Why Do People Pass?: The Complex Journeys of Belonging and Identity in America

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-11-27 03:13Z by Steven

Why Do People Pass?: The Complex Journeys of Belonging and Identity in America

Beacon Broadside

Brando Skyhorse, Associate Professor of English
Indiana University, Bloomington

Lisa Page, Acting Director of Creative Writing
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Image credit: Bob Kosturko

America has a long and complicated history of passing. We’re familiar with the stories of African Americans who passed as white in the past in order to improve their social mobility. Nowadays, we are hearing a variety of personal experiences about passing that transcends additional modes of identity—class, religion, gender, sexuality, and more. Writers Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page have brought together some of these stories in their new essay anthology We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. As they point out in the introduction of the book, excerpted below, there have always been many ways in which people pass, and many reasons to do so.

In June 2015 a surprising number of Americans stopped to gawk at a thirty-seven-year-old “African American” woman named Rachel Dolezal who, after an almost decade-long act, was outed by her parents as a white woman who chose to pass as black. The national response, culminating in a Today Show appearance, was extreme. Some were outraged by her deception, while others drew parallels between her right to live her “truth” the same way Caitlyn Jenner embodies hers.

Rachel—or “#BlackRachel” as she trended online—never once “broke character.”

Later that month, the Daily Beast reported on Andrea Smith, an Anglo woman and esteemed professor of Native American studies at the University of California, Riverside, who presented as Cherokee for over twenty years. She had a long history of American Indian activism and published articles and books purporting to speak on Indian issues as an American Indian despite not a trace of Indian ancestry being found after two rounds of genealogical research.

If you’re looking for historical precedent, how about jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow? A middle-class Jewish kid from Chicago, he married a black woman, moved to Harlem, self-identified in the 1940s as a “white Negro” and was listed by his draft board as “Negro.” His understanding of being a black American was an odd brew of sincere cultural musical appreciation and promoting the oversimplified “shuck and jive” stereotypes. Go back further and you’ll find Clarence King, a nineteenth-century blue-eyed white scientist and best-selling author who thrilled in “slumming.” For thirteen years, King passed as a black Pullman porter, complete with a black common-law wife and five mixed-race children.

American history is filled with innumerable examples like these. Why, then, did “#BlackRachel” fascinate and outrage so many of us? The answer lies in the complex phenomenon of passing…

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Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, Social Science, United States on 2012-01-19 01:22Z by Steven

Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy

Global Dialogue
Volume 12, Number 2 (Summer/Autumn 2010)—Race and Racisms
ISSN 1986-2601

Andrea Smith, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies
University of California, Riverside

Many scholars in Native studies have argued that the field has been co-opted by broader discourses, such as ethnic studies or post-colonial studies. Their contention is that ethnic studies elide Native claims to sovereignty by rendering Native peoples as ethnic groups suffering racial discrimination rather than as nations who are undergoing colonisation. These scholars and activists rightly point to the neglect within ethnic studies and within broader racial-justice struggles of the unique legal position Native peoples have in the United States. At the same time, because of this intellectual and political divide, there is insufficient exchange that would help us understand how white supremacy and settler colonialism intersect, particularly within the United States. In this paper, I will examine how the lack of attention to settler colonialism hinders the analysis of race and white supremacy developed by scholars who focus on race and racial formation. I will then examine how the lack of attention to race and white supremacy within Native studies and Native struggles hinders the development of a decolonial framework.

The Logics of White Supremacy

Before I begin this examination, however, it is important to challenge the manner in which ethnic studies have formulated the study of race relations as well as how people of colour organising within the United States have formulated models for racial solidarity. As I have argued elsewhere, the general premiss behind organising by “people of colour” as well as “ethnic studies” is that communities of colour share overlapping experiences of oppression around which they can compare and organise.The result of this model is that scholars or activists, sensing that this melting-pot approach to understanding racism is eliding critical differences between groups, focus on the uniqueness of their particular history of oppression. However, they do not necessarily challenge the model as a whole—often assuming that it works for all groups except theirs. Instead, as I have also argued, we may wish to rearticulate our understanding of white supremacy by not assuming that it is enacted in a single fashion; rather, white supremacy is constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics. I would argue that the three primary logics of white supremacy in the US context include: (1) slaveability/anti-black racism, which anchors capitalism; (2) genocide, which anchors colonialism; and (3) orientalism, which anchors war.

One pillar of white supremacy is the logic of slavery. This logic renders black people as inherently enslaveable—as nothing more than property. That is, in this logic of white supremacy, blackness becomes equated with slaveability. The forms of slavery may change, be it explicit slavery, sharecropping, or systems that regard black peoples as permanent property of the state, such as the current prison–industrial complex (whether or not blacks are formally working within prisons).  But the logic itself has remained consistent. This logic is the anchor of capitalism. That is, the capitalist system ultimately commodifies all workers: one’s own person becomes a commodity that one must sell in the labour market while the profits of one’s work are taken by somebody else. To keep this capitalist system in place—which ultimately commodifies most people—the logic of slavery applies a racial hierarchy to this system. This racial hierarchy tells people that as long as you are not black, you have the opportunity to escape the commodification of capitalism. Anti-blackness enables people who are not black to accept their lot in life because they can feel that at least they are not at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy—at least they are not property, at least they are not slaveable.

A second pillar of white supremacy is the logic of genocide. This logic holds that indigenous peoples must disappear. In fact, they must always be disappearing, in order to enable non-indigenous peoples’ rightful claim to land. Through this logic of genocide, non-Native peoples then become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous—land, resources, indigenous spirituality, and culture. Genocide serves as the anchor of colonialism: it is what allows non-Native peoples to feel they can rightfully own indigenous peoples’ land. It is acceptable exclusively to possess land that is the home of indigenous peoples because indigenous peoples have disappeared.

A third pillar of white supremacy is the logic of orientalism. “Orientalism” was Edward Said’s term for the process of the West’s defining itself as a superior civilisation by constructing itself in opposition to an “exotic” but inferior “Orient”. (Here, I am using the term “orientalism” more broadly than to signify solely what has been historically named as the “orient” or “Asia”.) The logic of orientalism marks certain peoples or nations as inferior and deems them to be a constant threat to the wellbeing of empire. These peoples are still seen as “civilisations”—they are not property or the “disappeared”. However, they are imagined as permanent foreign threats to empire. This logic is evident in the anti-immigration movements in the United States that target immigrants of colour. It does not matter how long immigrants of colour reside in the United States, they generally become targeted as foreign threats, particularly during war-time. Consequently, orientalism serves as the anchor of war, because it allows the United States to justify being in a constant state of war to protect itself from its enemies. Orientalism allows the United States to defend the logics of slavery and genocide as these practices enable it to stay “strong enough” to fight these constant wars. What becomes clear, then, is what Sora Han declares: the United States is not at war; the United States is war. For the system of white supremacy to stay in place, the United States must always be at war…

…Jared Sexton, in his otherwise brilliant analysis in Amalgamation Schemes, also presumes the continuance of settler colonialism. He describes Native peoples as a “racial group” to be collapsed into all non-black peoples of colour. Sexton goes so far as to argue for a black/non-black paradigm that is parallel to a “black/immigrant” paradigm, rhetorically collapsing indigenous peoples into the category of immigrants, in effect erasing their relationship to this land and hence reifying the settler colonial project. Similarly, Angela Harris argues for a “black exceptionalism” that defines race relations in which Native peoples play a “subsidiary” role. To make this claim, she lumps Native peoples into the category of racial minority and even “immigrant” by contending that “contempt for blacks is part of the ritual through which immigrant groups become ‘American’ ”.

Of course, what is not raised in this analysis is that “America” itself can exist only through the disappearance of indigenous peoples. Feagin, Sexton and Harris fail to consider that markers of “racial progress” for Native peoples are also markers of genocide. For instance, Sexton contends that the high rate of interracial marriages for Native peoples indicates racial progress rather than being part of the legacy of US policies of cultural genocide, including boarding schools, relocation, removal and termination. Interestingly, a central intervention made by Sexton is that the politics of multiculturalism depends on anti-black racism. That is, multiculturalism exists to distance itself from blackness (since difference from whiteness, defined as racial purity, is already a given). However, with an expanded notion of the logics of settler colonialism, his analysis could resonate with indigenous critiques of mestizaje, whereby the primitive indigenous subject always disappears into the more complex, evolved mestizo subject. These signs of “racial progress” could then be rearticulated as markers of indigenous disappearance and what Denise Ferreira da Silva terms as racial engulfment into the white self-determining subject. Thus, besides presuming the genocide of Native peoples and the givenness of settler society, these analyses also misread the logics of anti-indigenous racism (as well as other forms of racism)…

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