restricted access 76 Notes of a White Black Woman
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76 Notes of a White Black Woman JUDY SCALES-TRENT [What follows is an introduction to a longer work. Ed.] We Americans have been talking about race for a long time. It is a constant theme in our lives and in our common language. Although the specific topic changes over the years-varying all the way from fugitive slave laws to affirmative action -the theme remains. Ideas about race lie at the core of the American character and the American dream. In general, discussions about race center on the state of relations between black Americans and white Americans. They focus on who will control the resources: freedom, jobs, schools, housing, medical care. In some of this debate, black people call white people mean and ignorant and hateful, and white people call black people the same. At other times, we \Yonder whether there will ever be harmony between the races, and whether there is anything we can do to hasten the arrival of that day. Groups that might appear to be outside this debate are nonetheless connected to it. For example, people ask how Jews situate themselves with respect to the black-white drama: Which side are they on? How about Native peoples? And what does it mean that there will be more Mexican Americans than African Americans by the year 2010? How will that affect the great black/white racial divide so familiar to us all? Among the millions of Americans who participate in this discussion, points of view differ drastically. There seems to be profound agreement, however, with the notion that race is a serious matter in America, and always has been. The most important premise of these discussions is the existence of "race" itself. We all simply know that"race" exists. It is obvious, it is real, it has its own independent presence. You can just look around and see how the world is split up-black people sitting over there at that table, white people walking together down that hall, maybe a table with black people and white people sitting together. Our eyes tell us this truth. Thus, racial identity is simply assumed. It is not questioned. It is not noticed or seen or discussed. It just is. In these essays, I take my place in the debate on racial matters in America by moving the discussion back a step, to talk about the creation of "race" itself. What do we mean by "race" in this country? How is "race" created? Who creates it? How is racial identity maintained ? What is the law of racial purity that America uses to create and maintain racial identity? And how does it work? I address these questions by showing the operation of America's racial purity law on my life-that is, on the life of one American. Because I am a black American who is often mistaken for white, my very existence From NOTES OF A WHITE BLACK WOMAN by Judy Scales-Trent. Copyright © 1995 by The Pennsylvania State University Press. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. Copyrighted Material 476 Judy Scales-Trent demonstrates that there is slippage between the seemingly discrete categories "black" and "white." This slippage is important and can be helpful to us, for it makes the enterprise of categorizing by race a more visible-hence, a more conscious-task. It is at this point, then, that we can pause and look carefully at what we are doing. It is at this point of slippage that we can clearly see that "race" is not a biological fact but a social construct-and a clumsy one, at that. Stories about my life as a white black American also show that creating and maintaining a racial identity takes a lot of effort on my part, a.nd on the part of other Americans . "Race" is not something that just exists. It is a continuing act of imagination. It is a very demanding verb. Many are surprised to discover that America has racial purity laws. We know that Nazi Germany and South Africa once did. Some even know that such formal, written laws existed in America from the earliest days of the colonies through at least the 1980s. One example is Virginia's 1924 law, which says: The term "white person" shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian, but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian, and no other non-Caucasic blood...


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