Miscegenation, assimilation, and consumption: racial passing in George Schuyler’s “Black No More” and Eric Liu’s “The Accidental Asian”
Volume 33, Number 3, Multicultural and Multilingual Aesthetics of Resistance (2008-09-22)
Hee-Jung Serenity Joo, Assistant Professor of English
University of Manitoba
“[E]ither get out, get white or get along.”
—Schuyler, Black No More (11)
“Some are born white, others achieve whiteness, still others have whiteness thrust upon them.”
—Liu, The Accidental Asian (34-35)
In her influential essay “Eating the Other,” bell hooks examines the ways in which race is commodified in our intensifying hypercapitalist world. She expects that “cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate”. The other is “eaten” and the white self is satiated through consumption of aspects of the other’s culture—food, tattoos, music, language, tourism, or even the other’s body. Over a decade later, a casual stroll down any drug store cosmetics aisle attests to the voraciousness of this white appetite. L’Oreal’s True Match foundation line caters to a wide range of skin tones, with white, Asian, and black models posing for its stylish magazine spreads. True to hooks’s observations, the darker the color of the foundation, the more edible the skin tone becomes: on the lighter side of the pigment spectrum are colors such as “porcelain,” “alabaster,” “ivory,” “nude,” and “natural.” In contrast, the darker end includes “honey,” “caramel,” “crème café,” “cappuccino,” “nut brown,” and “cocoa.” No matter that the latter colors are also advertised as daily specials on any Starbucks menu, the blatant metaphors of consumption and the exotic appeal of dark skin juxtaposed against the purity and neutrality of light skin are hard to ignore.
Two seemingly disparate texts, George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) and Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (1998), pick up the question the cosmetic industry begs us to ask: what impact will consumerism have on the perpetually changing meaning of race in this age of late capitalism? In theory, in this post-Civil Rights world the category of race is less dependent on the state for its demands of equality; legally, at least, for example, the state no longer sanctions Jim Crow segregation or condones lynching. Perhaps in this epoch race has become a marker of personal taste, one that can be consumed by the highest bidder. In contrast to hooks’s emphasis on the white cannibalistic consumption of the other, these two texts complicate this racist schema by positing others as the ones who can consume their way out of their respective races and into the white one. This article compares the literary trope of racial passing in Black No More to the social narrative of assimilation in The Accidental Asian to show the changing nature of race under the pressures of late capitalism. In Black No More, racial passing challenges segregation laws that deny racial minorities entry into the labor market in the interest of protecting capitalist accumulation. In The Accidental Asian, assimilation is the contemporary version of racial passing; assimilation is promoted to incorporate racial minorities into the market as consumers, to make them pass into an appropriate category of consumption and whiteness. Despite their attempts at imagining a nation where race no longer matters, the persisting racial passing narratives of both texts question their proclamations of “post-racism.”
Though written over sixty years apart, both Black No More and The Accidental Asian present eerily similar futures of an anti-racist nation premised on miscegenation. Historically, miscegenation derived from the white slave owner’s exploitation of the black female body in order to protect and increase his property. Under Jim Crow segregation, miscegenation signified a danger to the white racial “purity” of the nation in the form of a supposed black sexual threat against white women. For Asian Americans, miscegenation has served historically as a contested battleground for legal inclusion into the nation in the forms of marriage and immigration laws. At the turn of the twenty-first century, however, miscegenation sometimes is celebrated as a means to achieve a multicultural and racism-less society. Tracing the changing nature of racial passing and miscegenation in these two texts reveals the ongoing political implications of color-blind consumerism and late capitalist consumption.
Published during the Harlem Renaissance while legal segregation flourished, Schuyler’s Black No More concerns a machine that literally turns African Americans into white (Caucasian) individuals. As Dr. Junius Crookman, the African American scientist who invents the machine, states, this will “solve the American race problem” . After all, he argues, “if there were no Negroes, there could be no Negro problem”. He then opens a business christened “Black-No-More, Incorporated” to capitalize on the success of his scientific endeavor. Predictably and often comically, instead of eliminating the race problem in the United States, Black-No-More, Inc. only thrusts the entire nation into chaos and racial paranoia by making it impossible to distinguish “real” whites from former African Americans who have “become” white via the machine. The complexities of the color line that the characters transgress attests to the intimate relationship between the state and early-twentieth-century mass production (Fordist) capitalism, which created a white working class by rejecting black bodies in the pursuit of a coherent national identity. At the same time, the thrust of the capitalist Black-No-More “machine” already foreshadows the rise of global capitalism that marks Liu’s historical moment.
Similar to Schuyler’s novel, The Accidental Asian also attempts to depict an ideal anti-racist society. In Liu’s vision, set in an era of globalization and late capitalism, racial identities are fluid and racial passing has become a consumerist choice. He argues that in this day and age, “you don’t have to have white skin anymore to become white”. The book is Liu’s poignant memoir of assimilation into the elite upper class of the US. Journalist, author, and former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, Liu confesses that because US society conflates class and race by equating power and wealth with whiteness, the illogic of assimilation unfortunately but inevitably makes him white; therefore, as his title suggests, he is Asian only by accident. He lists a variety of specifically consumerist practices that make him white, including “wear[ing] khaki Dockers,” “eat[ing] gourmet greens,” and “furnish[ing] [his] condo a la Crate and Barrel”. The contemporary racial passing proposed by Liu shows a significant shift in the social meaning of race; now race is influenced by consumerism and flexible capital spending, rather than by the state. In Black No More, becoming white mediates the state’s racism, while Liu’s text presents a scenario in which certain assimilated and affluent people of color regard racial and ethnic identities as commodities. This relatively malleable definition of race is compounded by the ever increasing popularity of white subjects who desire to pass for exotic ethnics.
Racial passing narratives have often been used to reveal the constructed and fragile nature of racial categories and to critique the hypocritical and discriminatory system of US democracy that equated white skin with freedom and citizenship? In African American literary history, in particular, the racial passing narrative has been an important genre. Beginning with slave narratives and continuing through the domestic “tragic mulatto” novels of the Civil War and into Harlem Renaissance literature, the trope of the racial passer has been deployed to reveal the unjust treatment of African Americans in US history. Whether under slavery or during the Jim Crow era, mixed-race subjects with light skin often passed for white in order to gain their freedom or assert their constitutional rights.
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