Bodies Under Re/view? Mediating Racial Blackness
InVisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture
Tiffany E. Barber, Adjunct Instructor African and African American Studies
University of Oklahoma
“In our allegedly postracial moment, where simply talking about racism openly is considered an impolitic, if not racist, thing to do, we constantly learn and re-learn racial codes. [. . .] In short, it was Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman, who was put on trial. He was tried for the crimes he may have committed and the ones he would have committed had he lived past 17.” – Robin D.G. Kelley, “The U.S. v. Trayvon Martin: How the System Worked”
In a 1995 keynote address titled “On Identity Politics,” critical race theorist Mari J. Matsuda cautions against assumptions “that racial identity is the cause of racial division rather than a product of it.” For Matsuda, critical race theory emerges “[o]ut of the struggle to understand the ways in which mainstream legal consciousness is white, male, Christian, able-bodied, economically privileged, and heterosexual.” That is, how legal consciousness itself signifies a type of whiteness that excludes and marginalizes difference, difference that is seen in opposition to this constructed whiteness – i.e. black and other non-white subjects, queer subjects, women subjects, and so on. Matsuda’s assertions bring into relation a politics of law, race, and gender that persist today, and demand a consideration of what these mediated relationships tell us about histories of identity formation particular to race, gender and sexuality in the U.S….
…To address these questions, I turn to two cases of precedence that establish relations between the U.S. justice system, racial blackness, and visuality. In 1921, Leonard ‘Kip’ Rhinelander, an affluent white male from a wealthy New York family met and courted Alice Beatrice Jones, a working-class woman of mixed-race ancestry. Jones’s fair skin color permitted her to pass for white and it is unclear whether or not she self-identified as white. Over the next few years, Rhinelander and Jones grew closer and shared a number of intimate encounters, at least two of which were known to be sexual. The couple eloped in October 1924 and enjoyed secluded bliss – Rhinelander’s parents did not approve of Jones – until scandal ripped through the relationship. Soon after, Rhinelander filed for an annulment. The charge? Racial fraud; Rhinelander claimed Jones had misrepresented her blackness…
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