...physiognomy is a powerful thing. It establishes identification and aversion, and all the more so in an age that is officially color-blind. Such impulses operate beneath the gaze of the supervisory intelligence, at a visceral level that may be the most honest part of us. You see a face that looks like yours. You know that there's an existential knowledge you have in common with that face. Both of you know what it's like to have a cultural code superimposed atop your face, and if it's a code that abashes, nullifies, and unmans you, then you confront every visible reflection of that code with a feeling of mingling curiosity and wariness. When I'm out by myself in the city-- at the movies or at a restaurant-- I'll often see other Asian men out by themselves in the city. We can't even look at each other for the strange vertigo we induce in one another.It's hard to say that Jamelle and I really disagree with each other, as we are both, necessarily, speaking in generalities. And I do agree that he is right to insist that American blackness is different than any other racial encoding, as we'll get to in a bit. But I think that, on balance, he is too sanguine about the ability for the corporeal, physical distinctions of race to be sublimated into the cultural understandings of whiteness. Absent a significantly more pronounced "beiging" of America-- absent an intermingling of genes so pronounced that people are literally unable to identify classical racial identifiers-- I don't think most Hispanic or Asian or Pacific Islander people will be consider white. Not in 2050. Probably not in 2150.
Matt Yglesias has been admirably upfront in saying that, despite being Cuban and Jewish (in other words, having an ethnic and racial heritage that tends to signify more in American history than being Swedish and Dutch does), he is white. But look at Matt Yglesias:
Yes, that's a white guy, like me, in the sense of what is visible and easily culturally signified. Now look at Danny Trejo:
This is not a white guy. And it's not a guy who's going to be white in 40 years. I seriously doubt he'll be white in 140 years. His physical difference-- the unavoidable and corporeal manifestation of what we talk about when we talk about race-- will still exist. And until and unless there is a far greater amount of racial intermarriage and interbreeding, that won't change.
I led with an excerpt from Yang's piece (which is by turns brilliant and inexcusable) because in speaking so frankly about the racial essentialisms pushed onto Asian faces, we see the perfect incongruity between the social integration and economic success that we associate with racial assimilation and the continuing reality of racial signifying. Because Asian people are at once very successful in our system, and yet as Yang's piece so brutally describes, they are still members of a distinct minority, onto which all kinds of assumptions-- about their masculinity, their virility, their intelligence, their drive, their emotional attachments and passions, their sexual beings, their values-- are foisted by the unmarked white majority. On a whole host of demographic metrics, Asian Americans are the "model minority." Indeed, Yang references the fact that Asians have been referred to as the "new Jews" or even the new white people in American life. They have, in context, high incomes, high levels of education, low rates of criminality and incarceration, and so on. Yet there is no sense in which this kind of success means that the physical manifestation of their racial heritage doesn't invite stereotyping. Indeed, the Asian example shows quite the opposite; there are now widespread and persistent stereotypes about Asian people that seem to stem from their success. (They are all logic, no emotion; they are brutally competitive; they are overachievers to the point of being soulless, etc.)
Someone I know once said, in an unfortunate and unguarded moment, that she was never surprised to find an individual Asian person without a foreign accent, but was always surprised to encounter groups of Asians without accents. This is, indeed, thoughtless and out of step with reality, she apologized for it, and yet I think it reflects a certain honesty about the continuing miasma of our thoughts and attitudes towards race, immigration, and assimilation in this country.
I agree with Jamelle that American blackness is a wholly separable and unique phenomenon which will always have its own troubled place in the American consciousness. The history of mass slavery is not assimilable. And, as I have said many times, both white supremacists of the "send them back to Africa" camp and black nationalists of the "let's go back to Africa" camp misunderstand blackness in precisely the same way; American black people are not African. Not in any way whole or simple enough to make the designation meaningful. American blackness is a hybrid, defined both by the presence of a dominant common ancestry and by the innumerable mixings that deny it the condition of "purity." I agree with this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates entirely except for, well, the very first sentence. It doesn't make sense to say that a black person is 30% white because the presence of 30% Caucasoid genealogical history is in no sense disqualifying of blackness. As Coates quotes, "Thirty percent European biogeographical ancestry (likely derived through oppression and sexual violence), doesn't change my identity." Indeed, American blackness is what it is in no small part because of this intermingled genealogical reality.
The question, though, isn't whether any other racial subgroup will have the status of blackness. The question is whether they will achieve the standard of whiteness. I can't agree with Jamelle, on balance. I agree that whiteness is a moving target. But when people point to the history of, for example, Irish people being denied the status of white and then eventually gaining it, they are being willfully ignorant about the fact that there aren't obvious physical manifestations of Irishness. The absence of physical markers are no guarantee of true assimilation or lack of bigotry; the story of American Jewry is the story of a people not obviously physically marked but still subject to consistent and pernicious oppression for centuries. But physical manifestation of racial or ethnic heritage insists on the continuing presence of racial and ethnic essentialisms.
The phrase of art within the university is "marked bodies." I take it that this is the kind of lefty academic speak that drives many people crazy. And yet I think it is perfect term. You cannot unsee racial markings. I can't. And I also can't pretend that, as much as I want it to be true, I have identical subconscious or instinctive reactions to people regardless of their racial makeup, particularly in contexts where we are conditioned by our culture to feel racial danger. (In the city, at night, in poor neighborhoods.) I lived in Hartford for years. Even how I felt in the context of the almost entirely Hispanic Park Street area was different, in subtle ways, from how I felt in the context of the almost entirely black North End, even though they were both poor, blighted areas in the same depressed small New England city. And, I'm sorry to say, my private, uncontrollable thoughts were not entirely enlightened in either context, although on balance, I think I was alright. The existential philosopher in me insists that what matters is not our thoughts or feelings but their expression in our actions, and I am totally dedicated to acting consistent with racial equality. The pragmatist in me knows that my actions can never be truly untouched by the sad reality of my unchosen racial prejudices. So. I work on it.
After the election of Barack Obama, many forcefully mocked the people who claimed that this is a post-racial society and that they "don't see race." They insisted-- I insisted-- that no one is truly capable of being race blind, and that asserting that we are a race blind society ensures that we won't react effectively to persistent racial inequalities. Saying "I don't see race, I'm color blind" became the kind of tic mocked on Saturday Night Live. I agreed and agree with that fundamental thinking, and yet as time goes on I am more troubled. There was something unseemly about the whole business, something so self-congratulatory. Because the thinking seemed to be that you can't not see race, but that you can see it and act entirely enlightened anyway. Those who claimed to be race blind were naive and self-aggrandizing, but we, their critics, knew we could see race, but were confident that we could see it and not have it affect us at all. And that seems to me, in some ways, just as naive and unreal an assumption as the idea that we can achieve color blindness.
If my fears are correct and we can achieve neither color blindness nor entirely equitable attitudes towards the racial differences that we observe, then where can we turn for optimism? I'm not sure. I'm not a defeatist and I don't mean to lapse into tragic pessimism. Our duty is to improve our racial problems, whether easy or not. But I wonder.... For a long time, the idea that we will eventually turn American into a truly multiracial melting pot of beige/light brown/whatever people, racially unmarked because their racial signifiers have been occluded through intermingling, has been mocked as the worst kind of multiculti optimism. And yet I wonder if that isn't, in the end, our best hope for a racially equal and just America.