Undoing Racial Identification and Redoing Ethical Cultivation: Passing as a Performance of Identity and an Ethics of Self-Making

Undoing Racial Identification and Redoing Ethical Cultivation: Passing as a Performance of Identity and an Ethics of Self-Making

Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York
Honors Thesis
Fall 2013
42 pages

Paige Meserve

Submitted to the Department of Religion

Paige Meserve uses contemporary affect theory and queer theory to explore how racial identities are performed (and taken apart) in novels from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.  Drawing on Foucault’s notion of ethics as a practice of self-cultivation, Paige reads racial passing as one way that African-American women negotiate a world that refuses to sustain and feed them but which they cannot simply leave. Paige shows how such strangely performed identities constitute an ethics of dis-identification. By its means, these women hope to create cross-temporal communities that go beyond fixed racial identities of white and black, and therefore also go beyond existing moral codes of right and wrong – all in favor of imagining new styles of living that are not complicit with a racist world.

The Black Woman’s very life depends on her being able to decipher the various sounds in the larger world, to hold in check the nightmare figures of terror, to fight for basic freedoms against the sadistic law enforcement agencies in her community, to resist the temptation to capitulate the demands of the status quo, to find meaning in the most despotic circumstances and to create something where nothing was before. Katie Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics


In The Female Complaint, Lauren Berlant defines normativity as a “felt condition of general belonging and an aspirational site of rest and recognition in and by a social world”(5). Her work raises intriguing questions regarding how subjects outside of the mainstream culture can negotiate their existence and find happiness in a cultural landscape that doesn’t offer them the terms for it. How do these minority subjects manage such an ambivalent, but necessary, attachment to a social world simply incapable of providing them the means to thrive?

Berlant in Cruel Optimism uses the phrase cruel optimism to discuss this compromising bind. Cruel optimism is “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic”(24). The subjects under consideration here are attached to creating a life for themselves in a terrain that makes it impossible. “Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object”(24). The optimistic attachment must be maintained to preserve the desire to keep on living; its cruelty, however, resides in the fact that the possibility of thriving in their cultural climate is severely limited.

José Muñoz describes a process he names disidentification as a way that a minority subject can work within the dominant culture while simultaneously critiquing it. In his work, Disidentifications, he refers to disidentification as “a hermeneutic, a process of production, a mode of performance”(25). To further outline what this process is, he writes: “Disidentification is, at its core, an ambivalent modality that cannot be conceptualized as a restrictive or “masterfully” fixed mode of identification”(28). In spaces where bodies and identifications are ungrounded and become scripts, the possibility emerges of discovering new ways of working with, inhabiting, or potentially abandoning the stunted cultural climate where identities serve more as a prison than a means to provide an affirming space for the self. Disidentification is “descriptive of the survival strategies the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship”(4). In reading his work, I want to further explore the potential of performance spaces as ways a minority subject can work with the broken pieces society offers them as terms of existence. It is crucial to find these spaces that can perhaps provide an alternative way to negotiate and interact with a social system that tends to foreclose possibility.

A way that people of color have historically attempted to manage a society that brutally represses them and eliminates all possible avenues for a palatable existence, is racial passing, the process in which a person of one race adopts the mask of another race. As I will demonstrate throughout this analysis, racial passing is one of these potential performance spaces that enables these subjects to work with the dominant culture that suppresses them in new and different ways. In her introduction of Passing and the Fictions of Identity, Elaine K. Ginsberg writes: “passing is about identities: their creation or imposition, their adoption or rejection, their accompanying rewards or penalties. Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing.” She posits that the act of passing “interrogates the ontology of identity categories and their construction”(4). If passing treats race as a performance, then categories of race are destabilized and become an insufficient way to signify identity. Ginsberg questions: “when “race is no longer visible, it is no longer intelligible: if “white” can be “black”, what is white?”(8) These instances that destabilize identity demand different ways of understanding the category. I see passing as a site rich with possibilities that calls for further examination of its complexity and of its new potentialities…

Read the entire paper here.

Tags: ,