The Madness of “Race”

I am a big Radiolab fan. If you aren’t familiar with them, RUN TO THEIR WEBSITE AND LISTEN TO THEIR PODCASTS.

They recently had two podcasts that blew my mind. The first one explored the backstory to a recent Supreme Court case — Adoptive Couple vs Baby Girl. Essentially, a young woman got pregnant and the father elected to sign away his parental rights. She decided to adopt out the baby, whom the birth dad never met. However, once the baby was adopted and being raised by a new family, the birth father was able to successfully sue for full custody. As a native American — an enrolled Cherokee — the birth father had special privileges under the Indian Child Welfare Act, which trumped the adopted couple’s rights … There are more nuances and details — go listen to the podcast!! — that I won’t get into.

No matter how the court ruled, I couldn’t imagine a clear “win” for anyone. One family was going to be royally f’d. But the case also had major implications for how race operates in relation to the law. Natives have special rights — their relationship to the land due to their indigeneity marks them differently within dominant racial structures. ((btw, one of my best friends, a native, always tells me that as a “race” person, I just don’t understand some things. And that is true. “Race” is a foundational structure in the social paradigm I grew up with and continue to operate within.))

The second podcast followed up with a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling and its implications for the Indian Child Welfare Act, the child, and the families that were involved. The court ruled in favor of the adoptive couple, but also in a very very narrow fashion that left the ICWA mostly in place.

However, what struck me about the second podcast (and what motivated me to write this post), was Radiolab’s decision to air the followup to the case with another story. This second story featured a family in Mississippi whose experiences directly illustrate the social fiction of race. The family is considered “black” though everyone in it can pass for “white.” The two adult daughters have chosen different affiliations. One considers herself white, whereas the other considers herself black. Intriguingly, the mother calls herself a “negro,” rather than “black” — more later about what I feel are the implications of this appellation.

I LOVE the fact that Radiolab aired the two stories together. I think it’s BRILLIANT for how they so ably demonstrate the inherent illogic and irrationality of “race” as a scheme for categorizing people. The family is “black” because everything about the community where they live has enforced social perceptions of their blackness. It’s fascinating. The daughter that has chosen to pass as white — Ally — described her transformation. And it really was as simple as a change of dress and *most particularly* of ATTITUDE. She became white because she insisted upon it and made friends with folks who believed her.

Blood quantas are still applied as a rubric for determining indigeneity. Baby Veronica is something like “1.2%” Cherokee. Though the court ruled in favor of the adoptive family, they did not recategorize baby Veronica’s Cherokee-ness. The family in Mississippi similarly has a very minor quanta of “Negro.” I’m not even sure how far back in their ancestry you’d have to go to find Africans. But this perceived quanta, however tiny, was the basis for the family’s recognizability and categorization as black.

There’s been a LOT of race talk in the national media, thanks to the George Zimmerman case and the Paula Deen debacle. I won’t even get into those.

However, I think that all these things taken together help illustrate two things: Firstly, the FICTION OF RACE is incredibly powerful. It’s a narrative, a social projection, that we continue to hold onto. How does one apportion out “blood” or bodies in terms of percentages, anyway?? Biology simply doesn’t work like that. It demonstrates that race is actually cultural, though we continue to imagine it is somehow fundamentally biological. The fact that the southern family identifies and therefore operates as black illustrates this. Yet, the fiction of race’s POWER lies in how it muddies these distinctions while simultaneously stabilizing itself as something it is not.

Secondly, these podcasts help illustrate that as a fiction, race is ultimately a TECHNOLOGY FOR SUBJECTION AND OPPRESSION. Subjection refers to the social processes that make a person legible or recognizable to the state. In the US, race is a primary — if not dominant — way we are visible to others. Wow, is that evident with those two southern daughters. And listening to Ally’s experiences growing up “black” before she elected to become white is heartbreaking because of the *utter* ridiculousness of it. I am not calling her suffering, or her sister’s suffering, ridiculous. The REASON for their mistreatment is beyond absurd. Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches came to mind. And just because the Cherokee father had certain rights within the purview of the ICWA doesn’t mean that his Cherokee-ness is a social “advantage.” Take a look at the history books. To be racially subjected is NEVER a good thing. That’s why “white” folks hold all the privilege. In this paradigm, they don’t have a “race.” I hope it’s clear, though, that “whiteness” is as much a racial fiction as anything else is in the race paradigm. It’s just the one that wins.

OH — about the way the mother in the family used “Negro” — I was struck by that, because it gets at the cultural foundation of blackness, I feel. It’s not about a visual or otherwise “racial” marker (race is usually imagined as skindeep AND penetrative). It’s an interesting term. It’s outdatedness points to its relationship to history in a way that “blackness” doesn’t. I think that woman is very smart to use that term. It’s a nuance.

There are like a thousand people who have written more intelligently and ably about all this stuff, but I thought these two podcasts were so incredibly illustrative. If you have the chance, please go listen to them.

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