Performing Race Essay

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Performing  race, whether  it be “acting  black”  or “being  Mexican,” rests  on  the  belief that  certain actions  are  commonly  or  logically  attributed to whiteness  and a white racial identification. To act white, in the popular imagination, is equated  with acts  of  affluence,   decorum,   success,  and   other forms of “goodness.” When juxtaposed to “acting black,” for example,  the assumption is that  there is a distinct  and  binary  divide  between  the  way black people behave and the way white people behave.  Furthermore, value  is  ascribed  to  each racialized  behavioral set,  white  acts  being  more positively  connoted than  black  acts, and  the subject’s “authentic” racial  identity   is  thrown  into question  when the subject’s behavior  is not in accordance with  his or her racial identity.  Consequently, racial behavior and racial identity are inextricably linked, racialized  behaviors  revealing the  positive  or  negative  connotations  associated with the corresponding racial group.

Black subjects or other subjects of color who act white  are  often  cast  as  archetypes   of  common tropes or caricatures—for example, “Oreo,” someone who is black on the outside  but  white on the inside, and “Uncle  Tom,” one who  is overwhelmingly deferential  to white people and despises what blackness  is said to be. Depending  on the context, these  identities  either  serve to  cast  aspersions  on one’s blackness  or function  as ways to gain credibility in white spaces by distancing  the black subject from pathological blackness.

Working Racial Identity

But in the  context  of U.S. racial  history  and  the legacy of white  supremacy  and  normativity, black subjects  find  themselves  overwhelmingly in white spaces and thus subject to white norms. According to Devon  Carbado, there  is a central  conflict  that black individuals  face, which is the double  bind of having  to be “black  enough” from  the perspective of those in the black community but “white enough” from the perspective of the dominant white society. This   double   bind,   from   Carbado’s  perspective, results in having to “work” one’s racial identity.

Working  identity   is  constituted  by  a  broad range of racially connoted ways of being and behaving,  which  include  sartorial choices,  speech and language patterns, and hairstyles; one’s professional   and   social   affiliations;   one’s  social   and romantic relationship choices;  one’s  politics  and views about  race; where one lives; and so on. The working  of one’s racial identity  acts as a criterion for racial authentication, used to ascertain  not only whether  someone  is black on the basis of appearance but  also the extent  of the person’s blackness on  the  basis of how  she or  he behaves  or  is perceived to  behave.  In this  sense, working  identity refers  both  to  the  perceived  choices people  make about  their  self-presentation (the  racially  associated  ways  of being  listed  above)  and  to  the  perceived  identity  that  emerges  from  those  choices (how black we determine  a person  to be).

In  the  context   of  professional   environments, then,   institutions,  largely   dominated  by  white norms  and  people,  implicitly  (or  explicitly)  seek black individuals  who have more palatable working identities—that is to say, black employees who are not “too  black.”  With the emphasis  mostly on physically  salient  racial  differences  in an era concerned  with  arguably  shallow  diversity initiatives, institutions often  simply look  for employees  who are racially salient as black or of color. These people, Carbado asserts, can be described as “but  for” African  Americans:  but  for  their  skin  color,  they are virtually indistinguishable from their white colleagues.

When Acting Becomes Being

There is significance in the word acting as it relates to “being” because of the often overlooked performativity of racial (and gendered) identities. Led by the  philosopher and  queer  theorist  Judith  Butler, identities  are performative insofar  as the way subjects  behave   and  the  norms   they  reiterate   and “cite”   get  consolidated  into   an  identity.   Butler focuses on gender primarily,  but the notion  of the performativity of identity can also apply to race, as the scholar Nadine  Ehlers avers.

We  not  only  “are” a  particular race  but  also “do” that   particular  race.  Ehlers  asserts  in  her book Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and  Struggles Against  Subjection  that  race  is not merely a static, entirely “known” identity, unmediated and extricated from actions,  but a performative identity that always carries with it a set of behavioral practices  that  are cited and  reiterated. One  is a particular race because,  at least  in part, one  does  the  “race-ness” of  it.  Hence,  “acting” white  is an  attempt to “be”  white,  whatever  the criteria  for  that  existence  as white  may  be. As a black subject, to act white is often characterized by many as seeking a white racial identification, with which comes the aforementioned forms of “goodness.”

Ultimately, then, acting white has profound implications  for one’s understanding of one’s own ontological racial  state.  Indeed,  all this occurs,  in the U.S. context,  in the midst  of white  hegemony, imposed and perceived black inferiority, police brutality, black criminalization, race-based  economic and social disadvantages, respectability politics, racialized-gendered assumptions/biases, and other  factors  that  dictate  how people are perceived and behave as racial subjects. The desire or compulsion to act white is, in large part,  an effect of historical  and  contemporary white  supremacy, which ascribes to whiteness  all that  is good while blackness is cast as the antithesis  of that whiteness/ goodness.

Obama And Race

Perhaps  the most readily applicable  black individual  for  whom  the  notion   of “acting  white”  has been  important on  a  national scale  is  President Barack   Obama.  For   many   white   Americans, Obama was  a “but   for”  black  subject—he  was palatable, went to an Ivy League institution, spoke articulately (itself  a  racially  charged  descriptor), and   hinted   at  no  racially  specific  concerns.   In short,  Obama acted  sufficiently  “white.” Or  put another way, Obama was not “too  black.”

It is arguable  that  Obama in many  ways acted white to access the spaces he need to; indeed, one could  argue  that  it was necessary  that  he act sufficiently white or he would never have been named the   president   of  the   Harvard   Law   Review   or become the president  of the United States. Obama donned the behavioral tenets of whiteness and thus was able to enter spaces that  someone who is “too black” would  not have been granted  access to.

While  scholars  have  noted  that  Obama was much  more  implicitly  “black” than  was  readily apparent—his enactment of the African American linguistic  tradition of subverting  the  meaning  of words, using what Toni Morrison has called “race specific,  race  free  language,” and  his  habit   of making  sly references  to  people  like Malcolm  X in  the  face  of  accusations of  his  ersatz  Muslim affiliation—it is still true  that  he had  to distance himself  from  what  was  deemed  too  black  and thus   too   indecorous  for   predominantly  white spaces.  The  most  salient  example  is perhaps  his distancing from his longtime religious mentor Reverend Jeremiah Wright. After Wright’s “God Damn  America”  sermon  went  viral, in which  he condemned  the   United   States   for   its   racially coded  war  on  drugs,  prison–industrial complex, and law enforcement  practices, Obama deemphasized his relationship with  Wright  and  distanced himself from  the “blackness” of Wright’s  words. Obama’s  behavior  of  whiteness  in  this  moment took  the form of saying that  he wasn’t that (kind of) black.

The  notion  of performing race  carries  with  it profound implications  for how U.S. culture  values white  racial  identity  and  all behaviors  associated with it, to the detriment of any (colored) deviation from   it.   Though    race   relations    have   indeed improved   over  the  history  of  the  United  States, thus  making  the  black/white distinction less blatant,  there  still exists an insidious  white supremacist U.S. ethos,  ascribing  value to whiteness  while simultaneously  devaluing   blackness   and   other racial minority  groups.


  1. Austen-Smith, The Economics of “Acting White.” Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003.
  2. Buck, Stuart. Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation.  New Haven,  CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
  3. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism  and the Subversion  of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  4. Carbado, Devon W. Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  5. Christie, Ron. Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur. New York: Thomas  Dunne  Books/St. Martin’s  Press, 2010.
  6. Ehlers, Nadine. Racial Imperatives:  Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles Against  Bloomington: Indiana  University Press, 2012.
  7. Tyson, Karolyn. Integration Interrupted:  Tracking, Black Students,  and Acting White  After  New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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