about her anger, shame, and humiliation, about the “erasure” of being made to feel less than fully human, less than fully American, my cheeks burned, too. This is a key virtue of her narrative: it’s not her aim to put clueless white people in their place. Instead, she puts us in her place.

How does she do this? Throughout the long pages of this short book, Rankine cleverly relies on second-person address:


You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred
street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean
is making him hire a person of color when there are so
many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are
being tested or retroactively insulted or you have
done something that communicates this is an okay
conversation to be having.
Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish
the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so
you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead
of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces
would suddenly be exposed to the wind.


The shifting referent of “you” allows us to identify as both the attacker and the attacked. We see and understand both sides of the interaction and feel both empathy and antipathy. Citizen beautifully and fearlessly embraces this contradiction, and Rankine’s poetry somehow contains and redirects these powerful emotional energies without trying to transcend them through irony or satire. Citizen is sincere and serious, but never sentimental.

The microaggressions that Rankine recounts in the first part of Citizen are clearly racial warfare by other means. She describes a war not just of words, but of silences, gestures, looks, and weakly encrypted codes that offer the aggressors plausible deniability in the event of capture or discovery. In Citizen, we can see beyond the white faces of the individual soldiers in this war to the belligerent machine issuing their marching orders. The reader senses that the slings and arrows of insult and personal humiliation are just a small part of a vast arsenal of structurally embedded stigmatyping that whites can marshal against blacks in order to defend the boundaries of whiteness.

That Rankine directs our gaze to this larger context is an invaluable contribution. Too often, when racial controversies arise, the ensuing public outcry leaves us with a sense that the fundamental problem is with the white individuals who make racist gaffes in public. We then shame those whites into offering public, highly scripted apologies, and everyone moves on until the next white idiot opens his or her mouth. We seldom get to talk about—let alone act on—the social and cultural conditions that produce each new episode in that ongoing drama. As a result, we learn only that, tsk, tsk, there are still some ugly white racists out there who just don’t get it. They just need to shut up, and we can all get back to singing in multicultural harmony. As Citizen suggests, there are other lessons to be learned.

The microaggressions recounted in the first part of rankine’s book are clearly racial warfare by other means.

In later sections, Rankine takes us beyond the mostly private intimacy of micro-aggressions and into the more public world of stigmatization and racial hate crimes, including white-on-black homicide. She briefly explores what sociologists, taking a page from Erving Goffman, call “destigmatization strategies.” She shows how black artists and athletes struggle to break out of the straitjacket of expectations imposed by white audiences who only want to see blackness performed in stereotypical ways. Both the power and limits of these destigmatization strategies are deftly revealed with vignettes drawn from video artist Hennessey Youngman and tennis superstar Serena Williams. These, along with the unflinching accounts of several infamous cases of black deaths at the hands of white killers, are some of the most instructive and depressing passages in the poem.

If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, what kinds of new laws does Rankine’s prose poem suggest? It’s hard to say. We can call out and reprimand ignorance, rudeness, and incivility—increasingly, we do—but we can’t outlaw them. Rankine’s testimony to the harms of racial microaggressions is powerful and moving, but what exactly is the crime? Insults and attacks on dignity may be unavoidable outcomes in democracies committed to protecting free thought and speech. Racism and sexism are not just endemic to fascist and patriarchal societies. It’s possible that they are an index of how free, open, and tolerant societies are. Think of the ironies in the slogan “Stamp Out Intolerance!” If we are preaching tolerance, don’t we have to tolerate the intolerant?

However unsettling that paradox may be, it raises an important question: are blacks denied the respect and dignity of full citizenship and personhood by bad-apple white racists whose chief deficiencies are ignorance, prejudice, and an immorally high degree of ethnocentrism? Or are blacks denied full citizenship and personhood by institutionalized patterns of anti-black discrimination and decades of concentrated disadvantage? Put another way, what is the greater harm? Symbolic exclusion through racial insult and microaggression or social and political exclusion through institutionalized discrimination?

You can answer that question any way you like, including with the observation that it presents a false choice, but generally speaking, white Americans prefer to talk about individual prejudice and bad behavior rather than systemic, institutionalized discrimination. The first choice—tackling prejudice—gives us hope that we can win the battle for racial justice by singling out and re-educating the bad apples in incremental fashion, without having to disrupt other aspects of our lives. The second choice is much more depressing, because it is so daunting: we need structural change across a range of social institutions, beginning with our political and legal systems. Significant disruptions are not just likely, they are required.

This harder path is precisely the one that Darryl Pinckney passionately defends in Blackballed, his meditation on 150 years of black struggles over the ballot box. Pinckney tells a story of black cultural politics by focusing on black electoral politics. He shows us how to think about the cultural and personal significance of the black vote for African Americans, from Reconstruction in the 1860s and ’70s to the present-day Republican obsessions with voter ID laws and purging the voter rolls. For Pinckney, these struggles are central to understanding not only changing definitions of black identity, but the expansion and contraction of American democracy and human rights.

<em>Contemporary print of first black vote in US</em>. Library of Congress

The struggle by blacks to gain full access to the ballot box was never just about black votes. It was also about black vision and visibility: how one saw black America and what kind of black one wanted to be. The simple binary choices blacks faced undoubtedly belied the complexity of emotions they felt, but, in Darryl Pinckney’s telling, it was always either/or. Either assimilation and integration or separatism and segregation. Either violence or non-violence. Either civil rights or black power. In practical terms, this meant either W. E .B. Du Bois or Booker T. Washington in the 1920s and ’30s, either King or Malcolm X in the 1960s, Jackson or Clinton in the 1990s. Admirably, Pinckney does not take sides so much as provide a roll call of who was who in these heroic rivalries, while taking time to identify the white politicians and leaders who either aided or obstructed black efforts for racial justice. These early passages are some of the most entertaining and enlightening in Blackballed, as Pinckney enlivens his sketches of historical figures with snapshots of the most dramatic moments in their lives and examinations of the deeper political contexts in which those moments unfolded.

Like Row and Rankine, Pinckney matches narrative form to function in clever and striking ways. His narrative is roughly chronological but strictly nonlinear: the storytelling jumps back and forth across generations and decades, even as it carries us from the 15th amendment of 1870 to Obama’s reelection in 2012. He makes this rhetorical time machine work to his advantage, showing a deep continuity in the efforts by whites to marginalize and exclude black political power from the democratic process. Efforts to block black votes in 2012 look eerily similar to those in 1890, minus the physical violence. The history of black disenfranchisement is Faulknerian: it is a past that is never dead. It’s not even past.

Pinckney tells a story of black cultural politics by focusing on black electoral politics.

Less successful are Pinckney’s sketches of Obama, of which this little book has many. I’m still not sure exactly what Pinckney thinks of the first black president, other than as the culmination of the long black struggle the book so lovingly describes. That struggle for black freedom through gaining the vote has been the prize all along, Pinckney seems to suggest, but the current result has been a compromised president whose efforts on behalf of racial justice have been anemic at best. Despite this decidedly ambiguous portrait, Blackballed presents the case for believing that racial justice will only ever be achieved through political empowerment and democratic processes. Pinckney makes no apologies for his optimism, or for the decidedly Whiggish slant to his tale. At the very end of his essay, he leaves room for the power of imagination and cultural rebellions like those of the 1960s to reshape the power structure: “A revolution in consciousness won and we ourselves live in our heads in a more open and accepting society.” In the end, for Pinckney, it was not the battle against white prejudice that won the war—it was the battle against white majority political power.

In social scientific studies of race and racism, there are cultural (or symbolic or discursive) accounts and structural (or systemic) accounts. We can see how these different approaches should complement each other and grant us a more comprehensive understanding of the complexity of race, but, too often, students of race are presented with either/or rather than both/and choices about how to talk and think about race. In my own classes on race, I present culturalist readings of race that foreground racial meanings, experiences, and interactions as they are presented in ethnographies and personal memoirs, like those foregrounded in Rankine’s book. I also teach structuralist accounts that expose the depth and durability of institutionalized racism by documenting and quantifying, for instance, the racial wealth gap or the cancerous growth of the carceral state, social facts akin to those recounted by Pinckney. But in so doing, I constantly have to bridge the distance between these two different approaches. Perhaps that is as it must be, given how knowledge in the social sciences gets categorized as either subjective or objective, but it does not fully make sense to either me or my students, who are left puzzling over what might be hiding in the gap in between. More importantly, we remain uncertain why such splits in knowledge production occur in the first place.

One of the virtues of all three books here is that they effectively repudiate this split, offering a holism that combines the deeply personal realm of subjective experience with the deeply impersonal realm of objective structures and institutions. Or, at least, this is their aim. In those moments where the narratives succeed in showing how deeply race is anchored in both the personal and the institutional, we come to see that race, rather than being something we must transcend, is more likely a permanent feature of social identity for centuries to come. If that is the case, the question is this: can we ever have race without racism?