- Incorporeal BlacknessA Theorization in Two Parts—Rachel Dolezal and Your Face in Mine
Indeed, the concept of Blackness as located in the body cannot be sustained by any serious further investigation…[L]ocating Blackness as a determinable "thing," as a "what" or "who" gives us a conceptualization that exhibits the unnerving qualities of a mirage: from a distance, it appears clearly cogent, but up close, Blackness evanesces, revealing no one shared quality that justifies such frequent and assured use of this signifier.—Michelle Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology
Now, one hears from a long time ago that "white is merely a state of mind." I add to that, white is a moral choice. It's up to you to be as white as you want [End Page 205] to be and pay the price of that ticket. You cannot tell a black man by the color of skin, either.—James Baldwin, "Black English: A Dishonest Argument"
The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than "that which appears is good, that which is good appears." The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
Fictions are compilations of fashioned inventions, narratives woven around the aim of coherence. Racial categorizations, by which I mean the histories, hierarchies, socialities, cultures, and identities codified through variegated hues of the epidermis and other physiognomic characteristics, are ultimately fictions. But of course, this is not news, or at least shouldn't be, especially after the postmodern turn in the humanities. That even laypersons offhandedly deploy the phrase "race is a social construct" in admittedly, frustratingly shallow effect might suggest that the arbitrariness of "race"—which, to be sure, is not entirely my aim yet implicated in the theorizations of this essay nonetheless—demands revisiting. The revisitation, however, is not concerned with race per se but with blackness, blackness not as, strictly speaking, a racial "category" but as something more, something that in fact fractures the project of racial categorizing sedimentation. What I'll assert as blackness's incorporeality thinks more precisely about blackness as an ethereal motility that exceeds the "actuality" of the purported cohesive and knowable body, outpacing normative rubrics of legibility. Incorporeal blackness, following Elizabeth Grosz's theorizations on the incorporeal, understands blackness in a way that engenders an "ontoethics"—a commingling of what is as motivational for what might be—that reveals "how [the world] is open to change, and, above all, the becomings it may undergo," and how the subjective materiality inhabiting the world is "always more than itself…containing possibilities for being otherwise." At [End Page 206] base, incorporeal blackness has the capacity "to make us become other than ourselves, to make us unrecognizable" (Grosz 2017, 1, 13).1 If we wish to make the world anew, to dislodge all the normative, and hence violent, frameworks from their hold over us, then we must commit to the terrifying work of radical thinking. Refusing to open ourselves to the openness of gender and racial self-determination—both of which refuse the normativity of pragmatism, and live freedom in a radical trans politics, which might engender nonracial and nongender life because these categories are at base hegemonic impositions—can only be a troubling attempt to hold on to normativity when it seems convenient or less scary.
By way of an incorporeal blackness, I seek to dwell on the implications of a radical reorientation to the convergences of blackness and transness—transed understandings of blackness, if you will, or what Angela Jones in an e-mail exchange has described as the nothing new-ness of "people engaging in trans practices around race"2—and I specifically enter this through the questions of blackness in the Rachel Dolezal affair and Jess Row's novel Your Face in Mine (2014). I tackle Dolezal's case first, before Row's novel even though the novel precedes Dolezal's "scandal," because of my assumption that she is more familiar to readers but also because delineating her...