Monday, January 4, 2016
Racial ambiguity is an experience that I am intimately familiar with. My actual background is unambiguous: I am South Asian American, with two Asian Indian immigrant parents from the same part of India. Yet, with unfailing regularity, I am misidentified for some group that I do not belong to. Just last week here in Savannah, Georgia, someone asked if I was Italian. When I answered no, she said “Okay, Greek?” When I lived in Seattle, I was often identified as Mexican American, usually by Mexican Americans themselves. In New York, I was occasionally Puerto Rican, and when I lived in Philadelphia, I would be greeted with “As-salamu alaykum” by those who thought I was an Arab Muslim. Elsewhere, I recount being called Japanese, Chinese, Native American, and biracial during my childhood.
My experiences with misidentification led me to write a lengthy law review article on the racial ambiguity of South Asian Americans. But I also aim to theorize racial ambiguity more generally and analyze how racial identities are constructed in different contexts. Various groups and individuals, from Arab Americans to Latina/os have the same types of encounters that I describe above. Biracial and multiracial individuals also occupy a racially ambiguous position in American society. Even President Barack Obama, who usually identifies as Black or biracial, has been characterized as “Arab” in certain contexts.
Scholars have explored dimensions of racial ambiguity for different groups. Professor Allyson Hobbs examines the history of “passing” as White by African Americans—perhaps the most widely known phenomenon related to racial ambiguity in American history—and Professor Jennifer Ann Ho documents racial ambiguity in Asian American culture. Beyond physical identification, Professors Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati explore behavioral dimensions of racial ambiguity in their book Acting White? (I too have written about “acting White,” in a different context). And Professor Camille Gear Rich has written more generally about “elective race”—the process and complexity of racial self identification by the individual—which can be distinguished from “ascriptive racial identification” by others.
We can draw on all of this work when theorizing racial ambiguity, to delineate the processes by which ambiguous actors are classified into particular racial identities. Both Professor Rich and Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah make the distinction between self identification (which I refer to in terms of “claims” to racial identities) and labelling by others (where I borrow Appiah’s terminology of “ascriptions” of racial identities by others). We can also think of race not only in terms of formal categories, but also informally—with respect to the stereotypes and social meanings associated with Blackness, Whiteness, foreignness and other racial statuses. The behavioral aspects of “acting White” can only be understood in terms of such social meanings, which do not always require categorical racial classification of individuals. Claims and ascriptions can be part of a larger process of “racial contestation”—to use Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s terminology—which reveals political interests and conflicts. Ambiguous racial actors can make claims to particular racial statuses. For example, early twentieth century immigrants made formal claims to Whiteness in order to be eligible for naturalization, and some current immigrants and minority group members seek the privileges of Whiteness through behavioral and symbolic means. Such claims can be negated through ascriptions of non-Whiteness. Louisiana Republican Governor and former 2016 Presidential candidate Bobby Jindal illustrates this well. Jindal appealed to conservative ideology and colorblind rhetoric to claim honorary Whiteness. He was eventually successful in his Louisiana gubernatorial campaigns (though not initially so), but he could not translate this appeal on a national stage—partly because many White conservative voters viewed him as too foreign to be one of them.
Racial microclimes, defined by the late Professor Keith Aoki and Professor Robert Chang as the local environments that affect racialization, add another dimension to racial ambiguity. I was mistaken for “Mexican” in Seattle, where Mexican Americans are the largest minority group, but not in Philadelphia, which has few Mexican Americans. Rather, I experienced the referents to Islam in Philadelphia, owing to its prominent Black Muslim community. Neither Latina/os nor Muslims are prevalent in my current home of Savannah. The population here is 93 percent Black or White American, which might explain why my last encounter here referenced White ethnic groups. Racial microclimes are most salient for racially amibiguous people, because our identity can change readily depending upon the local environment.
As the number of racially ambiguous people grows in America, theorizing racial ambiguity provides nuanced insight into racialization processes. It brings attention to the social meanings attached to various racial statuses. It also requires us to consider the experiences of various racial groups in conjunction with each other. This is an endeavor that has long been neglected by scholars, as most race scholarship continues to focus on one group in isolation from any others.
Finally, as Professor Blanche Cook pointed out to me, theorizing racial ambiguity can help us deal with the major conundrum of modern Critical Race Theory: the necessity of articulating an anti-essentialist understanding that explains the malleability of race, but without diminishing its continuing significance. By its very nature, racial ambiguity merges social construction with racial realism: it shows that race can be both changing and powerful. In a sense, theorizing racial ambiguity requires us to grapple with the same “double-consciousness” that W.E.B. Du Bois described over a century ago, when he initiated modern critical race scholarship.
Vinay Harpalani, J.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Law, Savannah Law School