The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality
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The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality

by Walter Benn Michaels

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“Michaels has written a bracing polemic that should quicken the debate over what diversity really means, or should mean, in academia and beyond.”—The New York Review of Books

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s the value of diversity. Our corporations vie for slots in the Diversity Top 50, our universities brag


“Michaels has written a bracing polemic that should quicken the debate over what diversity really means, or should mean, in academia and beyond.”—The New York Review of Books

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s the value of diversity. Our corporations vie for slots in the Diversity Top 50, our universities brag about minority recruiting, and every month is Somebody’s History Month. But in this “eloquent” (Chicago Tribune) and “captivating” (Los Angeles Times) book, Walter Benn Michaels argues that our enthusiastic celebration of “difference” masks our neglect of America’s vast and growing economic divide.

When it was first published in 2006, The Trouble with Diversity provoked a firestorm of praise and condemnation—not only hailed as “genius” (The Economist), “cogent” (The New Yorker), and “impossible to disagree with” (The Washington Post) it was excoriated as a “wildly implausible” product of “the ‘shock and awe’ school of political argument” (Slate) and “Seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment” (The Nation). Now, a decade later, Michaels offers a new afterword on how our regime of equal-opportunity exploitation has only intensified. Magnificently iconoclastic, he demonstrates that commitments to diversity fail to offer a premise for social justice and in fact legitimize the economic forces that drive inequality rather than offering a resistance or even a critique. Most importantly, he makes the case that we should pay less attention to the illusory distinction of culture, and more attention to the real discrepancies of class and wealth.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
We're so happy with our show of diversity that we are ignoring real problems of poverty and social injustice, argues University of Illinois professor Michaels. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A radical critique of the nation's penchant for highlighting diversity and ignoring financial inequality. Michaels (English/Univ. of Illinois, Chicago; The Shape of the Signifier, 2004) says Americans would rather talk about racial, ethnic and gender differences than focus on the only difference that matters-some people are rich (and getting richer) and the rest are not. For years, as the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, "we've been urged to respect people's identities-as if the problem of poverty would be solved if we just appreciated the poor," he writes. In fact, the poor are not interested in diversity; they want to stop being poor, he says, noting there will never be a National Museum of Lower-Income Americans on the DC Mall. Drawing examples from current events, novels and popular culture, Michaels describes a national near-fetish with cultural diversity that manifests itself in everything from university enrollments to corporate hiring. Used to organizing the world racially, Americans keep doing it, finding it easier to fight racism rather than admit to class differences. The author excoriates both left and right, arguing that diversity satisfies both sides in the culture wars, permitting them to believe that "the fundamental problems of American society have nothing to do with capitalism." His challenge to the nation's dominant thinking can be unsettling, and he will provoke many with assertions minimizing the impact of discrimination in American life: He says, for example, that black intellectuals are simply nostalgic for the black culture that Jim Crow helped create, and that anti-Semitism has never been as significant as Negrophobia. By basking constantly inidentity, Americans are able to avoid seeing and acting on class inequalities. Thus, says the author, some critics mistakenly chose to see President Bush as anti-black-not anti-poor-in his handling of Hurricane Katrina, when in fact not many rich black people were left behind in New Orleans. Identity is bunk. What's in your wallet?Agent: Ellen Levine/Trident Media Group
From the Publisher

“This is a different line, and there's a touch of genius about it.” —The

“Cogent... certain to be controversial.” —The New Yorker

“Eloquent” —The Chicago Tribune

“Rarely have I found myself more in agreement with a book's conclusion. To focus so obsessively on questions of diversity is, as Michaels rightly asserts, to opt for a politics of symbolism over a politics of results.” —Slate

“Bracing... the greatest virtue of The Trouble With Diversity is the tenacity and precision with which Michaels dissects out muddled ideas about race and inequality.” —The Nation

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The Trouble with Race

Here are two stories, one from the end of the nineteenth century, the other from the end of the twentieth. First, the nineteenth-century one. In 1892, a young man gets on a train going from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. Because Louisiana trains have recently been segregated, he can enter either a coach reserved for whites or one marked COLORED. Despite the fact that he is very light skinned (he is only one-eighth black, and his lawyer would later claim "the mixture of colored blood" was not "discernible"), when he enters the one for whites, he is identified as black and the conductor asks him to leave. When he refuses, he's arrested. Since his goal is to get the practice of separating the races declared illegal, he immediately petitions for a hearing before the Louisiana Supreme Court, and then, after he loses there, he takes his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his lawyerargues that the state has no right to "label one citizen as white and another as colored" and that the conductor's decision to label him black was "arbitrary."1 But he loses again. There are "physical differences" between white people and black people, the Court says, and they have different "racial instincts," and these differences justify the state of Louisiana in requiring whites and blacks to ride in different coaches. So, despite Justice John Harlan's famous dissent ("Our Constitution is color-blind ..."), the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson officially inaugurates more than a half century of Jim Crow, of separate schools, separate hospitals, separate water coolers, separate everything.

Now the twentieth-century story. In 1977, a New Orleans woman named Susie Guillory Phipps (never to be as famous as Homer Plessy but important to historians of race) applies for a passport and goes to the Bureau of Vital Records to get a copy of her birth certificate. In 1977, things are a lot different than they were in 1896. Segregation is now against the law. No one, not even the Louisiana court that will in 1985 have to decide whether she's black or white, believes in Susie Phipps's "racial instincts"; in fact, the court will call the whole idea of racial classification for individuals "scientifically insupportable." And the "physical differences" that had already begun to look a little tenuous in Plessy (remember, Homer Plessy's "colored blood" was "not discernible") are in this case ludicrously invisible. The fair-skinned and fair-haired Phipps has lived for forty-three years as a white woman. Not until the birth certificate produced by the Bureau of Vital Records said she was "colored" had anybody ever told her different, andwhen the Bureau of Vital Records refuses to change her birth certificate, she, like Homer Plessy, goes to court. And, like Homer Plessy, she loses.2

The reason that Phipps isn't as famous as Plessy, of course, is that an entire social system—Jim Crow—wasn't riding on her case. But the point of telling both these stories is that something important was: not the persistence of segregation by race but the persistence of race itself, the conviction that we can sort different kinds of humans out by assigning them to races. Homer Plessy looked like the other people on the whites-only coach, but he was nonetheless identified—indeed, in order to get himself arrested and get the constitutional challenge to the new law started, he must have identified himself—as a black man. How else could the conductor know to arrest him? Susie Phipps wasn't identified by anybody—including herself—as a black woman, and yet she turned out to be black too. Why is Phipps black? What is race if you get to belong to one without looking like you do, without feeling like you do, and without even knowing that you do?

In an officially racist society like the one Homer Plessy lived in, this question was obviously important; you can't exclude the black people unless you know which ones they are. In our society, where the commitment is not to disrespecting but to respecting racial difference, it's just as important; you can't celebrate people's blackness unless you can define it. The recent history of the science of race, however, has raised doubts about whether you can define it, and has turned the question raised by people like Plessy and Phipps—why do they belong to the black race?—into the more generalquestion: are there such things as races? And while this question is potentially awkward (since if there aren't any races, what differences are we respecting?), there are important ways in which the difficulty of pinning race down has worked to keep it central. As race has turned from a biological into a social fact, racial diversity has morphed into cultural diversity, and a world of cultural (rather than economic or political or even religious) differences has proven to be a very attractive one for many. From this perspective, we might even say that the more amorphous our concept of race has become, the more applicable it has become as a model for treating all difference.

Thus it's an important fact about race in America that the "physical differences" the Court alluded to in Plessy had, right from the start, a certain immateriality, which meant that although they were usually visible, they didn't have to be. Hemingway may have made fun of the idea that the rich belonged to a different race, but he had the more or less orthodox account of who belonged to which race and how you could tell: when, in The Sun Also Rises, Robert Cohn gets his nose "flattened" in a boxing match at Princeton, you know that the nose in question is supposed to be a characteristically Jewish one, and when Jake Barnes says the nose was "improved" by being flattened, you know that after the boxing match, Robert Cohn looks a little less Jewish than he did before. But you also know that he still is Jewish, and so—"funny, you don't look Jewish"—that looking Jewish and being Jewish are two different things. Indeed, as we have already seen, even when the difference between races isentirely articulated in terms of how you look—when the difference between the people in question is described as something absolutely visible, like the difference in color—looks can be deceiving. The fact that your skin is white doesn't make you white; the fact that your nose doesn't look Jewish doesn't mean you aren't Jewish. In the 1930s, the (black) writer George Schuyler wrote a very funny book called Black No More, which imagined a process that could turn black skin white. But it didn't make race go away; it just made it harder to find. There may be some societies in which your looks really do determine your race. It's often said that in Brazil, for example, differently colored children (one light, one dark) of the same parents can belong to different races. But that's not the way race works in America.

In America, color is only a sign (often reliable, sometimes not) of your race, and two children of the same parents—however different their skin colors—always belong to the same race. In America, race has always been on the inside. What made Homer Plessy and Susie Phipps black was not their black skin (which they didn't have) but their black blood. Except, of course, that most of Homer Plessy's blood was not black. In Louisiana in 1896, he would have been called an octoroon—he had one black great-grandparent. And Susie Phipps turned out to be even less black than Plessy; her black blood derived not from a great-grandparent but from a great-great-great-grandparent. However, that was enough. The American rule of racial identity has generally been that one drop of black blood makes a black person, and since there can only be one one-drop rule (you can't say thatone drop of black blood makes you black and one drop of, say, Asian blood makes you Asian—what, then, do you do with someone who's both black and Asian?), the effect of the rule has been to divide the American population into two major categories: black and not-black.

This is not to say that there haven't been moments when these categories looked a little crude, and finer distinctions got put into place. Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's—the 1920s—was one of them. In the years after World War I, there was widespread hysteria about the consequences of largely unchecked eastern European immigration to the United States, and extremely respectable people wrote books like The Rising Tide of Color Against While World-Supremacy and The Passing of the Great Race—the race in question being not just white people but "Nordics," the very best white people. World War I, which they called the White Civil War, had been a disaster for Nordics. While all the blond, blue-eyed types on both sides had been bravely butchering each other at places like Verdun, the darker types—"Alpines" (not bad but not as good as Nordics) and "Mediterraneans" (barely better than Jews)—had headed to the rear and waited for the whole thing to blow over. And when it did, they got lucky. From "the breeding point of view," wrote Madison Grant (not just the author of racist tracts but a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a good friend of presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Herbert Hoover), the real winner of the war was not the British and the Americans but "the little dark man," since he got the girl.3 He got, that is, to breed with all the Nordic girls deprived by thewar of the opportunity to breed with suitably noble (but, on account of their nobility, now dead) Nordic boys. The looming threat was thus the mongrelization of America, and the Immigration Act of 1924 (called the National Origins Act because it assigned immigration quotas by country—Sweden scored high) was the major response to this threat.

Men like Grant didn't worry that much about black people, who seemed to him even lower than Jews and so not that much of a threat. But if blacks were at the bottom of the racial scale, their blood was in its own way the most powerful, since, in case of mixture, the growing consensus, as we've already seen, was that even one drop of black blood, whatever all the other drops were, was enough to make you black. The category of mulatto disappeared from the census after 1920 because of the one-drop rule. And even now, despite the recent return of the multiracial category on the census forms, it's hard to be part black. When, for example, the self-described part African American, part Asian, part Native American, part white golfer Tiger Woods started calling himself a Cablinasian, many black people were appalled at his failure to recognize himself as a black man and pretty soon Tiger himself stopped insisting. For if the one-drop rule divides America into two groups—black and not-black—for most of American history, not-black has ended up meaning white. Jimmy Gatz may not have been white enough for Tom Buchanan, but his sons would have been white enough for Tom Buchanan's daughters. That's why the world is filled with books like How the Irish Became White and How the Jews Became White (and why someone now is or now ought to bewriting How the Asians Became White). So when Tiger Woods didn't call himself black, it looked to black people as if he were calling himself—the only real alternative—white. Despite the occasional distractions of intrawhite difference noted above, the American racial system has in the main been a kind of machine for producing racial unity (i.e., whiteness) among people from Killarney to Vilna and for producing racial unity (i.e., blackness) among people whose skin color ranges from ebony to (like Susie Phipps's) ivory.

But what is this unity? In what way are people who have the one drop fundamentally like each other and people who don't have it fundamentally different from the people who do? Today we don't talk so much about blood anymore, we talk about genes, and we are able to trace people's ancestry with a specificity that would have amazed even the most passionate nineteenth-century aficionados of physical difference and racial instincts. But it would also have disappointed them, because it has turned out that the more we know about genetic heritage, the more skeptical most scientists have become about the idea of race. In fact, the dominant scientific view now is that race is a "myth," and that, in the words of R. W. Lewontin, "as a biological rather than a social construct, 'race' has ceased to be seen as a fundamental reality characterizing the human species."4

The reason for this is not, of course, that there aren't any physical differences between people. People clearly do have different skin colors and different textures of hair, and we all have ancestors who came from different places or who came out of Africa at different times. The problem is that geneticvariation within populations belonging to what we call the same race is often greater than genetic variation between races. So, as Joseph Graves puts it, "a person from the Congo and a person from Mali are more likely to be genetically different from each other than either is from a person from Belgium."5 Hence it doesn't make genetic sense to think of people from Mali and the Congo as belonging to the same race and of Belgians as belonging to a different race. On the one hand, then, there are people whose ancestors came from Belgium and people whose ancestors came from Mali and people whose ancestors came from Thailand. But, on the other hand, there isn't (at least from the scientific standpoint) any white or black or Asian race. So it's not that there aren't "physical differences" (in this sense the Court in Plessy had it right); it's just that there aren't physical differences between races.

This point is nicely illustrated by recent discoveries about the apparent link between disease and race. For many years, at least in the United States, sickle cell anemia has been a disease—and, of course, a disease of the blood—customarily identified with black people. But it turns out that we can't really distinguish between black people and white people (between black blood and white blood) by invoking a genetic association with sickle cell. For one thing, not all of the people we call black actually have such an association, since it is characteristic among people whose ancestors were at one point centered in parts of West and Central Africa and isn't at all associated with black people whose ancestry is elsewhere in Africa. And, for another, there are people we think of aswhite (i.e., certain parts of the Greek population) with whom the trait is associated. The unifying factor is apparently descent from people who lived where malaria was a problem, since the sickle cell trait is a variant of traits that protect against malaria. Thus, as Adolph Reed pointedly suggests, in a country composed largely of white people from the Mediterranean and of black people from southern Africa, sickle cell would be thought of as a white disease.6

The same point can be made, from the opposite angle, for other groups. Tay-Sachs is supposedly a Jewish disease, but, among Jews, it's only the Ashkenazi (from eastern Europe) who are frequent carriers, and frequent carriers include non-Jewish populations like French Canadians from the area near the St. Lawrence River. In a country where the population consisted of French Canadians and Sephardic instead of Ashkenazi Jews, Tay-Sachs would be most accurately describable not as a disease Jews get but as a disease Jews don't get. More striking still, if we imagined a country composed of Ashkenazim, Sephardim and French Canadians, and we used the statistical probability of being a carrier for the Tay-Sachs gene as a marker of racial difference in our imaginary country, the question of what race you belonged to would have nothing to do with the question of whether you were Jewish. The people formerly known as Jews would belong to both races.

The problem, then, for the biology of race is that there is no genetic equivalent for racial blood, for the one drop it takes to make a black person or for the many drops it supposedly takes to make someone else. More generally, there are no physical features that all the people we call black or white orAsian or Jewish do have in common with other blacks or whites or Asians or Jews and that they can't have in common with people from supposedly different races. But this scientific critique of race as a biological entity, as widely accepted as it has been, has not produced an end to the idea that people belong to races. Just the opposite. It's "as a biological rather than a social construct" that Lewontin says races don't exist, which suggests that we might better understand races not by saying that if they don't exist in nature, they don't exist at all, but by saying instead that their existence is social instead of natural. Years ago, in Anti-Semite and Jew, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre made a version of this point by saying that "Jewishness" for the anti-Semite is like "phlogiston," the substance that eighteenth-century scientists used to think was present in all flammable (i.e., "phlogisticated") materials and that enabled them to burn (i.e., be "dephlogisticated"). By the end of the century, Lavoisier showed that there was no such thing as phlogiston, and Sartre, like Lewontin, argues that there is no such thing as "Jewishness" either. But it would be a mistake, Sartre says, to think that just because there is no physical phlogistonlike Jewishness that all Jews have in common, there are no such things as Jews. On the contrary—and this is what is meant by calling race a social fact (or, as Lewontin says, a social construct)—the Jew is not someone whose body contains Jewishness (either in the form of blood or genes); "the Jew is one whom others consider a Jew."7

Actually, W. E. B. Du Bois produced a version of this definition for African Americans eight years before Sartre, when he wrote in Dusk of Dawn (1940) that "the black man is aperson who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia." And the artist and philosopher Adrian Piper more recently produced perhaps the definitive formulation. "What joins me to other blacks," she writes, "and other blacks to one another, is not a set of shared physical characteristics, for there is none that all blacks share. Rather it is the shared experience of being visually or cognitively identified as black."8 And once you get identified as black (or Jewish or Asian), there's no point in telling the person who's identified you that the physical characteristics are irrelevant, that the genetic differences between you and some other blacks are greater than the genetic differences between you and some other nonblacks, and so calling you black (or Jewish or Asian) doesn't establish any further connection with some biological group (i.e., a race), but just tells you where (some of) your ancestors came from. Because to deny your race—even if you don't believe in races as biological facts—is, Piper says (and Sartre feels the same way), "shameful." Everybody, Sartre says, is born into what he calls a "situation," a set of beliefs about you and ways of treating you over which you have no control. The important thing, he thinks, is how you deal with this situation. The person whom he calls the "inauthentic Jew" tries to run away from it; he says that he's not Jewish or (since there is no physical fact of Jewishness) that no one is Jewish, that there are no such things as Jews. But the person Sartre calls the authentic Jew (or black or Asian or whatever) does just the opposite. Not only does he accept the identity his situation confers upon him; he seeks to "live it to the full." The authentic Jew "asserts his claim as a Jew."

Hence Adrian Piper, even though she doesn't believe in the shared physical characteristics of race and even though she is herself very light skinned, is prepared to assert her claim as a black person, and to do so in a pretty uncompromising way. Because she doesn't look black, she has, she says, often been in the position of associating with people (at dinner parties, say) who don't know her racial identity. And sometimes at these parties, people start making racial remarks or telling racist jokes. What to do? As she points out, "It really ruins everyone's evening" if you verbally confront the person. And you're being completely disingenuous if you just object to the racism without saying that you're black. After all, when the dinner party started you were just a black person who wasn't talking about it; now you've become a black person who's hiding it. Piper's solution (remember, she's an artist) was to make a business card, which she called My Calling (Card) Number One: A Reactive Guerilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties. The card says, "Dear Friend: I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark," and it goes on to explain her "policy" of distributing such cards when called for, regretting the "discomfort" she is causing the racist in question and ending "Sincerely yours, Adrian Margaret Smith Piper." What she would do is slip it inconspicuously to the individual in question, thus declaring her blackness without destroying the party. Or, at least, without destroying it for everyone.

It might, perhaps, be objected that Piper's light skin makes her situation a little unusual (although Homer Plessy andSusie Phipps would presumably disagree). But it's not hard to imagine more common versions. When I started teaching at Berkeley, I myself was once at a dinner party, happily chatting with the wife of a senior colleague, when she suddenly started talking about how the Jews were ruining the English Department. Now I neither believe in nor practice Judaism, but it was pretty obvious that Judaism wasn't the thing she was worried about. And, in fact, modern anti-Semitism has been no more interested in the religion of the Jews than antiblack prejudice has been in the religion of African Americans. The Klan didn't care about where you went to church, and when the Nazis wanted to know if you were Jewish, they weren't inquiring about whether or not you kept kosher or attended services on Yom Kippur. Of course, they didn't have a one-drop rule for Jews (the Nuremberg regulations specified that a Jew was someone "descended from at least three grandparents who were, racially, full Jews"), but the principle was the same, and it was the principle that my dinner companion had suddenly made relevant. So I did what Sartre would have wanted me to do. I asserted my claim as a Jew and said, "But you know, Jean [name changed here to protect the guilty], I'm Jewish." Which, amazingly, didn't shut her up but did make me feel a lot better.

Except, of course, for the obvious problem. Sartre says that a Jew is someone who is considered a Jew; Adrian Piper says that you're black if you're identified as black. But the whole point of both these stories is that neither Adrian Piper nor I was being treated as anything other than your garden-variety white person. So what happens to Piper's blackness ifshe's never identified as black? When I assert my claim as a Jew, what exactly am I claiming?

When the Susie Phipps case went before the Louisiana Court of Appeals, two possible answers to this question emerged. One is that it's blood after all. Phipps did appear to have been the great-great-great-granddaughter of a French planter and one of his slaves, and so, by the one-drop rule, she (like Adrian Piper) was black. But, as we've already seen, the one-drop rule makes no genetic sense; indeed, even if Phipps had been dark skinned, there would be no biological reason for assigning her to the black race because there is no such thing as the black race. And the court understood that. The response it gave was not the biological essentialist one but the social constructionist one, the alternative answer to the question, What is blackness? The court agreed with Lewontin (and Sartre and Piper) that race was a "scientifically insupportable" concept and that "racial designations are purely social and cultural perceptions."9 Replacing the one-drop rule with a no-drop rule, it didn't rely on the genealogical evidence for its decision. What it relied on instead was the birth certificate. And what the birth certificate, filled out with information provided by Phipps's mother, recorded was not the genealogical detail that Phipps had at least one black ancestor but the fact that, whatever the details of her ancestry, in her parents' eyes she was black. As were they themselves since, although they concealed their blackness from her, their own birth certificates said they too were "colored." The birth certificates all said "colored," and the birth certificates mattered not because they recorded some scientific fact but becausethey reported how the Phipps family saw itself; they recorded what the court called their "social and cultural perceptions." And since, in the court's view, racial identity was nothing but such perceptions, the court ruled that Susie Phipps was black. According to Sartre, a Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew; according to the Appellate Court of the state of Louisiana, a black woman is one whose mom considers her to be a black woman.

But what do we do when perceptions differ? Susie Phipps's parents perceived her as a black woman; she perceived herself as a white woman—why should the government take her parents' word instead of hers? If she were filling out a census form instead of applying for a passport, her word is the one that would matter. The Office of Management and Budget's guidelines for collecting census data about racial identity emphasize, just as the Louisiana court did, that "racial and ethnic data categories are social-political constructs and that they should not be interpreted as being genetic, biological, or anthropological in nature."10 But where the Louisiana court relied on parental perceptions, the OMB has since 1980 (until then it relied on the census taker) insisted that "self-reporting or self-identification is the preferred method for collecting data on race and ethnicity." The OMB takes the Sartrean account of race as a social fact (you are what others think you are) and the Louisiana account (you are what the legally appropriate others—the census taker or your parents—think you are) and reduces them to their purest form (you are what you think you are).

The advantage of self-identification, the OMB thinks, is precisely that it tells you what to do in case of conflicts. Because race is a "subjective" fact about individuals, a function of perception rather than biology, who can be better positioned to know the truth about you than you? So if there's a disagreement, if there's a discrepancy between your "self-perception" and what the OMB calls (in scare quotes) "'objective' clues" (like skin color, hair texture, etc.), self-perception wins. In fact, since when you're asked about your racial identity what you're really being asked is how you perceive yourself, your responses to questions about your racial identity are not just more likely to be accurate; they are, the OMB says, "by definition," "accurate." The OMB's idea is apparently that the question of what race you are is something like the question of whether you're in pain. The point is not just that you're better positioned than other people to know the truth (they're looking at you from the outside; you're either feeling or not feeling the pain on the inside), but that you can't in principle be mistaken. You can lie about it, but you can't be wrong about it since if you feel you're in pain, you are in pain. So if I say you don't look like you're in pain but you say (truthfully) that nevertheless it hurts, you're right—it hurts. And if I perceive you as black but you perceive yourself as white, you're right—you're white.

But what are you perceiving when you perceive yourself as white? Remember, the only reason that anyone—Sartre, the courts, the federal government—is interested in your perception of race in the first place is that they're all agreed that thereis no biological fact of the matter about what race you belong to. That's why the OMB says that race is not like, say, age, and why it allows census recorders to correct the information when, for example, someone born on January 1, 1950, says on January 1, 2000, that he's thirty years old. Being fifty years old is not a social construction; you aren't fifty because people perceive you as being fifty or because you perceive yourself as being fifty. You're fifty because, however people perceive you (he looks old, he looks young, she dresses as if she thinks she's still thirty), there is some fact of the matter independent of the perception. So when the OMB asks you how old you are, it isn't asking you how old you feel. But when it asks you what race you are, that's exactly what it is asking you.

And it certainly is true that when the woman at the dinner party started in about the Jews, I started feeling pretty Jewish. Which means, what? We can have a good idea of what Susie Phipps's parents were thinking when they wrote down that their baby daughter was black. They were thinking she's black because of the black ancestor; she has at least one drop of black blood.11 But the court said they were mistaken; there is no such thing as black blood. The reason she's black, according to the court, is that her parents thought she had black blood. So the court is insisting, first, that her parents were mistaken and, second, that their mistake should be enforced. It's not your black blood that makes you black (since, the court says, there is no such thing); it's your parents' mistaken belief in your black blood that makes you black. And what am I thinking when I tell Jean I'm Jewish? What's Adrian Piper thinking when she hands people her "I am black" callingcard? We're not thinking about our genes. And we're not thinking that we've been identified as Jewish or black because we haven't and usually aren't—that's why Piper is carrying her card. What we're thinking is something like what the court thought: If my dinner partner knew me and knew my genetic heritage, she would (mistakenly) identify me as a member of the Jewish or black race. And I'm going to endorse her mistake. Hence, "Dear Friend, I am black."

The idea of race as a social construction was meant to register the fact that even if we don't any longer believe in race as a biological entity, we still treat people as if they belonged to races. Indeed, we routinely—both officially (the government does it) and unofficially (we all do it)—organize the world racially. Susie Phipps's mother would have a lot more choices filling out her birth certificate today, from WHITE and BLACK to AMERICAN INDIAN to FILIPINO to OTHER ASIAN (SPECIFY) to just plain OTHER. And she would be allowed to check as many boxes as she wanted. When you're born American, you're also born black or white or Guamanian or Chamorro.12 But we shouldn't think that just because we keep on treating people as if they belonged to races, they somehow do, or that our treating people as if they belonged to races is its own justification. Treating race as a social fact amounts to nothing more than acknowledging that we were mistaken to think of it as a biological fact and then insisting that we ought to keep making the mistake.13 Maybe instead we ought to stop making the mistake.

But apparently no one wants to stop making it. Often we continue to talk about races as if we knew what they were.Even more often, when race begins to seem to us a little crude, we redescribe it as culture, taking remarks like "black people are good at basketball because they can jump higher" and turning them into remarks like "basketball plays an important role in black culture." Thus we don't hear much in the United States about multiracialism (as opposed to, say, in Singapore where it's an official policy and is heavily promoted on occasions like Racial Harmony Day), but we hear a great deal about multiculturalism. And if we don't yet, like Canada, have our very own Multiculturalism Day, we do have an increasing number of Diversity Days, sponsored by individual schools and organizations, where people celebrate their different cultures. When I give a lecture on race to a group of people today—especially a group of younger people—they may not be entirely comfortable talking about their racial identities, but they've already had a lot of practice talking about their cultural identities and about the importance both of cultural memory (don't forget the Holocaust) and of heritage (don't forget the Middle Passage). They're not likely to say, for example, that they're proud of their race, but they are very proud of their culture and they think other people should be proud of their cultures too.

To some extent, then, culture is now being used as a virtual synonym for racial identity (the multi in multiculturalism has nothing to do with some people liking Mozart and other people liking the Strokes), and to some extent it's also being used as a replacement for racial identity. When, for example, the alternative to Mozart is John Coltrane and the alternative to the Strokes is Jay-Z, we are more inclined to count thesedifferences as cultural and to characterize them as the differences between a white culture and a black one. And the point of invoking culture here is precisely to make it clear that we are not talking about the biological differences that we used wrongly to associate with race. In fact, the modern notion of culture—we might call it the anthropological notion of culture—was essentially invented as an alternative to race. Its core idea was that the significant differences between groups—differences in the way they thought and acted—were cultural instead of biological. So when we talk about black or white or Jewish or Native American culture, we're talking about differences in what people do and believe, not about differences in blood.

An immediate objection to this way of thinking about culture instead of race, of course, is that it just takes the old practice of racial stereotyping and renovates it in the form of cultural stereotyping. Thus Richard Ford, a Stanford law professor who writes on race, suggests that "most reasonable observers would agree that, in general, blacks are distinguished from non-blacks by some distinctive cultural practices," but reminds us that lots of supposedly black cultural traits—from eating soul food to wearing your hair in cornrows—not only are practiced by some whites but are not practiced by most blacks. And he makes a parallel point with respect to the idea of sexual identity. Citing a Yale law professor's account of characteristics of gay culture, he agrees with Kenji Yoshino that "sodomy, public display of same-sex affection and gay rights activism" are "plausibly" identified as "characteristic traits and affinities" of gay identity, but objects that whenYoshino extends the list to "body-building, boxer briefs and goatees," the plausibility disappears.14

Ford's point here is that the whole project of "trying to define group differences with sufficient formality as to produce a list of traits" is flawed and that with respect both to race and to sexuality, we shouldn't try. But what the analogy between black identity and gay identity actually shows is something a little different. The problem here is not that black people are different from each other as well as from white people and therefore that we shouldn't produce stereotypical descriptions of black culture. And it's also not that gay people are different from each other in the same way. In fact, gay people are not different from each other in the same way; they all have at least one thing in common: they're gay! Which is to say, they want to sleep with people who belong to the same sex they do. Wearing boxer briefs may sometimes be a sign that you are gay, gay-rights activism may be a slightly more reliable sign, but desiring people of the same sex is not a sign; it's the thing itself, the thing that the boxer briefs and the gay-rights activism are signs of. So if we ask the question what is it that makes gay people gay? (what is it that constitutes their being gay?—not what causes it?), we have an answer. We're not stereotyping gay people by saying that they all want to sleep with people of the same sex; we're defining them.

So what's the behavior that makes black people black? There is no equivalent answer. You can be black and not like Jay-Z and not wear your hair in cornrows and not eat soul food and not do any or all of the things currently or historically associated with black culture. And, conversely, there'snothing you can do that will make you black in the same way that same-sex desire makes gay people gay. If, starting tomorrow, the only people who listened to or performed hip-hop were white (we're already halfway there), hip-hop would be a part of white culture, and if every black kid in the country were into emo, emo would be a part of black culture. It's not the blackness of the culture that makes the people black; it's the blackness of the people that makes the culture black.15

Two things make the notion of culture look like an attractive alternative to race. One is that culture is learned rather than inherited (it's on the nurture side of nature/nurture); the other is that culture is a looser concept than race; not all black people have to love The Black Album in order for it to be a part of black culture (and some white people can love it too). The problem is that the minute we call black culture black, both these advantages disappear since in order for a sentence like "Some white people are really into black culture" to make sense, we have to have a definition of white and black people that is completely independent of their culture. Culture cannot replace our concept of race as a biological entity. Learning how to rap doesn't make you a black person; it just makes you a rapper. The problem with culture, then, is that it's utterly dependent on race. We can only say what counts as white or black or Jewish culture if we already know who the whites and blacks and Jews are.

The situation is exactly the same for the notions of heritage and memory that go along with the idea of cultural identity. Suppose, for example, that in my American literature class, I teach both Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature and FrederickDouglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Suppose further that sitting in the front row are a black student and a white one. Neither of them (this is not a counterfactual hypothetical) has ever read either of these books. Here's one way we could describe what's about to happen. Each student is about to be given the opportunity to do two things: learn about her own heritage and learn about someone else's heritage as well. When we read the Emerson, the white student will be learning about her heritage; when we read the Douglass, she'll learning about someone else's. And the black student will be doing the same thing in reverse.

But why should this be? Why is it that some books we've never read are supposed to count as part of our cultural heritage while other books we've also never read count as part of someone else's heritage (even though they've never read them either)? And what about if they have read them? We can imagine a black student raised by ex-hippie parents, forced as a child to listen to the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and read to sleep with Thoreau and Emerson (which sent her right off). It can't really make sense to say that when she reads Emerson in my class, she's learning about someone else's heritage. To think that, we'd have to think that your cultural heritage has nothing to do with the books you actually read and has only to do instead with books that are somehow imagined as genetically appropriate for you to read. But, as successful as the Human Genome Project has been, nobody has yet located—nobody is even bothering to look for—the Emerson gene.

Furthermore, even if there were an Emerson gene, it wouldn't make sense of our concept of cultural heritage, since it would of course be reproduction not instruction that kept Nature in the canon. The things we do have genes for—like sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease—are part of our genetic heritage, not our cultural heritage, and our genetic heritage is not the sort of thing it makes sense to be proud of or ashamed of, not the sort of thing we can be true to or give up. When people worry about losing their culture, they aren't worrying about the gene pool. In Quebec, for example, French speakers are worried that their language and their culture more generally will disappear, that French-speaking Canada will be utterly assimilated to English-speaking Canada. Hence their demand that public life in Quebec be carried on in French, and that the use of English be minimized; it provides an incentive for their children to keep speaking French instead of (or at least in addition to) English. But if there were a biological link between the French language and their children, their worry would make no sense. We don't worry, for example, that a child whose genetic heritage has destined him to be tall will, surrounded by short people, be assimilated into shortness. And, to turn the example around, we wouldn't think that if a child genetically slated for shortness managed (by eating the right foods or taking growth hormones) to get tall, he had betrayed his shortness. The dramas of assimilation—the demand that we be loyal to our heritage, the fear that we will fall away from it—depend precisely upon it not being biological.

It's not hard to see the general problem here. On the one hand, there are physical connections between us and the pastthat distinguish us from one another: your ancestors are not my ancestors. On the other hand, we can't really get much cultural mileage out of these connections. If your ancestors lived in the tropics and mine lived in eastern Europe, you're more likely to be born with sickle cell and I'm more likely to get Tay-Sachs. And you're also more likely to be taught Bantu than Yiddish, whereas for me it's the other way around. But you're not more likely to be born speaking Bantu, and I'm not more likely to be born speaking Yiddish.16 We may inherit our diseases from our ancestors and our eye colors and our hair texture, but we don't inherit our languages. And, naturally, what goes for languages goes also for books and music and art. If none of the students in my class has read either Emerson or Douglass and if biology can't connect the white ones with Emerson or the black ones with Douglass, what sense does it make to say either one belongs to their heritage? Indeed, does it really make sense to say there is any such thing as heritage? There are some things we inherit (our genes), and there are some things we learn (maybe Bantu or English, Emerson and Douglass). But there's no necessary connection between them. There's no reason why people with a certain set of genes ought to be reading a certain set of books and thinking of those books as part of their heritage, or why, when they read some other set of books, they should think of them as part of someone else's heritage.17 There are just the things we learn and the things we don't learn, the things we do and the things we don't do.

We can make the same point about cultural identity, about acting black or white or Asian or Jewish. If, say, acting black(belonging to black culture) were truly a function of being black (having a biologically black body), then people who had black bodies would inevitably act black, and we would have no need for the notion of cultural identity. Acting black would be like acting tall (you can reach high things) or short (you can't reach high things). But as we have seen, we need the idea of black culture precisely because being black is not a physical fact in the way that being tall or short is. So, on the one hand, it's because there's no physical fact of blackness that, if we want to hang on to the idea of blackness, we need the idea of black culture, but, on the other, it's also because there's no physical fact of blackness that we can't hang on to the idea of black culture. Why? Because once we separate cultural diversity from racial diversity (the audiences at concerts may have different-color skins, but they are by definition not culturally diverse), we see that cultural diversity cannot serve as a stand-in for racial diversity. There are no boxes for musical taste on your birth certificate. You can't keep race alive by translating it into culture. We do it, but it makes no sense. Either race is a physical fact, dividing human beings into biologically significant differences, or there is no such thing as race, whatever it's called.

The American version of Sartre's "the Jew is one whom others consider a Jew" was produced, as we have already noted, by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1940 when he wrote that "the black man is a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia." But the beliefs about race that underlay the Jim Crow laws have turned out to be mistaken; we no longer believe them, and we no longer have Jim Crow. So the true meaning ofDu Bois's definition should now be clear; if a black man is a man who has to ride Jim Crow, now that no one has to ride Jim Crow, there is no such thing as a black man. Or a white man either. There are people with different colors of skin, different textures of hair, different heights and different weights, different kinds of abilities and different kinds of disabilities. But there are no people of different races.

Which is a conclusion that no one wants to accept. Even those (the vast majority) who are critical of racism and who do not believe in the biology of racial identity have continued to insist that race is a central and even desirable factor in American life. Thus in what is certainly the most influential academic text on the social construction of race (Racial Formation in the United States), Michael Omi and Howard Winant write that there are two "temptations" to be avoided in thinking about race. The first is the temptation to think of it as something "fixed, concrete and objective," that is, a physical fact. The second is the temptation to think of it as a "mere illusion," which "an ideal social order would eliminate." "Race," they say, "will always be at the center of the American experience," and it's a good thing too because "without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity." 18 What we've seen in this chapter are some of the ways in which people have gone about trying to make sure that Omi and Winant's prediction comes true and to guarantee that even if people can't belong to concrete and objective races, they can still have (social or cultural) racial identities. And what we've also begun to see is how our commitment to diversity is deeply tied to keeping race alive, partly becausediversity is itself understood as racial and partly because (as subsequent chapters will make clear) our commitment to diversity even with nonracialized groups (above all cultures) depends on treating them as if they were races—different but equal, worthy of our respect.

What we haven't seen is why. Why are we so eager to keep race at the center of the American experience? Why does racial difference remain so important to us when the racism it was used to justify is so widely condemned and when the basic idea about race that gave it its power—the idea that there are fundamental physical or cultural differences between people that line up with our division of them into black, white, et cetera—has been discredited? Why are we so desperate to have identities that we continue to care about them even when they get reduced to nothing more than the proud boast that you belong to a population with a 1 in 27 chance of being a carrier for the Tay-Sachs gene? The next chapter begins to answer those questions.

Copyright © 2006 by Walter Benn Michaels

Meet the Author

Walter Benn Michaels is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “One of the most influential Americanists of his generation” (The Chronicle of Higher Education), he is the author of Our America and has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, and n+1. He lives in Chicago.

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