Identity as Performance

Identity should be unique, something that we call our own. Not an exploitation for entertainment.

Identity displays who we are.

There is no doubt that one’s identity defines their unique persona.  Being white vs. being black both come with a unique set of characteristics.  However, identity is frequently used to exhibit performance.  Oftentimes being black or being white goes beyond simple identity; color is also used for performance.

There are numerous places where one can see racial identity being used as a means of performance.  The picture below is from a blog by Crystal Sykes in which she reflects on her own experience of being black in San Francisco.  This picture is interesting because it portrays a black girl among several white people; she is thinking to herself, “I’m not your black friend.”  In this particular blog post, Crystal writes about hipster racism.  In other words, being above racism but still making snarky remarks.  The people in her community saw her blackness as different, as something unique and “cool.”  This shows how blackness can be perceived as not just a person’s identity, but as something to be exhibited.  If Crystal had used her white friends’ intrigue about black culture to her advantage, this would be an example of blackness as performance.

Black in a sea of white

Black in a sea of white

Authors from both the Black Arts Movement and Post Soul portray racial identity as a means of performance as well.  The protagonist of the novels from this time period usually use his or her skin color to their advantage; performing and appealing to the desires of the particular crowd.

In Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shufflethe protagonist Gunnar exemplifies blackness as performance.  Unlike Crystal, uncomfortable in a city filled with white people, Gunnar embraced his unique situation and used it to his advantage.  Gunnar says, “I was the funny, 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” (Beatty, 27).  Gunnar goes on to say, “I learned early that white kids will believe anything anybody a shade darker than chocolate milk says” (Beatty, 28).  Gunnar had the ability to appeal to his white class mates.  He embraced his racial identity and used it to his advantage.  Being black gave him a sense of empowerment, not defeat.

Whiteness as performance is also portrayed in the media of popular culture.  In the movie White Chicks, two black men must disguise themselves as white women in order to protect the multi-billion dollar fortune of two white girls.  This comedy portrays whiteness as performance using satire.  The satire lies in the fact that two successful black men must present themselves as two dumb, white blonde chicks.  As they present themselves as white girls, the audience for which they are performing is white as well, making the situation even more ironic: white people are being deceived by black people who are pretending to be white.

In Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, there are several instances of whiteness as performance.  Walter Marsh’s family is a good example of whiteness as performance.  Birdie’s mother Sandy referred to wealthy white people as wasps.  Walter Marsh, she said, was a real wasp.  Sandy said, “The proof was the layer of dust covering their house–and the way Walter sucked on a toothpick, picked his nose, hacked into his hand, and performed other blatantly rude personal habits in public, oblivious that they might be offensive to the people around him” (Senna, 155).  This portrays whiteness as performance because being a wasp means being white and wealthy but trying to keep it hidden.  The Marsh family doesn’t want to come off as rich and uptight so they let a layer of dust cover the tops of all of their fine things; this is a performing act to keep up appearances and portray themselves as being laid back and casual.

Birdie and her mother are both living as white.  However, Birdie is not actually white; she is able to pass as white by telling others that she is of Jewish descent.  Both Birdie and Sandy have to continually “mask” their true identities in order to appear as white and to appeal to their particular audience.

An example of whiteness as performance in Caucasia is when Birdie confronts Samantha about her blackness.  Birdie was uncomfortable with whiteness as performance but her mother’s words to trust no one were always ringing in her ears. One night at a party, she found Samantha, the only other black girl:

“What color do you think I am?

Nora said you were Jewish. I saw you wearing that start thing they all have to wear. Yeah, Jewish. Why do you ask?

I’m not really Jewish. It’s a lie.

What do you mean?

I mean, I’m not Jewish. My mom’s not Jewish. She has to be Jewish for me to be Jewish, really, and she’s not.

As I said it, I wondered, for the first time, if the same was true with blackness.  Did you have to have a black mother to be really black? There had been no black women involved in my conception. Maybe that made us frauds” (Senna, 285).  This is the first time when the protagonist becomes entangled by her own set of lies.  While blackness and whiteness as performance can be used positively to enhance the perceived persona of a character, this performance can also entangle and become a messy web of lies; using identity to perform can become damaging to a person’s real identity.

This damaging effect is particularly seen in John Oliver Killens’ The Cotillion.  Yoruba is an African American girl whose mother insists that she attend etiquette training classes and be in a cotillion.  While this particular cotillion consists of all black women, cotillions are originally a tradition of white southern females and are used as a way to introduce young females to society.  So from the beginning of this novel, blackness as performance is seen everywhere.

This has a damaging effect on Yoruba, however.  While her boyfriend Ben Ali Lumumba is telling her to embrace her blackness, Yoruba’s mother is telling her to try to not be as black as possible but rather to simply acknowledge her blackness and to leave it alone.  This creates tension within Yoruba.  She wants to please her mother and win the scholarship offered by the cotillion but she also loves and respects Ben Ali and simply wants to live as a black girl, free of all the stress and drama that the cotillion entails.

One way that blackness as performance is portrayed in this novel is within the mayhem of the politics of appearance.  John Oliver Killens focuses part of a chapter on hair.  In a discussion between Yoruba and her mother he writes:

Come. Come, dearie, I’m going to buy you a lovely wig. Come. I forgive you. Come.

A wig? Forgive me? 

She shook her head. What could she say to her mother? What could she do?…No wig for this Black and beautiful child, not even for her mother’s sake. She had made her debut into truly Black society. And there was no turning back” (Killens, 213).

Natural, black, beautiful

Natural, black, beautiful

This is an interesting turning point in the novel because Yoruba turns from whiteness as performance to blackness as performance.  She was once black in a white world filled with white traditions but is now truly living as black, despite what society is expecting of her.  When Yoruba refuses to wear a wig, or better yet, when she cuts off her permed hair, she is not just being rebellious, she is making a statement against performance.  It is always an attempt to be white when black women straighten their hair.  If a black woman really wants to be seen and respected as black, then she must get the perm out of her hair and wear it naturally.  This politics of appearance is a breaking point for Yoruba.

It is not just black girls straightening their trying to be black, however.  There is also a great deal of whiteness as performance in The Cotillion. There are scattered scenes of white girls who try to portray themselves as black.  Killens writes of whiteness as performance very humorously, “Earlier, three white girls had arrived at the ball, as invited guests, wearing Afro wigs and darkly tinted contact lenses, and had been refused admission, roughed up, third-degreed, searched for weapons, threatened with arrest, called trouble-making yaller niggers, and so on, until finally they compromised their firm convictions, removed their wigs and declared their whiteness, at which point they were immediately admitted with abject apologies and Southern hospitality” (Killens, 222-223).

This part of the novel puts whiteness as performance into a different light than blackness as performance.  Blackness as performance is a way of getting by; it is Yorubas way to come out into society and to be accepted by her white counterparts; it is Lumumbas way of being accepted by Yorubas family.  Blackness as performance is not always something that is preferred or desired by individuals, but rather, it is expected.  Whiteness as performance, however, is something that is optional.  For instance, in this scene, the white girls didn’t have to dress up in wigs in order to impress the black persons at the cotillion.  In fact, their performance caused them to be beaten.  By being white, they are already naturally accepted by society.

What is also interesting, is that in a novel like The Cotillion, it is not just the women who are subject to performance; the men are equally subjected to this politics of appearance and performing act.  When Lumumba comes to the door to greet Yoruba one night, he is decked out in the finest clothes.  Killens writes:

She opened the door to greet her lover (she was all grinning smiles again, unknowingly) but her beloved was not there. In his stead there stood a colored dude all decked out in a mucho sharp American suit. Brown, herringbone and truly worsted. White on white shirt, green polka-dot tie, brand-new, gleaming, wing-tipped shoes. So sharp he was almost bleeding. Crew-cut like the Ivy League” (Killens, 146).

What is interesting about this scene is that just a few pages prior, Yoruba’s mother discussed how she felt towards Lumumba.  “Lady Daphne was finally convinced that there was something to this Black boy, when they did a portrait in the white folks’ most prestigious paper. The New York Times had covered a reading he had done at the Truth and Consequences Cafe uptown. Yoruba showed The Times piece to her mother, who glanced at the news article and stared long at Lumumba, beard and woolly head and all. Her sole comment was ‘Humph!’ (Killens, 145).

This scene is interesting because the mother is 100% for blackness as performance but from a white perspective.  For example, she doesn’t accept Yoruba with natural hair, only with “white” hair.  In this scene, we see that she doesn’t approve of Lumumba for Yoruba because he is “woolly-headed.” But once Lumumba has received the stamp of approval from the white community, she begins to like him a little bit more.

This scene portrays an interesting twist between whiteness as performance and blackness as performance.  This novel does a play off of both types of performance as we have seen.  Even though all of the major characters are black, there is a confusion of performances because the mother is forcing a white identity onto her black daughter.  I found this novel to be particularly useful when tying together the two types of racial identity performances because it does indeed incorporate a mixture of the two.

However, what we see from both perspectives across media and these three novels is that color goes beyond identity, it involves performance as well; performance that can enunciate identity or manipulate identity.

Multimedia Cited:

First Image: No author. n.d. [Identity]Retrieved from www2.fi.edu

Second Image: Sykes, Crystal. 2013. [I’m Not Your Black Friend]. Retrieved from www.thebolditalic.com

Third Image: No author. 2006. [Black Rio] Retrieved from http://www.juliushonnor.com/catalyst/Default.aspx.LocID-0hgnew0ik.RefLocID-0hg01b001006009.Lang-EN.htm

Video: White Chicks Movie Trailer [Video]. (2006) Retrieved May 13, 2013 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rr_SY-1Z5vg

Works Cited:

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. Print.

Killens, John O. The Cotillion: Or One Good Bull is Half the Herd. Canada: Trident Press, 1971. Print.

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

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Advertisements