- Racialized Things
Consider the topsy-turvy doll. An invention of enslaved women in the nineteenth century, the doll is a potent image of the inextricability of American whiteness from its black counterpart, and vice versa. If you have never seen one, it is a fascinating object: the doll is a fusion of two half-dolls, one black and one white. What would normally be the legs and feet of one doll is the torso and head of the other. As one turns the doll upside down, the skirt attached to its waist flips over, revealing the face and body of the other doll. It is a short commute from playing with a white doll to playing with a black doll: a quick flip, and the doll’s racial other emerges.
The topsy-turvy doll can never fully show both its black and white ends: for one to be visible, the other must be hidden beneath the doll’s skirts. The black and white dolls are joined at their nonexistent crotches, which instead become the beginning of the other doll. Each doll, then, is in a way giving birth to even as it smothers the other; each doll emerges from the nonexistent genitals of the other.1
As Robin Bernstein shows in her eye-opening book Racial Innocence, the topsy-turvy doll is one of the most illuminating and poignant enactments of segregation we have. Black and white figures are joined literally at the hip but never genuinely interact. While each becomes visible through the same mechanisms, the terms in which that visibility occurs are very different: the [End Page 873] white doll is more often than not identified as “Eva,” the innocent martyred child hero of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while the black doll, as its name suggests, is named after Topsy, the enslaved child whose soul Eva sets out to save. On occasion, the black doll is a mammy figure, the caring subordinate to the white girl to whom she is set in anatomical opposition. As in the segregated United States, black and white girls and women occupy the same space but under terms of profound inequality.
To say that the topsy-turvy doll naturalizes racial difference is not quite accurate. No one would argue that dolls are products of nature, after all. Rather, the doll filters understandings of how race operates through an everyday object, and, most importantly for Bernstein’s purposes, a product designed for and played with by children. All three books under consideration here are fascinated by what we might call racialized things: things that bear, communicate, and reproduce regimes of racialization even as that is not their sole or even primary purpose.2 They all ask, in different (and differently overlapping ways) the question posed by Nicole R. Fleetwood in Troubling Vision: how does a certain kind of racial identity—which in Fleetwood’s work is blackness, in Bernstein’s is blackness and/or whiteness, and in Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s is blackness, whiteness, and Chineseness, among other identities— “get attached to bodies, goods, ideas, and aesthetic practices,” and how do those practices get disseminated on various registers in popular culture (20)?
Fleetwood, Bernstein, and Tompkins are all part of a new generation of scholars in American and African American studies. Heirs to the anti-essentialism of the 1990s and the efflorescence of affect theory in the twenty-first century, they see blackness as both fungible and deeply rooted in lived experience. They are as indebted to Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s formulation of racial formation as they are to queer theories of performativity and the emotionally resonant while theoretically sophisticated work of current scholars such as Robert Reid-Pharr, Sara Ahmed, and Heather Love.3