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May 23, 2013

Performance and Images

                                                          Miami University
                                                       Doctoral Candidate


It is thought that the physical boundaries of white and black have long been broken down, for it has been well over fifty years since a little school girl named Linda Brown dreamt of walking to the all white school just a few blocks from her home. The color line has been crossed and blurred, leaving us all with a defocus aberration of race in America. The deracination is achieved through assimilation/integration, privileging whiteness and leaving the visages of your former self behind is compulsory.

Stripping away the identity of black other is a systematic process that functions in public spaces through hegemony, institutionally by the racialization of the legal system, and in private spaces due to the colonization of thoughts, which can be attributed to covert racist ideology and white supremacist schema (Fanon, 1963). While, being positioned in a post-civil rights space affords some safety and provides a path to American citizenship, no matter if the citizenship is temporary and is contingent on criteria that could and will change based on the whims of the oppressor, for the black other it is not without cost.  Movement from explicit to implicit actions of racism has made racism almost unrecognizable, many whites and blacks alike would complicitly attend to their lives not contesting the structures of society that have informed their existence.

External forces such as schools, churches, organizations, community, and government act on the individual by plying pressure through hegemony molding the individual’s personhood (Cross, 1991). It is not to say that external forces are the sole determinant of self-concept, as if when born we begin as blank slates. Internal forces as well as external forces must be interrogated in a complex fashion to gain insight into black identity formation. Beginning with external forces, however leads to the internal in such that mental models are developed through environmental interaction. So, the child that is taught in school about the lack of black culture through the absences of black images and narratives infers the inferiority of blackness and develops self around this inference.

Likewise, the introduction of representations of blackness constructed through racist ontologies provides defined social and cultural position, clear roles for 'them and us'. Growing up black in white spaces supplies the black child with ready images to perform. The black boys and girls are cast in the roles early in school, defined by racist and classist ideology. Those blacks positioned in the middle class are given the role of black buddy and black lady or strong black woman, while, low-income blacks are pushed into the performativity of brut and jezebel.

The process of creating the other establishes the binary of us and them positioning each in opposition to the other. Tension arises from the polarity of us and them. The us strives to further distance themselves by mythologizing their history, telling stories of great odysseys, conquests, and inventions (Painter, 2010). In this new history the us begat the civilized world, founding rational thought, logic, and all that leads to a fully functional society. The them is constructed in juxtaposition to the us, being irrational, illogical, and destructive to society. It is within this context that African Americans operate, faced with daily marginalization.

In the eyes of the oppressor the other cannot aspire to great things, the history prorogated against them will not allow for greatness envisaged in the black body (Fanon, 1963). The struggle then becomes interpellation of white ideological beliefs and subjectification (Collins, 2001 & Butler, 1990).  African Americans must cast off the remnants of the ‘authentic negro’ and engage in a performative act of self. The performance is castigated if the actors are not recognizable, their portrayal not believable or they choose to improvise. Living in a perpetuate world of performance due to the white gaze African Americans loss ‘self’ taking on the embodiment of the oppressor’s image of other. “In this American world, - a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world (Du Bois, 1997).

Butler, J. (2006). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge classics. New York: Routledge.
Collins, P. (2004). Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism. New York: Routledge.
Cross, W. E. (1991). Shades of black: Diversity in African-American identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Du, B. W. E. B., Blight, D. W., & Gooding-Williams, R. (1997). The souls of Black folk. Boston: Bedford Books.
Fanon, F. (1991). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
Painter, N. I. (2010). The history of White people. New York: W.W. Norton.

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In Partnership with: Poole College of Management, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Science Foundation, Penn State

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