Identity and Race in the United States

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Identity and Race in the United States

Personal identities are created through individuals' inter-actions with their social and material worlds. This view of identity suggests that individuals neither rely solely on their own resources nor simply succumb to definitions imposed on them by others to make sense of whom they are. Identity, or the processes of defining one's self in a world where others are doing the same, is a complex, interactive dynamic that involves the interplay of psychological (internal) and social (external) forces. In addition, in a world that is characterized by unequal power relationships, the question of identity is an inherently political one. This is especially true in the United States, where questions of identity are thoroughly implicated in America's culture wars and in what it means to be a respectable member of society.

In addition, matters of race have always been central to what it means to be American. That this process is subject to negotiation is perhaps best illustrated in James Baldwin's 1985 essay "The Price of the Ticket." The "ticket," according to Baldwin, is the granting of rights and privileges by which we define what it means to be a citizen of the United States; the "price" is to become "white," a decision that entails sacrificing any cultural markers that designate one as different from the mainstream of society. From this perspective, the question of race and identity in America, on the one hand, is a matter of assimilation. On the other hand, the question of race and identity concerns the possibility of challenging the cost of admission to mainstream society, or altering the terms of what Baldwin calls the "dimwitted ambition [that] has choked many a human being to death here" (1985, p. xx). Whatever the case, the psychological, social, material, and political dimensions that shape race and identity in America are brought into particular relief when viewed through the lens of black history and life in the United States.

Africans in Antebellum America

There is general agreement among historians that approximately ten million African captives were brought to the Americas between the sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth century. The first Africans brought to North America were members of agrarian polities of West and West Central Africa. Africans from the more organized states with central governments and armies were also among the initial wave of captives, but, being more elusive, they were captured in fewer numbers. After the legislative end of America's participation in the slave trade in 1808, Africans were still illegally brought to the United States until the 1850s. Later captives were largely "unseasoned" Africans who were imported mainly from Central Africa directly to the southern regions of the United States.

Societal perceptions of Africans in America changed during the 1700s from a multiform population of "different" people to a uniform population of "inferior" people. This change was spurred by shifting demographics in the New World and by the desire of the elites to maintain social order in ways that served their interests. Order was established through the creation of a racial social hierarchy that was enacted through interrelated political, economic, and cultural processes. Politically, legislators passed laws that denied black people en masse basic rights and privileges accorded to most white Americans. Economically, black people were denied the right to own property, even to the extent that it meant control over their own bodies. Culturally, governmental, religious, and literary institutions converged to produce widespread imagery that shaped popular views of black people as essentially inferior to white people and as deserving of their political disenfranchisement and economic subordination. These societal views of black people were reinforced during the late nineteenth century as academic disciplines became professionalized and university-trained experts disseminated "scientific" knowledge that only reinforced extant imagery that depicted people of African descent as inferior.

Of course, black people themselves always have had a say about whom they were and forged identities to combat social prescriptions from a myriad of resources they had at their disposal. Some of these resources originated in the autochthonous African cultures from which they were removed and which they offered as the distinctive lore of black culture that was transmitted to each generation of New World Africans. Black people also tapped into the cultures of the Americas, those of European ethnic populations as well as those of indigenous populations, to make sense of who they were. In short, captive Africans forged a range of colonial and antebellum black identities. For example, in a 1792 letter to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, the celebrated mathematician Benjamin Banneker wrote, "Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race, and in that color which is natural to them of the deepest dye" (Aptheker, 1990, p. 24). The grandson of a former indentured white female servant and a manumitted slave of African nobility, Banneker chided Jefferson for his failure to extend liberty to the masses of the enslaved Africans in his midst. Or, consider George Bentley. In 1859 a Tennessee newspaper writes that Bentley, a slave, was "black as the ace of spades" and a "preacher in charge" of a large congregation comprised almost exclusively of slaveholders. In contrast to the ideology espoused by Banneker some seven decades earlier, Bentley was an enslaved southern proslavery parson who refused to allow the church he led to purchase him from his master's family.

The elegies of eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley and the slave narratives of captive women such as Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley further extend and complicate questions of race and identity among Americans of African descent in colonial and antebellum America. In addition, clandestine antislavery activities among captive and free Africans during the same periods, black religious and social organizations of the late eighteenth century, and the network of African Free Schools of the late-1800s also provided resources for black people to establish a wider range of identities than those imposed on them by the broader society. The means and capacity for black people to speak for themselves notwithstanding, their almost absolute political and economic subordination prior to Emancipation, prevented them from altering their dominant social identities as a uniform class of inferior human beings.

Black Identity and DoubleConsciousness

The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, written at the turn of the twentieth century, remains the most influential work to engage both the dominant scholarship on and popular notions about black identity. Du Bois's notion of black identity is captured in the widely quoted passage from the 1903 classic:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American worlda world which yields him no true consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at the self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twonessan American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strifethis longing to attain self-conscious humanhood, to merge this double self into a better and truer self. (Du Bois, 1903, p. 3)

In Du Bois's conception of identity, American culture and Negro, or black, culture represent two distinct and irreconcilable spheres of life. This notion is not a novel idea, however. Scholars point to the strong influence of the philosophical ideas of romanticism and of the concepts of early American psychology on Du Bois's formulation of double-consciousness. Scholars such as Hazel Carby also argue that Du Bois's intellectual formulations were restricted by his uncritical commitment to social norms that privileged both the perspectives of white men and the culture of the white upper-middle class. Though such commitments manifested at times in Du Bois's disparaging view of women and black folk culture, the influence of his work on black-identity scholarship in all fields representing the humanities and social sciences is nonetheless remarkable. The Du Boisian conundrum that characterizes what it means to be black in America is evident in diverse contributions, such as Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952), E. Franklin Frazier's sociology, and Kenneth and Mamie Clark's psychology. Du Bois's notion of double-consciousness also shaped public life, as was evident in the U.S. Supreme Court's consideration of the Clarks' social scientific research in its 1954 landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Of course, Du Bois's conception of identity did not go uncontested by contemporaneous scholars and social movements. For example, social and cultural black nationalist movements from 1900 to 1950, such as the Harlem Renaissance, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the Nation of Islam, complicated popular notions of identity shaped by the influence of Du Bois. In addition, such individuals as anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston and linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner produced scholarship that demonstrated the essential role of distinct black cultures, even those that originated in Africa, in the formation of African-American identity. These and other cultural influences allowed black women, for instance, to carve out the psychic space for what Darlene Clark Hine called the development of a new, but unheralded, collective black women's oppositional consciousness that was appropriate in the era of Jim Crow.

Identity and Black Power

The black social movements of the first half of the twentieth century paved the way for those movements of the 1960s and 1970s that provided an even greater challenge to dominant characterizations of black identity in the United States. Of course, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling was significant along these lines, contributing to the increase in the number of black students at white universities and colleges by the late 1960s. However, black students did not simply gain access to these institutions. Once there, they also challenged normative assumptions about society, including those about race and identity in America. Such a challenge necessarily entailed an examination of what it meant to be white. In his famous 1963 essay "A Talk to Teachers," James Baldwin brought into bold relief the relational character of identity and how the assertion of black identities necessarily called into question the nature of white identities. According to Baldwin, "So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe that I'm a 'nigger' and I don't, and the battle's on! Because if I am not what I've been told I am, then it means that you're not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis" (Baldwin, 1985, p. 329). In ideological terms, students attended more to matters of self-definition and self-determination than to those of integration. The pressures that these students exerted on their institutions eventually resulted in the eruption of black studies programs at predominately white colleges and universities across the country, beginning with San Francisco State University in 1968 and many others, including Harvard, Yale, and Ohio State, in 1969.

Significantly, in the 1970s William E. Cross began to develop his theory of nigrescence, or of "becoming black," to explain the development of identity among black college students. This theory, which enjoys great currency among contemporary researchers, educators, and counselors, charts the movement of individuals through five to six stages of ideological metamorphosis. These stages of identity development generally occur across three major levels of awareness or cognitive organization: pre-encounter, encounter, and post-encounter. During the pre-encounter stage, societal values and conceptions of what it means to be black dominate an individual's sense of self. Movement onto a subsequent level occurs when individuals encounter an event or events that compel them to confront questions of race in society. This stage describes a transitional period in which individuals may reassert their identification with the dominant white culture or resort to uncritically accepting things associated with black culture and repudiating institutions and values associated with the white culture. Some individuals remain in the stages of the encounter level, while others move on to a post-encounter level. Here, individuals come to terms with black culture in ways that do not necessarily entail the rejection of white culture. In addition, persons on the post-encounter level are less reactionary and generally refocus their energy from wanton aggression toward groups and individuals that they perceive to be different to directed anger against racist and oppressive groups and institutions.

Scholars such as Darlene Clark Hine, Paula Giddings, Elizabeth Higginbotham, and others demonstrate in their respective works that most models of identity produced in the wake of the Black Power movement, such as Cross's, typically equated the experiences of black males with the experiences of black people. They argue that, consequently, these models imposed yet another restrictive social identity on African Americans, especially black women. In contrast to its typical treatment in history, psychology, black cultural studies, and popular culture, identity, according to some writers, is shaped by the "intersecting" or "interlocking" experiences of race, gender, class, and sexuality in the everyday lives of individuals. For instance, the social and material processes that shape the identities of black women are likely to be qualitatively different from those that shape the identities of black men. In addition, the various aspects of one's social location, or "positionality," may contribute to one's identification with ideas, beliefs, goals, attitudes, or opinions shaped by different and, in some instances, even conflicting, ideological systems. For example, it is conceivable that during the high-profile O. J. Simpson trials of the mid-1990s, a black woman could simultaneously identify with the defendant, a black male, based on shared experiences around racial injustice, and empathize with the victim, a white woman, based on shared experiences around domestic violence.

Some writers, such as Higginbotham, point to similar restrictions placed on the identities of black women in women's studies programs that are rooted in the discipline's almost exclusive focus on gender relations as a source of oppression. Other writers, such as Audre Lorde and E. Frances White, point to the heterosexism of dominant notions of black identities and the concomitant erasure of gay and lesbian experiences in the scholarship. Similarly, filmmaker Marlon Riggs confronted the identification of blackness with a hypermasculinity born of the 1960s Black Power movement in Black IsBlack Ain't (1994). Finally, White critiqued identity models born of these movements and points to respectabilitythat is, the conventions that regulate sexual norms in Western Europe and the United Statesas undermining the capacity of these movements and the scholarly traditions they inform to embrace the full range of identities that constitute black humanity.

Multiracial Identities in theTwenty-First Century

The idea of race and identity in America is further complicated by the fact that nature knows no color lines, which has resulted in the creation of an African-American population whom the award-winning journalist and writer Itabari Njeri calls the "New World Black." Njeri believes that all African Americans with nonblack ancestry, especially white, should own up to and embrace their diverse heritage. In her view, since this implicates the vast majority of black people in the western hemisphere, such a move would normalize what African Americans often construe as exotic within their communities (e.g., offspring of interracial unions) and would put an end to what she calls "the official silence on America's historically miscegenated identity" (1993, p. 38). Certainly, most Americans of African descent recognize their diverse racial lineage, or at least have some sense of the possibility of it. However, at the same time they may be loathe to identify themselves as other than black or African American. That many black people do not socially identify with the multiple aspects of their racial or ethnic heritage may be attributable to any number of reasons. For instance, some argue that to do so is meaningless in a world of fixed categories in which the one-drop rule is in full effect.

As evidence of this, they might point to golfing sensation Eldrick "Tiger" Woods and his run at the 1997 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. During the media fanfare surrounding the event, Woods consistently pointed out to journalists that he was both black and Asian, owing to the respective backgrounds of his father and mother. However, as Woods approached the final rounds en route to a record victory at this major professional golf tournament, the media typically pointed to his significance as the first African American to win such an event and rarely, if ever, acknowledged his Asian ancestry or multiracial heritage. Perhaps the most memorable incident that reified the media's treatment of Woods's race occurred when fellow golfer Fuzzy Zoeller commented on the phenom's impending victory. Addressing the media throng at the end of his own thirty-fourth-place run at the title, Zoeller made the following remarks about the eventual Masters champion: "That little boy is driving well and he's putting well. He's doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it? Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve" (Cable Network News, 1997). In addition to pointing to the intransigent nature of race and identity in America, as evident in the accounts of the media's and Zoeller's behavior toward Woods, black individuals might point out that their nonblack ancestors are too remote in their lineage to identify them with any precision. Or, in the event that such ancestors could be identified, with rare exception, the relationships are such as to render them socially and culturally meaningless in contemporary society.

A related matter concerns other black individuals who challenge normative assumptions about race. These are black persons who are presumptively white; that is, black people who, because of their physical characteristics, are assumed to be white on first meeting them. In such instances, the black self-identities of such individuals may be dramatically inconsistent with the white identities that others, black and nonblack alike, reflexively and inflexibly impose on them. Challenging normative assumptions about race has profound psychological, social, and political implications, as brought into bold relief in James Weldon Johnson's classic The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), the equally memorable Douglas Sirk film Imitation of Life (1959), and the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling that established as federal policy "separate but equal." Kathe Sandler's film documentary A Question of Color (1992) and the autobiographies Black Notebooks (1997) by Toi Derricotte and Life on the Color Line (1995) by Gregory Williams provide examples of this phenomenon in contemporary American society. That some of the individuals in the aforementioned examples, as well as in society in general, deny their black heritage and "pass" for white highlights the fact that race and identity in America also involve some element of choice. In a related vein, Creoles of Louisiana comprise a mixed-heritage "black" population that challenges normative assumptions about race. Although the use of Creole among African Americans fell from common usage after the Louisiana Purchase (1803), it was revived after the Civil War, when former free blacks sought to distinguish themselves from emancipated slaves, and the term is still used as a marker of racial hybrid identity in contemporary society.

It is clear that the masses of black people have always acknowledged the fluid sexual boundaries that have resulted in a sizable mixed-race population within the race. Since the late 1980s, however, a growing multiracial social movement has become more vocal along these lines and has given voice to the non-Creole black population of mixed racial heritage. Proponents of contemporary multiracial social movements, such as the Association of Multiethnic Americans and the Multiracial Category Movement, advocate on behalf of persons born of interracial unions and those who self-identify as either biracial or multiracial. In addition, they advocate federal recognition of multiracial categories, arguing that the racial and ethnic makeup of the country has changed considerably since 1977 when the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) authorized Statistical Policy Directive Number 15. Directive 15 established the standards for the four racial categories that have since become commonplace in the United States: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, and White. In addition, the directive established two categories of ethnicity: Hispanic origin and Not of Hispanic origin.

The multiracial social movement was given a boost in 1997 when, following his victory at the Masters Tournament and in the wake of the Fuzzy Zoeller fiasco, Tiger Woods and his father appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. During the taped session, Winfrey asked Woods and his father about their views on the racial significance that the media had attached to the tournament. Woods replied by expressing dismay with the media's insistence on labeling him simply as African American, noting that he was black, Thai, Chinese, white, and American Indian. He also recalled that, as a child, in an effort to capture his rich heritage when identifying himself, he created a new label. Elaborating on this point, Woods stated: "Growing up, I came up with this name. I'm a 'Cablinasian.'" Members and sympathizers of multiracial social movements, including lawmakers, seized on Woods's comments in support of their advocacy to change the 2000 U.S. census to reflect the changing demographics of America. However, some civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, argued that the myriad combinations resulting from the new categories could dilute estimates of historically protected racial populations. Not only would underestimation of these populations result in the loss of their political clout, opponents of changes to the census argued that new formulas could also curtail the enforcement of civil rights laws and the allocation of funding for such governmental programs as health care, education, and public transportation in ways that would disproportionately burden black people, other people of color, and the poor.

In response to growing criticism of its 1977 standards, in 1997 the OMB initiated a review of Directive 15 and in October of that year announced revised measures for collecting federal data on race and ethnicity. The minimum categories for race as of 2005 were: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White. The 2000 census also included a sixth racial category: Some Other Race. The two minimum categories for ethnicity remained intact: Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino. Also, instead of allowing a multiracial category, as was originally suggested in public and congressional hearings, the OMB began to allow respondents to select one or more races when they self-identify.

Despite the public rhetoric and legislative activity that contributed to the revision of OMB Directive 15, the multiracial population counted in the 2000 census was relatively smallonly 6.8 million people or slightly more than 2 percent of the total population. This group included a considerable number of Latinos; in fact, 2.2 million Latinos selected more than one boxnearly one-third of the 6.8 million who selected two or more races. This is not unusual, as "Hispanic" or "Latino" represents an ethnic category on the census and historically those who have identified with this group also have chosen additional categories to qualify their ethnic identities in accordance with their diverse racial identities as Mexican-American, Cuban-American, Dominican, or Puerto Rican, to name several.


As indicated in the introduction, matters of race and identity have always been central to what it means to be American. Further, these matters are thoroughly imbricated with psychological, social, and material significance. Given the power dimensions that inhere in the ways identities are created and re-created, these matters have always been contested, with the battle occurring largely on cultural fronts. It is notable, then, that nearly 97 percent of those who checked more than one box in the 2000 census identified themselves at least partially as white, such as white and American Indian, white and Asian, white and black, and white and other. The significance of these choices remains to be seen. However, they do raise important questions about the character that race and identity will assume in twenty-first-century America: Do such decisions augur badly for a nation of Americans still willing to pay the price of the ticket? Or, do they point to democratic possibilities in which difference is embraced as a norm in the new millennium?

See also Afrocentrism; Black Power Movement; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Folklore, Masculinity; Migration; Race, Scientific Theories of; Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race


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garrett albert duncan (2005)

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Identity and Race in the United States

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