Race and Social Class

Statue of Liberty By Larry Gibson. Licensed from Adobe Stock Images.

Race is sometimes predicated upon upbringing, which is probably what was meant by the comment that President Obama was “not black enough” by Ben Carson, a candidate for President of the United States in the Republican primaries in 2016. Carson suggested that his upbringing differs dramatically from that of Obama, and therefore Carson will be better able to represent the black experience. Obama was “raised white” and is therefore an “African” American rather than an African-American. 

Is there any substance to racial identity or does it depend upon the capacity to perform it?

The issue becomes complicated when skin color enters into dialogue with those categories that are dependent upon material circumstances (economics, education). Physiological difference has no cultural meaning until it enters into the discourse of race and the cultural differentiations that it carries with it; that discourse inheres in language and the act of noting, of differentiating, facilitates racial difference. To this extent, it is not possible to describe race and histories of race without leaving the trace of the observer. In invoking various markings and boundaries, descriptions of racial histories bring these differences to the fore, and can prepare the ground for the possibility of political intervention.a

Can One Disown Their Race?

If race is a central part of human identity and related to social class, can one disown one’s race when one transitions to a different social class? Further, to which community would a multiracial person, immigrant, or diasporic subject belong?

Here is a case study with open-ended questions. In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the U.S. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has been exposed by news media as having misrepresented herself as African-American when her lineage seems to be Czech, Swedish, and German. Notably Dolezal does not align herself with white supremacist ideologies, and, based on what we know so far, she has not done the NAACP any harm. The incident raised a storm over social media and major news outlets in the United States, initiating debates about the notion of passing and racial and cultural authenticity. 

In Passing and the Fictions of Identity, Elaine Ginsberg offers a social theory of the phenomenon of a mixed-race or biracial person identifying as, or being seen as, members of different racial groups. Light-skinned African-Americans during periods of racial segregation “passed” for white as a strategy of survival. Members of a minority group may adopt a new accent, grooming habits, and names to blend in with members of a privileged, majority group. While it is often a form of self-preservation, the notion of passing as members of a different race, gender, class, and even dis/ability status is problematic in that pitches presumably essential, innate, authentic identities against identities in borrowed robes. The notion presupposes that some identities are more authentic than others.

The public anxiety surrounding this case shows that race is often, if not exclusively, defined in relation to an other. If Dolezal can be black, what is black, and who is white? As Mark Orbe argues, this case reveals “implicit ways in which social constructions of race are not natural, logical, or irrefutable.” Race is not intelligible when it is not visible or exhibited in some palpable form of cultural practice.

In Elaine Ginsberg’s words, the Dolezal incident exposes a “category crisis” that “destabilizes the grounds of privilege founded on racial identity.” In a broader context, the Dolezal incident reveals deep-seated anxieties about the diaspora, immigration, cultural appropriation, and passing—circumstances in which one’s heritage is not readily visible or legible. As an identity marker, race is seen by many as proprietary. It is personal and cannot be appropriated, nor can it simply be adopted by performative gestures.

Race and Class in Gatacca

If race is understood in popular culture in terms of both cultural practice and genetic expression, what future is there for race as a viable analytical concept? Might race become a broader or narrower category of genetic difference and class?

Andrew Niccol’s 1997 sci-fi dystopian film Gatacca imagines a post-racial scenario, one that goes beyond eugenics. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a genetically inferior man—one of the few who are born naturally—takes on the identity of a genetically designed man born in the laboratory as most humans are in the film. Freeman has been categorized as a member of an underclass suitable only for menial jobs due to his inferior genetic make-up. Aspiring to travel to space, Freeman takes on a form of racial passing by assuming the identity of Jerome Morrow.

The film portrays discrimination against the “genetically unenhanced” as similar to racism and classism in our times; after all, the underclass is labeled by such derogatory names as “in-valids,” “faith births,” and “defectives.” As critic David Kirby observes, “rather than leading to the racial utopia as depicted in Gattaca, the acceptance of a genetic basis of race will only further segregate society.” Gattaca turns the premise of a utopian “post-racial” society on its head and shows the dystopian tendency of a biology-driven understanding of race. The vocabulary of race matters, because the vocabulary at one’s disposal determines the nature and quality of the inquiry.

Conclusion

Race, like many identity markers, is social shorthand for articulating differences. Race is as personal as it is political. People feel a sense of possession over their race, and can be offended by any act of appropriation. Let us keep these questions in mind as we study gender theory in the next section.

 

Further Reading

Some of these resources may only be accessible with George Washington University credentials.

Davis, Angela. “The Meaning of Freedom,” speech in Denver, 2008

Davis, Angela. “Women, Race and Class: An Activist Perspective,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 10.4 (1982): 5-9.