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 John O. Calmore

 

Abstracted from< John O. Calmore, Whiteness as Audition and Blackness as Performance: Status Protest from The Margin , 18 Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 99-128, 99-104 (2005)(130 footnotes)


Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.
-- Peggy McIntosh

If race is something about which we dare not speak in polite social company, the same cannot be said of the viewing of race. How, or whether, blacks are seen depends upon a dynamic of display that ricochets between hypervisibility and oblivion. . . . If, moreover, the real lives of real blacks unfold outside the view of many whites, the fantasy of black life as a theatrical enterprise is an almost obsessive indulgence.
-- Patricia Williams

You can't explain to Whites what they can't see.
-- A Latina law student, University of Michigan Introduction
 

This essay responds to the introductory epigraphs. It seeks to make visible a white social identity that presents itself as abstract individualism while masking its support from systems of dominance. Against this hidden connection, blacks must not only represent our reality, but also advocate on its behalf to bring some balance to a form of dominant white voyeurism that places us in the ricocheting tension "between hypervisibility and oblivion."

 Finally, I hope that my personal story provides an illustration of racialized experience that performs identity beyond this voyeurism and beyond what many whites cannot, or will not, see. In short, this essay addresses racialized identity (blackness) as performance and whiteness as audition. Moreover, as a marginal man, I view my marginality as a positive position from which to launch a status protest.

As sociologist Howard Winant points out, common approaches to the study of race have displayed "an insufficient appreciation of the performative aspect of race." In looking at the performance of race, moreover, as Sarah Susannah Willie's study shows we gain a better appreciation of how race is "defined by both subject and situation." Thus, context becomes a key focus point. In Willie's study of black alumni from Northwestern and Howard universities, she found that race was highly malleable and contingent. Her subjects reflected this through their descriptions of the ways they consciously acted white in certain settings and acted black in others. According to Willie:
 

Although they saw themselves as black, that did not mean they understood blackness as something simple or simplistic. The people with whom I spoke treated race as sets of behaviors that they could choose to act out, as expectations they had of themselves and others, as physical difference, and as ethnicity and subculture. Consciously negotiating their identities, even when there was sometimes very little room to do so, the men and women in this study described performing. Acting black for me, however, is not a matter of vacillating from acting white to black in certain settings.

I seek constancy, though I adjust to settings where my acting black defies conventional expectations and stereotypes but does not entail acting white. At this margin, strange though it may appear, sometimes acting black must be performed in personally unprecedented circumstances, representing a new experience even for the actor. When this is the case, life is not merely a script; it is often an improvisation. The performance of identity thus must be nimble and open to constant change. As Homi Bhabha says, "the question of identification is never the affirmation of a pregiven identity, never a self-fulfilling prophecy--it is always the production of an image of identity and the transformation of the subject in assuming that image." Non-white performance in a dominantly white setting has been a historical predicament. From 1790 to 1952, whiteness was a prerequisite for naturalized citizenship. From the first racial prerequisite case in 1878, a total of fifty-two cases were brought before such racial restrictions were eliminated in 1952. In these cases, immigrant applications for citizenship were assessed in terms of whether the applicant could perform whiteness. Indeed, the rights enjoyed by white males could only be obtained through assimilatory behavior. Under these circumstances, in social contract terms, white performance was the quid pro quo for white privilege. Today, this is still largely the quid pro quo, but this is a bad bargain for people of color.

In 1992, I wrote an article about the jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp in which I associated his "fire music" with critical race theory. In that article, I wrote something that is still pertinent: "As a form of oppositional scholarship, critical race theory challenges the universality of [combined] white experience [and] judgment as the authoritative standard that binds people of color and normatively measures, directs, controls, and regulates the terms of proper thought, expression, presentment, and behavior." This essay is an extension of that earlier observation.

In focusing on the relational identities of black and white, I traverse the complex ground where identity and subjectivity interrelate. Julie Matthews points out that, "while 'identity' and 'subjectivity' are often used interchangeably, in contemporary social theory 'identity' refers to the recognition of a person or thing. It is a strategic and relational entity that is 'marked out' by symbols and does not signal a stable core of the self." In performing identity, recognition by others often includes a deployment of "marked-out" symbols that undergird the process of audition. For me, the self-recognition aspect of performing identity is race-consciously subjective, where "[s]ubjectivity demarcates the site of feeling and consciousness." As Matthews elaborates, subjectivity, in contemporary usage, "does not signal a unitary identity or source of agency, but a consciousness determined, regulated and produced by social relations and language." Accordingly, I will explore what whiteness means to me as a black man; what it means not only as a concept, but also as an operational influence in the performance of my own racial identity. Race consciousness is my springboard. Thus introduced, this essay proceeds in four parts. Part I examines the audition frame of dominant, standard-bearing whiteness as it subjects black identity to perform against a backdrop of white narratives that portray oppositional dualities of representation where white images are positive and black images are negative. Here, individually holding white privilege may appear to be benign, but that privilege is not held independently of group-based white supremacy, dominance, and power. Part II discusses the operation of a racialized identity that implores blacks to re-invent themselves as they perform within a framework of whiteness as audition. This performance often places blacks at the margin of dominant society's expectations. Part III incorporates the sociological analyses of Robert Park, Everett Stonequist, and Everett Hughes in discussing performance as a status protest rather than as accommodation, assimilation, or retreat. Under my analysis, marginality is translated into a positive orientation. Finally, Part IV looks at black identity's diversity within itself, raising the issue whether dominant society is inclined to subordinate African-Americans and, at their expense, reward those blacks who are not descendants of slaves. Self-conscious adoption of a diaspora identity may help blacks to transcend intra-group conflicts and establish common operational grounds based on our collective hybridity.

 

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