Acting White?: Rethinking Race in Post-Racial America
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
In Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America, law professors Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati assess when racial judgments are based on one’s behavior rather than solely on one’s skin color. This book reveals the intricacies of how race-based judgments are determined by culturally embedded characteristics—such as vernacular, hairstyle, mannerisms, attendance at an urban public school, professional affiliations, or belonging to a Black organization—rather than skin color. Carbado and Gulati argue that minorities (particularly Blacks) in majority organizations are judged on how they perform their race. The authors develop the concept of one’s “Working Identity” which they contend is used to measure how “Black” a person is by closely analyzing his or her accent, clothing choices, hair style, social networks, political preferences, and childhood background. Racial performance impacts how Blacks are perceived. One must either play up or diminish his or her racial identity based on what he or she believes a potential employer, college admissions officer, or the promotion committee wants in their Black colleagues or students. This is the tension experienced by African Americans in a “post-racial” America. On balance, Carbado and Gulati conclude that striking the right Working Identity for Blacks is a difficult task.
While everyone has a Working Identity, Carbado and Gulati intentionally focus on the double bind that Blacks face in a “post-racial” America. The authors also point out that women have a Working Identity that requires them to perform heteronormative femininity, gays and lesbians are expected to perform heterosexual gender roles, and men should act masculine. The authors do not explicitly focus on these other Working Identities, as their main focus is on middle class, Black professionals who are seeking acceptance or admission into White dominated spaces. The authors use racial identity, or “acting Black” as a proxy for social class, on the basis of which one’s racial character is assessed. In order to make this argument, Carbado and Gulati draw from a stereotypical dichotomy of Black behavior and “authentic” racial identity. In this sense, the authors argue that American society defines “good” Blacks as people who think of themselves as people first and Black second, whereas “bad” Blacks are people who are more closely identified with their race (p. 2). “Bad” Blacks have a harder time fitting into middle-class White environments. The negative racial stereotypes associated with “bad” Blacks necessitates that these Blacks must spend more time trying to endear themselves to White middle class society, institutions, and cultural norms. This, of course, takes away from actually doing one’s work, which should serve as the basis for getting ahead in a “post-racial” America.
The authors take an intersectional approach to examining how racism, gender bias, and classism operate in college admissions, employment, and racial profiling. Intersectional approaches highlight the ways in which social and political structures interact, enforce and influence the multiple and overlapping inequalities within marginal groups. Rather than assume a monolithic Black experience, Carbado and Gulati spin out hypothetical and real cases as well as use case law centering on situations with Black women, Afro-Caribbean immigrants, working class individuals, single mothers, and same-gender loving individuals. The authors illuminate the mutually constitutive racial identities and other salient identities of Blacks as well as the hegemonic restrictive systems and social structures that impact the lives of African Americans. While legal remedies cannot, and perhaps should not, seek to ameliorate discrimination based on Working Identities, Acting White? successfully demonstrates the complexities of Black identity and how the law has failed to protect those who act “too Black.”
Carbado and Gulati use President Obama’s Working Identity as first case in their study. As a bi-racial man (the product of a White American mother from Kansas and a Black African father from Kenya) Barack Obama carefully performs a Black racial identity—as a “good” Black. As a “bad” Black, Obama has drawn the ire of both liberals and conservatives who believe that the president should not discuss racial inequalities, race-based cultural stances, or differences based on race. These racial realities disavow the pervasive notion that our society ought to be colorblind. As the authors illustrate, President Obama’s double bind of performing his racial identity and serving as the leader of the nation causes both Blacks and Whites to guage his actions as either “too Black” or “too White.” Take for example, Obama’s handling of Reverend Wright’s sermon where he admonished America, or Obama’s comments that his son would look like Trayvon Martin, or Obama’s remark that Dr. Henry Louis Gates was racially profiled because he is a Black man. These highly publicized incidents reveal the ways in which Obama performed his Working Identity in a why that made Whites uncomfortable. Obama was not careful enough in his racial associations and comments, thus he was perceived as race conscious. These faux pas violated the norm of race neutrality that made Obama an acceptable candidate for White Americans, but demonstrated that he is Black enough for Black Americans. It is this type of nuanced and complicated performance of identity that moves the conversation past discriminating against someone on the basis of his or her skin color, and instead requires Blacks to assimilate to White middle class culture and norms in order to get ahead.
While Carbado and Gulati allow for Blacks to have different Working Identities based on their personal choices, family background, socialization, and educational background, etc. they do not afford the same complexity to White employers, admission officers, or police officers. Missing from the analysis is the same intersectional approach that is necessary in understanding the nuances of White attitudes, preferences, and behaviors. Although the book does not focus on Whites, which the authors are smart to point out in the onset of the manuscript, it must not assume that White institutions and individuals are monolithic. Furthermore, the authors may have offered a hypothetical situation where Blacks sought to gain admission to a Historically Black College or University, applied for a position in a Black owned firm, or were denied a promotion in a majority Black business. Can being “too Black” or “Acting White” in post-racial America hurt Black’s chances of succeeding in majority Black environments? The focus on Black assimilation into White culture, corporations, and colleges undermines Black autonomy and racial pride. This one-dimensional analysis of Blacks trying to succeed in White America cannot fully account for the fullness of the Black Working Identity.
Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” advances the field of intersectionality-type research by pointing to intra-intersectional discrimination. By examining preferences for specific performative dynamics, Carbado and Gulati illustrate how some Blacks are preferred over others. As such, paying significant attention to intersectional expressions can offer a compelling critique of structural power and contemporary manifestations of both privilege and marginalization. To be sure, this book will provoke debate and future research on racial identity and performing race in the 21st century.