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  • How Peoples Get Made: Race, Performance, Judgment
  • Kennan Ferguson (bio)

Native Hawaiians have an identity problem.1 This problem is not actually their own problem (though the implications affect many Hawaiians on an everyday basis) but a political, intellectual, and cultural problem posed to those for whom racial and cultural classification is critical, a problem that highlights both the historical constitution of peoples and the subsequent complexities of settling their collective identities. It is, in other words, a problem of difference.

In the past twenty years there has been a remarkable resurgence in the cultural and political power of Native Hawaiians, as this radically disenfranchised, linguistically devastated, and bureaucratically overpowered people have recreated themselves as a cultural and political force. What is particularly odd about this resurgence is how the tropes that are usually used to identify political cultures—race, language, cultural practices—have had a peculiar history in Hawai’i: in major ways, each had been ravaged, transformed, or obliterated by the colonial system. There are practically no pure-blooded Hawaiians, the language is rarely spoken outside of schools (though part of this cultural renaissance has been the reintroduction of the language to young Hawaiians), and the majority of cultural practices have at some time been either banned or commercialized (or both) in the eras of colonization and post-colonization. Yet Hawaiian identity continues to be a strong force, both in individuals’ lives and as a political classification. This is not to say that these traditional markers are absent in such classifications, but that there is a recognition in Hawaiian life that what it means to be Hawaiian is not reducible to these categories: that “Hawaiian-ness” operates elsewhere.

It is this recognition that will lead this paper through the contemporary conflict in the understanding of cultural identity to attempt to lay the foundation for a different form of investigation. This investigation is not limited to the study of Hawaiians; a large central section of this essay turns to the Mashpee Indian Tribe to see how these identity problems can have unfortunate consequences. It is instead an investigation into how “minor” peoples negotiate their identities in the context of larger and more powerful political communities (I borrow the term “minor” from Deleuze and Guattari).2 This essay will look at the conflict between the two major ways in which this is traditionally done in contemporary American life: those who argue that culture is in some way “race-based” and those who hold that it is “performative.” I will explore the strengths and weaknesses of each of these, and will finally propose a third kind of understanding: one based on aesthetic judgment.3

Although the racial and performative codings of identity are problematic, they also cannot be dismissed. A political theorist who discounts the ways in which people understand their own identities as being grounded in their bodies will fail to understand important communal identities based around reifications of race (or sex, or sexuality), for example. The traditional opposition between race and performance does not stand up to empirical scrutiny; people often understand themselves in both these ways, sometimes simultaneously. To determine which is the better ground for identity is unproductive, and I wish neither to pick one nor to discount both. What I want to do instead is look at the advantages and deficiencies of each, and examine where a third source, viz. aesthetics, provides different and complementary ways of understanding aspects of communal identities that the other two notions exclude.

Racial Orders

By far the most oft-used arbiter of identity involves the metaphoric employment of a natural, inherent character; that is, identities are inherited from the bodies of one’s parents. The colloquial term is “race”: the color of the skin, “blood” ties, or genealogy.4 Race is the synecdoche of biological bases of identity. The stories of U.S. history are in many ways the stories of race; it is impossible (or at least irresponsible) to imagine American identity extending through the past without reference to the alterity of Indians, Mexicans, Negroes, Southern Europeans, Jews, and—as it is coded more recently—“inner-city youth” and “illegal immigrants.” Race in America is a field of cultural...

Additional Information

ISSN
1092-311X
Print ISSN
2572-6633
Launched on MUSE
1997-01-01
Open Access
No
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