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Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles against Subjection

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Nadine Ehlers examines the constructions of blackness and whiteness cultivated in the U.S. imaginary and asks, how do individuals become racial subjects? She analyzes anti-miscegenation law, statutory definitions of race, and the rhetoric surrounding the phenomenon of racial passing to provide critical accounts of racial categorization and norms, the policing of racial behavior, and the regulation of racial bodies as they are underpinned by demarcations of sexuality, gender, and class. Ehlers places the work of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler’s account of performativity, and theories of race into conversation to show how race is a form of discipline, that race is performative, and that all racial identity can be seen as performative racial passing. She tests these claims through an excavation of the 1925 "racial fraud" case of Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and concludes by considering the possibilities for racial agency, extending Foucault’s later work on ethics and "technologies of the self" to explore the potential for racial transformation.

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1 Racial Disciplinarity

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In the age of Reconstruction America, where slavery had been abolished and a new era of racial politics supposedly embarked upon, the presiding Judge in Scott v. Georgia (1869) emphatically declared that “the laws of civilization demand that the races be kept apart in this country.”1 He recited, here, the insistent historical desire within dominant American racial ideology to maintain unequivocal distinctions between disparate races. And he called upon the very ‘laws of civilization’ as the origin of and justification for these apparently immutable divisions drawn along the lines of race. Echoing this call, the opinion delivered in Kinney v. Commonwealth (Va. 1878) stated:

The purity of public morals, the moral and physical development of both races, and the highest advancement of our cherished southern civilization, under which two distinct races are to work out and accomplish the destiny to which the Almighty has assigned them on this continent—all require that they should be kept distinct and separate, and that connection and alliances so unnatural that God and nature seem to forbid them, should be prohibited by positive law, and be subject to no evasion.2

 

2 Racial Knowledges: Securing the Body in Law

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An aversion to their corporeal distinctions from us … militates against a general incorporation of them with us.

—St. George Tucker, letter to Jeremy Belknap, June 1795

Racial distinctions based on supposed truths of color and blood were made from the earliest days of the North American colonies and confirmed in slavery, where blackness became synonymous with servitude and whiteness with freedom. In this chapter I trace the codification of these racial distinctions within law, because it is in this arena that the broader discursive workings of racial discipline have been secured. The law has been deployed in the service of whiteness to construct and maintain it as a pure and superior racial category. Militating against the ‘incorporation’ of racial others, law (echoing St. George Tucker) has historically been used to create and institute a complete division between black and white racial subjects, and to reinforce that these divisions—or absolute distinctions—are grounded in the body, in the fictive loci of race: color and blood. In order to map how this was achieved, in what follows I examine the relationship between law and racial knowledges, truth, subjectivities, and what I have called racial discipline. I argue in this chapter that law must be seen as a core modality or technology of discipline that works—in the sense of labor—to ‘make’ racial subjects, raced bodies, and to formulate the idea that race is a truth. This making of race has been augmented and maintained through what can be called ‘racial purity laws,’ which encompass statutory definitions of race and anti-miscegenation regulations. Before going on to this analysis of how race has been articulated and secured in law, however, I want to first mark some of the core ideas that have informed and conditioned the production of blackness and whiteness, for it is in the context of these ideas or knowledges that law operates.

 

3 Passing through Racial Performatives

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Race and the laws regulating it have been premised on a paradox, or what can be understood as an internal contradiction. For there has been a belief that race is at once in plain sight and is yet potentially hidden. Race is seen to be a ‘truth’ that the body of the subject announces; the body is viewed as a legible text upon which the schema of race is inscribed and through which it is transparently conveyed. The subject becomes synonymous with the body, which functions as the disciplinary mechanism through which the social and legal position of the subject is defined and regulated, and it is this body that marks the parameters of subjectivity. At one and the same time, however, the racial body has been positioned within this rhetoric as that which could belie ‘truth,’ escape detection and confound the workings of the hegemonic racial economy that desperately relies upon identifiable demarcation between racial subjects. This epistemological loop is a recurrent motif in American racial ideology. For while social discourse and legal measures have advanced that race is inevitably pronounced by the body, the fear has always been present that race may defy visibility.

 

4 Domesticating Liminality: Somatic Defiance in Rhinelander v. Rhinelander

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Miscegenation … has been abhorred by men for ages … if young Rhinelander had gone no farther than to place the battered crown of illicit love upon the brow of Alice Jones … recent spectacle would now be an unwritten and unacted drama … [I]nstead … he and the girl he married are viewed today by the millions as degraded violators of an age-old human law. The reasons that marriage is more abhorred than illicit connection are two in chief: First, marriage is an open defiance, a rebellion against the code which forbids miscegenation: and, second, marriage is more likely to produce children and mix the races forever.

New York Amsterdam News, 25 November 1925, Editorial page

In 1924, the former laundress and nursemaid, Alice Jones, married Leonard Rhinelander, the scion of one of New York’s oldest and wealthiest families. In doing so, the New York Times (11 March 1925, 1) claimed, Alice “passe[d] over hundreds of persons on the fringes of society and [made] her debut therein.”1 But “[w]ithin a few hours of the wedding announcement,” the newspaper reported, “town gossip recalled that Alice Jones’s sister was married to a colored butler, and then it was found that a census taker had written down Mr. Rhinelander’s bride as a mulatto. Shortly afterward the youthful bridegroom separated from his wife and the annulment suit followed” (New York Times, 11 March 1925, 1) on the basis that Alice had supposedly lied about her race and passed as white. This case threatened social mores and categories pertaining to class, sexual and gendered protocols, and, perhaps most forcefully, expectations regarding racial behavior. In this chapter, I look to Alice Rhinelander in order to demonstrate (a) how the liminal subject complicates performative demands of race; (b) how racial ‘truth’ and corporeality are viewed as—and are made to seem—commensurate; and (c) how law is used as a modality of racial discipline to punish and ‘correct’ the recalcitrant subject who fails to ratify discursive racial classification and accompanying performative demands.

 

5 Passing Phantasms: Rhinelander and Ontological Insecurity

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Within the rhetoric of dominant racial logic, the signifying power of white skin has always required the concomitant verification of a subcutaneous claim to whiteness—‘pure’ white lineage. And, while ‘looking white’ might have granted one possession of whiteness without legal title, in order to possess fair legal title, one had to be white (Saks 2000, 74). As the progeny of a ‘blue blooded’ Huguenot family, Leonard Rhinelander’s genealogy remained unquestioned. His possession of fair legal title, as ‘white,’ was unequivocally accepted. Once in the Court, however, the gaze of law did not rest solely on his wife, Alice, whom he had accused of racial fraud. During the course of the trial, Leonard’s own approximation of whiteness—more specifically, white masculine subjectivity—did not escape scrutiny. It was uncontested that Leonard Rhinelander possessed the phenotypic markers of whiteness that invited the social sanctioning of white subjectivity. And as a white subject, he was presumed to have performed certain ‘acts’ in accordance both with his white corporeality and with white ‘ideals’ to ensure that he be viewed as white. In this chapter, I explore the idea that just as Alice Rhinelander assumed the image of whiteness (albeit, in an allegedly fraudulent capacity), so, too, did Leonard. Both subjects exemplify the phantasm of identity, for this case elucidates that all identity is a form of passing and is, as such, ontologically insecure.

 

6 Imagining Racial Agency

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Rhinelander seems to refuse the possibility that either Leonard or Alice might reimagine themselves, let alone the schematizations of race in early twentieth-century America. Both are ostensibly recuperated in line with normalizing demands of race and the accompanying dictates of racial discipline. Both are discursively identified as having failed in the articulation of their respective racial ‘truths.’ Leonard failed to reproduce white norms, and Alice failed to adequately self-discipline—to clearly and unambiguously act in accordance with what the law deemed to be her racial designation. The consequence, as it plays out in the course of the trial, is that each of these subjects is instructed as to their failure: the juridical reprimand for Leonard is that he is found to be personally responsible for his failure to performatively enact the imperatives of whiteness; for Alice, the finding is a juridical reprimand stating that she cannot exist as a liminal subject or a white subject but, instead, can only and must be black. Both are cast as aberrant and replaced within the normative injunctions that constitute the respective racial sites of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness.’

 

7 Practicing Problematization: Resignifying Race

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Performativity describes this relation of being implicated in that which one opposes, this turning of power against itself to produce alternative modalities of power, to establish a kind of political contestation that is not a ‘pure’ opposition, a ‘transcendence’ of contemporary relations of power, but a difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably impure.

—Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter

Racial passing ‘unsettles’ because it challenges accepted beliefs that race is stable and fixed, transparent and visually embodied. The act of passing represents a dissonance between the external racial signification of skin and the supposed internal racial truth that is made to inhere in blood. To pass-as-white is to tactically redeploy power, an action facilitated by an ambiguous body or a body that can be visually verified as white; it is to defy racial ascription and prescriptions. Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live sketch, “White Like Me,” parodies race and seems to suggest that passing—this embodied defiance—might be the answer to America’s race problems.1 First aired in 1984, the sketch shows African American Murphy conducting a mock-serious experiment where he transforms himself (with the help of “the best makeup people in the business”) into Mr. White in order to “go underground and actually experience America” on the streets of New York, “as a white man.” The audience sees him prepare for his role backstage and hears that he learned the tropes of whiteness by watching “lots of Dynasty,” reading Hallmark cards, and studying how white people walk (“their butts are real tight”). Ready to enact whiteness, he enters the white world: he goes into a convenience store where the white owner tells him to take a paper for free; we see him on a bus with other whites who, after the last black passenger has disembarked, celebrate by breaking out into the song “Life is a Cabaret” and, finally, he enters the Equity National Bank where the white loan officer gives him a huge sum of money despite his having no collateral, no credit, and no identification, and tells him: “Pay us back any time. Or don’t. We don’t care.” Murphy highlights here both what George Lipsitz (1998) has called a “possessive investment in whiteness”—where white people secure their stakes in an advantaging system—and what Cheryl Harris (1993) has marked as the social and economic benefits that accrue to white skin and status. Murphy ends the sketch, however, with a warning:

 

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