Despite a recent history of racial progress and extended multicultural diversity in U.S. society, racial minorities are increasingly judged by how easily they conform to the stereotypes of the majority – that is, how they “perform” their race within pre-established racial structures. Dr. Devon Carbado, co-author of “Acting White? Rethinking Race in ‘Post-Racial’ America,” addressed this pressing topic at a public lecture in Tomson Hall on Thursday, Nov. 14. The event was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the President’s Office for Institutional Diversity.
Carbado is the Honorable Harry Pregerson Professor of Law at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law, where he teaches coursework in constitutional criminal procedure, constitutional law, criminal adjudication and critical race theory. This last class seems to hold particular weight for Carbado, whose well-attended lecture focused mainly on the construction of racial stereotypes and the practical theory behind them as opposed to offering tangible solutions or creative processing of this method of stereotyping.
Carbado began his talk by outlining how race has developed from social construction rather than natural physical distinctions between individuals. Societally, Carbado argued, people inherently analyze a wide variety of information about another person when attempting to discern someone’s race. While this includes observable physical characteristics, some of the criteria that may unconsciously be examined also include behavior, geographical ancestry, dress, religion, demeanor, education and marital status.
“All variables may not be the same,” Carbado said, “but the minimalist argument that I want to make is that race isn’t exhaustive by phenotype or ancestry. People can experience discrimination based on any of these variables.”
Carbado explained that the racial construction built from this unconscious processing ultimately defines an individual’s racial experience, which in turn will perpetuate the stereotype further.
“If you’re enslaved, others assume it must be because you’re inferior,” he said. “If you’re placed in an internment camp, it must be because you are disloyal. The logic we use in such situations legitimizes and confirms the various social meanings we have established.”
Racial salience is an important factor in social constructions of how race should be performed. Individuals often experience discrimination based upon not only what category they fall in, but where in that category they are perceived to be. This salience can encourage certain individuals to perform more “white” or help convince an outside observer that their actions are “white” instead of stereotypically “black.”
Racial salience can also affect how quickly stereotypes are triggered. Carbado made note of how some public individuals like President Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. are less likely to be stereotyped by traditional white constructions of black race, unlike more “black” individuals like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Malcom X. Perhaps most captivating was Carbado’s theory that a large majority of racial performance derives from intra-racial stereotyping, as opposed to inter-racial stereotyping. Within communities of color, politics of differentiation often occur that drive this internal division further.
Though he did not himself offer a conclusive solution to racial discrimination, Carbado offered some caution against the current trend of integrating outside minorities into “white” social and professional spheres. While not against the practice entirely, Carbado worried that those selected to be representations of their race in many of these spheres are often just the ones who best perform “white” race. Implicit processes, he argued, complicate how we think about race, and social policies should not be developed aiming at a specific social outcome.
Carbado ended his discussion by fielding a few questions from the audience, which expanded his discussion to include other racial groups, multiple minority identities i.e. women of color and those with non-heteronormative sexuality or gender identity and the role of cultural appropriation in society. Carbado was able to effectively and coherently link these various phenomena back to the concept of racial performance.
“I don’t want to suggest there’s some way to act black or act white,” he said. “People are perceived to act in certain ways with certain identities, and we treat them thusly. Still, even when people may not be making strategic choices about how to self-present, they’re still trying to create an identity.”
During his time on campus, Carbado also helped facilitate a mock law school class with St. Olaf students and met with faculty to discuss the legal system and the progress of racial minorities today.