ACTING AND ASSIMILATING: A NEW VIEW

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(Entitled “Mixed Race”, Source from MsAfropolitan.com)

Is America this huge melting pot of diversity? In some aspects it is, however, many individuals find it hard to identify with the “American” culture and are forced into closets of assimilation. This idea is magnified even more within racial constructs. Assimilation, in many ways, is defined as a performance.

In my primary source, there are a series of faces. Each face varies in color (ethnicity) and is shown within a radial frame. We can visibly see, through racial physical stereotypes, the various races depicted. One see’s the African American with the dark skin and full lips. One also see’s the eye on the viewers right, which is slanted like many of those of the Asian culture. These faces are physically constructed together in the form of a radial pie. We also see various skin tones and physical attributes within the artwork. Whereas the images combine to create the “big picture” (creating diversity together), the American culture works in opposition. We perform to fit the mold. Instead of embracing culture, we erase the culture to adapt to the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture and customs.

The intention of this piece may have been to show a pool of racial and cultural identities and how they come together in unity. As mentioned earlier in the introduction, many individuals see America has a huge melting pot, however, when one takes an intricate look at this idea, we may begin to question this American culture and more specifically, this issue of diversity in the US. One definition that I found on the term “American” is “Something of, relating to, or characteristic of the United States or its inhabitants”.

In the sense of this essay, when I use the term assimilation, I tend to pair it with the ideas of performance and adapting. There is also a difference when people use the terms “acting black” and “acting white”. This holds a negative stigma. Because of my education and academic success here at Elon University, I have personally had many of my black peers state that I “act white”, but not without then posing the question “What does acting black mean?”

Within White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, the main character Gunnar Kaufman suffers a similar disconnect. This novel presents a valid and accurate alternative of intercultural and interracial understanding. Diversity within this novel is conflicted. A secondary source by Marcela Fuentes, who responds to White Boy Shuffle states, “Assimilation is a major theme, and Beatty uses it to show how conspicuous it feels to be the “other”. Gunnar is indeed “performing” in this novel. Gunnar’s character changes when he transfers schools and when/how he interacts with his new wife.

Within the novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Sam Greenlee, we also see themes of assimilation. The main character, Dan Freeman goes through various changes of assimilating (performing and adapting) to his new surroundings. Once Freeman gets the position within the CIA, he carries on this persona of just being the typical black worker but maintains a double life outside of his work environment. It is almost like there is a character shift within the novel. Gunnar is a different character when he first begins his CIA training, when he goes to New York, when he is with his girlfriend, when he is with his prostitute, and with the gang that he helps lead.

The online movie for Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door can be found here.

In a quote from Black People in White Face: Assimilation, Culture, and the Brown Case, the author states, “This requirement of black assimilation is akin to a requirement that black people put on white face and is ultimately unacceptable as a goal for a decolonized African American community.” Is black face similar to “white face” as they relate to literal and symbolic performances?

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(Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person.)

The comparison is parallel. Not only is there a disconnect to identity and assimilation on a global and national scale, but also within the racial aspects. While growing up, I had many of the same experiences as Gunnar Kaufman. I attended a predominately black high school for my first and second years and I transferred to a private school for my remaining high school career. I was one of three African Americans of about 95 students. While there, students behaved differently and I learned how to fit it by thinking consciously of the vernacular that I used, the clothes that I wore and even the music that I listened to.  When I would go back home to visit friends, I noticed that I could switch up my demeanor. I learned the value of performing and assimilating under false pretenses. I was the “cool black guy”!

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This painting was created by Norman Rockwell and is similar to both my experiences and
 Gunnars experiences within (White Boy Shuffle).

An article by Reihan Salam called Performance Race is a great example and personal account of performing within various settings. The source states, “So, one of those things you notice when you go from a mostly black public school to a mostly white northeastern college is that there are a lot of white people who think black people are cool. Automatically. Because they’re black. For some of these kids, it’s a real ego boost, because no one actually thought they were cool at home. The problem is that the unrestrained admiration directed at the newly anointed cool black kid is contingent on reminding his new white friends that he’s black, and therefore cool. For his new “friends,” this validates the pressing need to be able to say, “I have black friends,” just in case they try to touch someone’s dreadlocks without asking or something. So the newly anointed cool black kid employs a lot of black cultural idiosyncrasies he wouldn’t actually use at home, just to make sure everyone still thinks he’s still “black enough” to be considered cool.”

This quote correlates to my aforementioned experience in my predominately white high school. I never considered myself to be a performer of race, however, I began to understand the implications how to interact in various situations with an array of people.

Within Beatty’s novel, we definitely see similarities of what Gunnar endured in comparison to the above quote. A similar quote exists within White Boy Shuffle. Gunnar states, “ I was the cool black guy. In Santa Monica, like most predominantly white sanctuaries from urban blight. “Cool black guy” is a versatile identifier used to distinguish the harmless black male from the Caucasian juvenile while maintaining politically correct semiotics.”

Both of these novels are from two different time periods, the Black arts movement and the Post Soul movement. I find it very interesting to look at these two novels in current day. Many would think that, we (Americans) have progressed from the times in these novels; however, it is a fact that we are still living within the same racial confinements.

Another source entitled The Expense of Assimilation On the Black Community states, “The black person who makes the choice to integrate into the dominating culture really must be honest with his or her self and admit that all their pronouncements of concern for the welfare of the black community take a backseat to their personal desire to assimilate. These black people are more of a role model to other black people on how to assimilate or integrate into the colorless and racially generic whole of American culture that just so happens to be controlled and dominated from the white community.” Is assimilating a positive or negative thing?

Furthermore, the ideas of assimilation are multifaceted topics. We as humans come from various backgrounds and cultures. We all offer different attributes to society and it is very unfortunate that we all, in some way, hide who we are to fit into this “American” mold. Do we ever stop performing? Or, is “adapting” to our settings something that occurs normally?

Work Sources:

“The Expense of Assimilation On the Black Community.” Brotherpeacemaker. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2013.

Greenlee, Sam. The Spook Who Sat by the Door: A Novel. New York: Bantam, 1970. Print.

“An Ongoing Review of Politics and Culture.” Performing Race. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 May 2013.

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead, 1999. Print.

Image Source:

“Mixed Race Girls Have Issues – Part 3 of 3 | MsAfropolitan.” Mixed Race Girls Have Issues – Part 3 of 3 | MsAfropolitan. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2013.

Ruby Bridges – Norman Rockwell Painting at the White House | Tv-14.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 13 May 2013.

“White Students In Blackface Re-Enact Chris Brown’s Assault On Rihanna At New York High School Drawing Criticism [Video/Pic] – ThisIs50.com.” White Students In Blackface Re-Enact Chris Brown’s Assault On Rihanna At New York High School Drawing Criticism [Video/Pic] – ThisIs50.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2013.

Video Source:

The Spook Who Sat by the Door. By Sam Greenlee. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 May 2013.

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