Synopses of Other Important Works
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Synopses of Other Important Works Race Traveling "A Constant and Intense Debate": Michael Omi and Howard Winant In a modern classic, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 19605 to the 19805, Michael Omi and Howard Winant theorize about how and why American society draws racial categories. In their fourth chapter ("Racial Formation"), they recount the case of Susie Guillory Phipps, who unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Vital Records Bureau in 1982 to have her racial classification changed from black to white. A descendant of an eighteenth-century planter and his slave, Phipps had been listed as black on her birth certificate under a 1970 law specifying that anyone with at least one thirty-second Negro blood is legally black. Assistant Attorney General Ron Davis of Louisiana defended the law as necessary to comply with federal record-keeping requirements and to enable the state to track people at risk for genetic diseases. Phipps argued that assigning racial categories on birth certificates is unconstitutional and that the one thirty-second rule was inaccurate. The trial featured expert testimony that most whites have one-twentieth or more Negro ancestry. Nevertheless, Phipps lost. The court found nothing wrong with assigning individuals to specific racial groupings on the basis of ancestry. As social constructionists, Omi and Winant find the case instructive: [It] illustrates the continuing dilemma of defining race and establishing its meaning in institutionallife . Today, to assert that variations in human physiognomy are racially based is to enter a constant and intense debate. Scientific interpretations of race have not been alone in sparking heated controversy; religious perspectives have done so as well. Most centrally, of course, race has been a matter of political contention. This has been particularly true in the United States, where the concept of race has varied enormously over time without ever leaving the center stage of U.S. history (p. 59). The authors go on to explain that race is a "pre-eminently sociohistorical concept" whose meaning is given concrete expression by specific social relations. In the United States, any degree of intermixture essentially renders one nonwhite, as Phipps learned when she sued in Louisiana. Omi and Winant contrast the u.s. situation with that in various areas of Latin America, where, since the abolition of slavery, sharply defined racial groups do not exist. Brazil, for example, subscribes informally to a variety of "intermediate" racial categories (p. 60). The same family may easily contain close members who are seen as representatives of opposite racial types. Copyrighted Material 502 Issues and Comments Passing for White, Passing for Black: Adrian Piper In a long, finely written article in Transition (vol. 58, no. 4 [1992]), the philosophy professor Adrian Piper recounts some of her experiences as a very lightskinned black. Her article, a portion of which appears as Chapter 69 of this book, well rewards reading in its entirety for its in,:,entory of such events as: • A graduate student reception in which an eminent professor confronted her, a newly minted member of her class, and demanded to know why she considered herself black (p. 58); • Childhood encounters with dark-skinned black teenagers and classmates who accuse her of acting white (p. 6) or of not having suffered enough (p. 7); • The awkwardness and outrage of some whites, including friends and colleagues, on learning for the first time that she considers herself black (pp. 9-11, 19, 22-23); • Whites who spoke disparagingly of blacks in her presence, unaware of her racial identification (pp. 26-28). Piper writes of her experiences: I've learned that there is no '"right" way of managing the issue of my racial identity, no way that will not offend or alienate someone, because my designated racial identity itself exposes the very concept of racial classification as the offensive and irrational instrument ... it is. We see this in the history of the classifying terms ... : first "blacks," then"darkies," then "Negroes ," then '"colored people,'" then "blacks" again, now"Afro-Americans." Why is it that we can't seem to get it right, once and for all? The reason ... is that it doesn't really matter what term we use ... , because whatever term is used will eventually turn into a term of derision and disparagement by virtue of its reference to those who are derided and disparaged (p. 30). Even when they are used without racial animus, "[t]he fact is that the racial categories that purport to designate any of us are too rigid and oversimplified to fit anyone...