Performance of Race, Culture, and Whiteness
Summary and Keywords
The nature of human social engagement could be described as operating along four basic principles: (1) notions of naming and recognizing features of particularity and difference; (2) establishing relational rituals and activities that build organizational systems in and as communities; (3) instantiating hierarchies of power that regulate the vagaries of daily living; and (4) enacting methods of communication that seek to promote ideas and mediate social understanding. Thus, the construction of “performance of race, culture, and whiteness” articulates and integrates these four overlapping notions that animate and map onto aspects of human social engagement that might also be reframed as enquiry, enactment, and enculturation. A range of diverse definitions of each of the terms exists and their features coalesce and co-inform each other. The social actors in the dramas of everyday performances do not always self-select the roles they play. But they can shape the performances they engage in and promote productive culture and relational engagements toward social justice.
The nature of human social engagement could be described as operating along four basic principles: (1) notions of naming and recognizing features of particularity and difference; (2) establishing relational rituals and activities that build organizational systems in and as communities; (3) instantiating hierarchies of power that regulate the vagaries of daily living; and (4) enacting methods of communication that seek to promote ideas and mediate social understanding. Hence, the construction of “performance of race, culture, and whiteness” addresses how social identities, and the politics that undergird them, are made manifest through performances of human social engagement. Performances that are both embodied actions with intent and strategic constructions of self and other that hold relations and relationships in a tensive struggle for power. Performance thus becomes the strategic mode of communication that makes manifest race, culture, and whiteness as social constructions; the naming and sustaining of difference within sanctioned systems of power (race), the embodiment and enactment of belief that is both agonistic and antagonistic (culture), and the promoted inheritance and maintenance of superiority relative to a pained history of dominance (whiteness).
Performance is an embodied practice of behavior situated in context. Variously defined as a mode of communication (Bauman, 1986), a constitutive process of “making, not faking” (Turner, 1982) situated between making believe and making belief (Schechner, 2006), as “restored behavior” or “twice behaved behavior” (Schechner, 1985), and, along with the dynamics of the term performance, as being “on the move” (Conquergood, 1995; see also Hamera, 2018). Conquergood (2002) described performance “(1) as work of imagination, (2) as a pragmatics of inquiry (both as model and method), as an optic and operation of research, and (3) as a tactics of intervention” (p. 152). His description establishes performance as a technology of knowing, critiquing, analyzing, and giving witness to the nature of and argument about everyday human social engagement as activism.
Conquergood’s (2002) approach also serves to outline the embodied intentionalities of performance to affect/effect particular social aspects in everyday civic culture. Judith Hamera (2018) writes: “Performance Studies as a field examines both the role of performance in sustaining hierarchies of power and privilege and its role in resisting, subverting, and navigating within them.” The core of Hamera’s construction situates performance within the field of performance studies as a critical tool, as an explanatory metaphor of human interaction, and as an embodiment of doing that “functions as an organizing trope for examining a range of social practices” (Hamera, 2006, p. 2). The nature of these distinctions might also play in the critical discussion of sociocultural happenings (performance in everyday life) or in the restaging of human experience in conspicuous performance for close scrutiny by a discerning audience (as shown in the performance script offered in the conclusion).
To further explicate a definitional frame of performance, it can also be engaged across Elizabeth Bell’s (2008) constellation of interrelated concepts. In this case performance is both process and product. It is a thing doing and creating, as well as a thing being done. Performance is a mode of communicative behavior. It reinforces how we make and share meaning within a communal (symbol-making and-sharing) society. Hence performance is also a mechanism, mode, and method of shaping identities (Bauman, 1986; Diamond, 1996; Pelias, 1992; Schechner, 2002; Turner, 1982). Performance is productive and purposeful, which suggests that performance causes, creates, and produces both itself and things outside of itself. It further suggests that performance is activity with intent and purpose. It generates activity, meaning, response, effect, and the sociopolitical nature of those orientations. And in the process, performance shows positionality. For practical purposes, “positionality” refers to someone’s political positioning in relation to ideas, beliefs, and values (Goffman, 1959; Johnson, 2003; Stern & Henderson, 1993; Strine, Long, & Hopkins, 1990). And performance is traditional and transformative. This suggests that performance references past ways of doing, seeing, and knowing things and acts of human social engagement. Performance involves and invokes the literal and the figurative, the seen and the imagined, the theoretically concrete and things within the spiritual realm. In this sense, performance asks audiences to question and recognize past practices and work toward social and cultural transformation (Blau, 1990; Conquergood, 1995; Sayre, 1990).
Bell suggests that these definitional frames of performance can be used to further articulate the three large claims important to all theories of performance: That performance is epistemic. Performance works establish specific ways of discovery and knowing. This suggests that through performance we come to know things in everyday life through experiencing, through observing other performances, through the rehearsal of possibilities and potentialities. And through engaging performances and having those performances evaluated by others as effective or not through their interpersonal and critical response to performance.
Performance is also constitutive. It establishes, creates and is given form while it also establishes, instigates, and gives meaning in the act of doing. Such as in the case of doctrines, laws, policies, and procedures in the way that rules work toward dictating or shaping human action as expected performed cultural membership. Thus, the attitudes, beliefs, and values that are shared by a group of people are displayed in performance moving toward definitions and notions of culture as communal connections. The recursive cycles of an issuance of belief, assumption of belief by doing, and the recognition of the doing confirms individual membership through recognizable and associational performances. Oppositional performances such as acts of resistance, riot, or protest also establish relationality through a rejection of particular social norms, policies, acts/actions, and procedures. Such performances of resistance have the potential to lead to change, and change potentially establishes new performances that become either constitutive or establish ongoing patterns of resistance to hegemony (e.g., feminism, queer theory, ethnic studies, etc.).
Performance is also critical. In this construction performance seeks to explore the deep structures that undergird and inform processes of effect and circumstance. Through close and critical examination in performance and of performances, there is an attempt to deconstruct experience to find the origins of meaning. It is a process of retelling the nature of experience and examining the twice behaved behavior (Schechner, 1985). Madison (2012) offers six purposes of critical work that further empower the intelligibility of performance in the service of discovery. In applying Madison’s intention to performance, performance (as critical) seeks to articulate and identify hidden forces and ambiguities that operate beneath appearances, guide judgment and evaluation emanating from our discontent, and direct our attention to the critical expression within different interpretive communities relative to their unique symbol systems, customs, and codes. Performance also seeks to demystify the ubiquity and magnitude of power, provide insight and inspire acts of justice, and name and analyze what is intuitively felt (Bell, 2008; Madison, 2012). To this extent, performance with a critical intentionality does not forestall the aesthetic pleasures of engaging and audiencing performance. But it reinforces the purposefulness of performance as a critical aesthetic that seeks to inform as it engages.
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), sociologist Erving Goffman dramatizes the associational reference of performance to theatrical structures including “front” and “backstage” dimensions of behavior. This construction offers an accessible comparative framework that does not conflate performance with entertainment. But in his dramaturgical approach, human interaction is viewed as a performance shaped by environment and audience. It is constructed to provide others with “impressions” that are consonant with the desired goals of the actor (p. 17). Goffman defines “interaction” as the “reciprocal influence of individual upon one another’s actions when in one another’s immediate physical presence” and “performance” as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants” (1959, p. 15). The very core of Goffman’s approach is to illuminate the commonalities of intention and impression management both in the sociological real of everyday life and in the theatrical realism that is simulated on the stage.
Race, most often referenced as the categorized phenotypic materiality of human origins (Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid), is a social construct to mark difference. A difference that establishes a set of relational practices and commitments that are historically and situationally derived. The effects of such distinction are made manifest in forms of power, privilege, and propriety that both intervene and guide the politics of human social engagement. A relationality of value that always marks privilege over pathology with white (Caucasoid) being placed in the position of hierarchy over all others. In establishing an argument of “Critical Race Theory and the Postracial Imaginary,” Jamel K. Donnor and Gloria Ladson-Billings (2018) write that “the challenge for social scientists working with race is that all social science disciplines (to some extent) use the concept ‘race’ as if were a fact of nature despite the denial of its existence by natural scientists and social scientists” (p. 199). Within their construct, there is not an argument against the recognition of a materiality of difference (e.g., skin color, bodily features, etc.) but the social construction and values placed within or mapped onto those differences establishing a hierarchy of value. Rodolfo D. Torres, Louis F. Mirón, and Jonathan Xavier Inda (1999) state it best: race has “no biological basis. ‘Race’ is not a fact of nature. But ‘it’ does exist to the extent that ‘race’ is an integral part of a classificatory systems through which a racialized social order is reproduced and maintained” (p. 5). Short of examining a history of race, the nature of the offering by Donnor and Ladson-Billings begins to signal the undergirding intention of critical race theory (CRT), which can be used to outline problematics related to race.
Delgado and Stefancic (2001) outline some basic tenets of CRT that also provide an orientation to the everyday presence and effects of race and the social operations of racism. First, CRT is grounded in the notion that racism is ordinary, not aberrational. It is the usual way society does business. Racism is the everyday experience of most people of color in the United States. Second, CRT suggests that systems of white-over-nonwhites serve important purposes, both in the psychic sense of personal superiority and in the material valuation and benefits of such social consideration. Third, CRT interrogates the “social construction” thesis, which holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. The social construction of race suggests that “race” does not even correspond to a biological or genetic reality. Rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or reinvents when convenient—relative to the evolution of social need. People with common origins share certain physical traits of course, such as skin color, physique, and hair texture. But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genetic endowment.
Fourth, CRT focuses on differential racialization and its many consequences. Critical writers in law, as well as social science, have drawn attention to the ways in which the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times. This occurs in response to shifting needs such as the labor market. Hence the hierarchy of value has, as in the history of African/black slavery in the United States, as an economic variable relative to who are the workers and how are cost of living wages determined. Fifth, CRT addressed how identity politics are always complicated and infused by the reality of intersectionality and antiessentialism. In which case, there is no person who has a single, easily stated, unitary identity that is not always and already complicated by the politics of origin, miscegenation, gender, and class. These variables exist among others that often inform the social construction of a singular identity to which race often serves as the first variable of categorization and reduction.
Sixth, CRT identifies the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression black, Indian, Asian, and Latino/a writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism. The “legal storytelling” movement urges black and brown writers to recount their experiences with racism and the legal system, and to apply their own unique perspectives to assess master narratives (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001, pp. 6–9).
CRT has a further interest in the counternarrative to race pathology, with a critique of white privilege and the social capital of whiteness as marketable commodity or the “property functions of whiteness” (Harris, 1993). In which case, these basic tenets of CRT offer a broader, though necessarily contained discussion of race as a social construct that marks difference through a recognition and prejudice of difference. Ijeoma Oluo (2018) offers an important definitional distinction in racism. She writes that racism is not just a “prejudice against someone because of their race,” but “a prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power” (p. 26). This important definitional distinction acknowledges a predisposition to difference, in relation to the sociological structures that sanction a differentiate power relative to the marking of difference. And ostensibly that difference effects everyday acts of racism in which racism is a performative act, or a thing done in relation to others.
Roderick A. Johnson (2007) writes that race as a sociological construct “both accounts for the logics by which institutions differentiate and classify, include and exclude, and names the processes by which people internalize those logics” (p. 192). Such processes of internalization could lead to forms of internal oppression, as well as the more empowering mobilization of identity politics that coalesce movements of resistance and communities of critical social and academic thought. Such is the guiding impulse of the performance of resistance as political activism. It also bolsters self-value and histories of struggle and survival in the emergence of ethnic studies in American colleges and universities.
Culture is most often discussed as the constellation of practices that represents attitudes, beliefs, commitments, rituals, and communal values. This staid approach to defining culture lacks the dynamism of culture that is consistently animated by membership; social, political, and environmental context; and change in the narration of individualized experience made manifest through performance. Drawing from perspectives of culture grounded in traditions of critical ethnography and Performance Studies, the following two definitional frames animate the notion of culture.
Kathleen Stewart’s (1996) ethnographic study offers an orientation to culture that is fluid and emergent and in which “the side of the road” becomes both metaphor and metonymy. It is both comparable to and representative of the descriptive topography of the West Virginia landscape, which is always inclusive of its people. She writes:
Culture, as it is seen through its productive forms and means of meditation, is not reducible to a fixed body of social value and belief or direction precipitant of lived experience in the world. But grows into a space on the side of the road where stories weighted with sociality take on a life of their own. (p. 210)
Stewart’s orientation to culture is in the multilayered and sedimented stories that people tell of experience, almost documenting life in story; story that becomes lessons and ways of remembering, archiving, and promoting social membership.
Stewart’s description of culture is as an emergent quality in and of space, those practiced places of human social engagement (Certeau, 1984). Her definitional frame, while situated in a critical ethnographic study of the West Virginia coal camps, offers a broad understanding of culture that resists the reductive characteristics of circumstance and the projected tropes of regionality or even ethnic existence of the people, but emerges through story, or how people narrate lived experience. It is through the storying that the “sociality takes on a life of their own” (Stewart, 1996, p. 210). And the articulation of sociality, the political and associational values of communal life, emerges in the telling of the told by multiple coinformants of community/culture (Pollock, 1990).
Dwight Conquergood (2013) writes of culture as performance in which the animating force of culture becomes the defining feature of its essence. He asks: “Is culture a system, a cross-hatch of rules, a pattern of meanings a deep storage vault, a set of distorting filters or blinders, a worldview, or so on?” (p. 16). He answers his own question in suggesting that
cultural processes both pull towards a moral center as social dramas are enacted while they simultaneously express themselves outward from the depth of that symbolizing, synthesizing core. That is, cultures throw off forms of themselves—literally, “expressions” that are publicly accessible. These forms of expression of culture collect, set, heighten, frame, stylize, regulate, reproduce, refract, contain, and fix amorphous energies, drives, impulses, tension. These heightened surfacing forms throw into bold relief the core values, virtues, and vision of a culture.
(Conquergood, 2013, pp. 16, 18)
In his approach, Conquergood invokes Victor Turner’s (1982) notion of the social drama: “A sequence of social interactions of a conflictive, competitive, or agonistic type” (p. 33) that progresses and delineates its stages as breach, crisis, redress, and reintegration or schism to describe the dynamism of culture that continually makes and remakes itself. Conquergood speaks to the symbolizing practices within culture that define and make meaning through varying expressive and particularized modes that are recognizable, or that become recognizable within a communal system of sharing and sense making. All of which become critical components of culture grounded in performance and performative enactment and how people perform cultural membership.
While whiteness references a particularized racial category, it can be discussed as a set of performative practices that manifest the social perceptions and effects of being white.
There are extensive treatises on the emergence of white studies across a range of research traditions including those by Appelbaum (2016), McIntosh (1990), and Morrison (1993), as well as Hill (1997) and Roediger (1994). The autoethnographic piece by Bonnie Kae Grover, “Growing Up White in America?” (Delgado & Stefancic, 1997) offers a particularly potent reflective stance on defining whiteness. It reads more as performance text than the presumptions of a scholarly treatise:
No, I not ashamed of being white. But I am ashamed of what being white can mean to some folks who are proud of being white. And I’m ashamed of what it can mean to be white when that whiteness can so easily be used to hurt people who aren’t white. I definitely am ashamed of that part of whiteness. Because in America, whiteness means being dominant, and it stands to reason that if somebody’s dominant, somebody else is down. It’s delightful to be able to mindlessly enjoy “white” culture. But is it really white? Or did white folks just apply the Discovery Doctrine like the white Europeans did when they took over the continent? And did somebody else or at least their culture get stamped out in the bargain one more time?
(Grover, 1997, p. 34)
This short excerpt is important because it speaks from an autoethnographic perspective of how whiteness is performed and perceived as a social and relational act; as something that bleeds the borders between performance, race, and culture. The narrative questions the discovery and the naming of being white as a privileged positionality that creates a hierarchy of value, and then how that privilege is made manifest in performing whiteness and thus recentering white authority (Perry, 2007, p. 245).
The narrative also helps to process what John Warren (1999) outlines as four general approaches in the whiteness literature. First, a method of researching whiteness as a social critique and a push for antiracist social practice. This research considers multiple locations and utilizes multiple methods in an effort to advocate for social change leading to the end of racism.
Second, a course of study that considers the use of whiteness as a lens for reading, critiquing, or deconstructing multiple kinds of texts, most specifically literary, scholarly, or cinematic sources. Third, research that seeks to understand whiteness as rhetorically discursive space. This trend has authors insisting on questions about what this location or positionality does and how it operates rhetorically as a privileged place of power. And fourth, how whiteness is understood as enactment. This body of research seeks to understand how race, specifically whiteness, can be understood as a performance that works to constitute and continually reconstitute itself through everyday embodiments and practices.
In the preceding autoethnographic narrative, Grover (1997) begins with a positional stance that both identifies being white and her orientation to being white in relation to the public critique of whiteness associated with being white. She then acknowledges shame of the social critique of whiteness followed by the recognition of the relational harm that whiteness both informs and inflicts on those who are nonwhite. She names not only the historicity of whiteness in America, but its direct association with power and privilege. Then she offers a counterlogic that situates whiteness in a noncritical historical context of manifest destiny and the unassailable right to claim space, place, and the authority of naming linked with the great discoveries of Europeans in the Americas. And while intended as a rhetorical strategy of interrogating whiteness and calling whites to reflect on their volition in performance whiteness—the strategy actually reinstantiates whiteness and white privilege. In her narrative voice, Grover goes further to attempt to resurrect the logic of whiteness, but not without challenge when she states that “whiteness is only one possible part of the greater wonder of being alive in this world,” Grover, 1997, p. 187). Her call to recognize being white is a call to recognize the culpabilities of performing whiteness. And her call for a deep reflection of white people to explore “the greater wonder of being alive” further instantiates the privileges of whiteness coupled with the ability to claim a diversity of origins, their otherness, while still claiming the positionality and privileges of being white.
The use of this particular excerpt is not intended to demean the articulation of opinion and accomplishment of the author’s contribution, which could be read from and through differing lenses. But to show the manner in which whiteness reinstitutes/reconstitutes/reinstantiates itself even in the process of assuming a critical positionality on being white (Perry, 2007). It also provides a short case study that constellates Warren’s four general approaches in the whiteness literature: a push for antiracist social practice and an effort to advocate for social change leading to the end of racism, whiteness as a lens for reading texts, whiteness as rhetorically discursive space, and how whiteness is understood as enactment.
The Calgary Anti-Racism Education collective (CARED, 2018) provides a series of helpful guides that outline key features of whiteness and a comparative distinction between white versus whiteness. These distinctions are based on the difference between the materiality of bodies in/as white as a racial category versus the social cache of being white made manifest not only in white bodies, but the performance and performativity of whiteness that makes the privilege of being white possible.
CARED differentiates between the sociological category of white as it relates to race whiteness as the performative dimension of being white, and whiteness as a set of normative privileges granted to white-skinned individuals and groups. Whiteness is normalized in its production/maintenance for those of and within that group, such that its operations are “invisible” to those privileged by it, it is a form of habituated performance (hooks, 1994). But is not “invisible” to those who are oppressed and disadvantaged by it.
In addition, whiteness is both performed and relational in the public knowledge of privilege that is socially granted to whiteness and white people. Whiteness (like the broader category of “white”) has shifted over time (i.e., Irish, Italian, Spanish, Greek and southern European peoples have at times been “raced” as nonwhite) (Frye, 1983; Ignatiev, 2008; Kivel, 1996). Whiteness as a whole shapes how white people view themselves and others. It places white people in a place of structural advantage where white cultural norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned (Frankenberg, 1993). Hence, a form of cultural racism is founded in the belief that “whiteness is considered to be the universal . . . and allows one to think and speak as if Whiteness described and defined the world” (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 327).
Relative to the social construction of whiteness as a performative accomplishment cultural contexts in which the value determination of whiteness (and being white) has meaning, whiteness is a performance that seeks a knowledgeable audience for its importance. In which case, whiteness is both reinforced in communities of whites and confirmed in the power-effect over nonwhites. This occurs in a social economy in which such value is recognized and is allowed to be reinforced. In this sense, whiteness mimics not only the history of racial categorization, but also the mechanisms of performance and practices of culture that both animate its presence and establish associational value in communities of recognition.
What Does It Mean to Engage in the Performance of Race, Culture, or Whiteness?
Keeping the preceding definitional frames in mind—to perform race, culture, or whiteness is to recognize the social valuation of these categorical, associational, and performative qualities and then enact them in the company of witnessing and knowledgeable audiences with purpose. This performance means to embody and project the tropes and figures of being within the processes of information, formation, and transformation of the self in society. At times it means to practice or subvert the ubiquity and magnitude of power linked with issues of race, culture, or whiteness for personal and social advantage as a form of resistance. And it means to position oneself in the moral center of the social dramas that are enacted around such embodied and performative practices that give rise to struggles of self and social determinations. This is not accomplished merely through mimicry but also through a sophisticated knowing of both stylistics and anticipated effects of performative presence in that performance always makes manifest that which it invokes.
gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. (p. 519)
Like gender, through a Butlerian lens, race, culture, and whiteness function as performatives. Race, while considered the materiality and designation of origins, is in fact a social construction that is imbued with meaning made manifest not just in the materiality of bodies but also in the performative associations of race. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, are relevant to this discussion. Hundreds of white nationalists, alt-righters, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan participated in a “Unite the Right” rally that resulted in the death of one counter-protester and two police officers.
Prior to the rally many cities across the country had decided to remove Confederate statues of Civil War heroes from town squares and seats of state government as a recognition of the pained reminders of racism in US history. Earlier in 2017, the Charlottesville City Council had voted to remove the Robert E. Lee statue and rename the park where it was located. The protest by white nationalists to this decision was met with counterprotests by those who both saw the political and cultural necessity of removing the statue and the need to stand up against the performed racism of the white nationalists who would resist the decision.
This example is used for a number of reasons: (1) the national discussion on removing Confederate statues reinforced how the statues stood as edifice to the racist history of this country, and the enduring argument of white superiority and to the war to maintain slavery; (2) the statues stood as ideological performances of white-race pride; (3) the presence of the white nationalists was a public performance and promotion of racial privilege as they chanted, “You will not replace us!”; and (4) the very notion of white nationalists is a collective performed identity of whiteness as a dominant relational politic. The Charlottesville case also forces a reckoning of the social construction of race, racial authenticity, and sustaining race through performance, both inside and outside of particular bodies as daily practice and as public critique (Alexander, 2017; Johnson, 2003; McAllister, 2011).
Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields (2012) introduce the notion of “racecraft” to suggest both the performative and sociorelational aspects of race, and thus racism as predefined difference and the reaction to that difference: “Unlike physical terrain, racecraft originates not in nature but in human action and imagination; it can exist no other way. The action and imagining are collective yet individual, day-to-day yet historical, and consequential even thou nested in the mundane” (pp. 18–19). In their construction there is a relationality between the categorization of race and the performativity of racism, each pivoting and producing the reality of the other.
For Butler, performativity becomes the construction of possibility in which racial and cultural norms and discourses are maintained, both for the purpose of confirming and validating social membership as well as for subverting the privileges and possibilities of being the other (passing). The Charlottesville case with white nationalists precisely evidences how the ongoing citationality of norms and discourses through performativity gives race and cultural performance the appearance of being natural. Butler (1988) writes, “the appearance of substance is precisely that. A constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief” (p. 520). And it is through the conscious repetition of socially constructed norms, like the existence and emergence of white nationalist organizations and what they represent, which in part seek to sustain the presumed privileges of whiteness.
The emphasis here on “conscious” is important. It is important relative to the subversive qualities of cultural performance, in the Charlottesville case, in which the rage of racial identity fuels the conflict with racial justice and democracy. But in Butler’s (1993) understanding, performativity is neither conscious, conspicuous, calculating, nor choice driven per se—it is an assimilation of the presumptions of the everyday, the socially expected; the regenerating of the norms of daily sociality. She writes: “Performativity is neither free play nor theatrical self-presentation; nor can it be simply equated with performance. Moreover, constraint is not necessarily that which sets a limit to performativity; constraint is, rather, that which impels and sustains performativity” (p. 95). Yet Butler’s utterance that equates performance with “neither free play nor theatrical self-presentation” reduces the import of performance drawing attention back to the criticality of performance as making not faking (Chadderton, 2018). Hamera (2006) indicates that “performance is both an event and a heuristic tool that illuminates the presentational and representational elements of culture. Its inherent ‘eventness’ (‘in motion’) makes it especially effective for engaging and describing the embodied processes that produce and consume culture” (p. 5). Performance is also the mechanism in which race, culture, and enacted identities such as whiteness are sustained.
A Conspicuous Performance of Racial Encounter in the Everyday
While Grover’s story on growing up in white America and the case of Charlottesville might serve as case studies of the performative aspects of race, and racial passing, the following crafted autoethnographic performance further reifies the nature of performance and performative experience in everyday life and how staged performance makes conspicuous everyday experience to draw attention for closer scrutiny and visibility. The script exemplifies and embodies the politics of performance, and particularly the enactment and effects that link performance of race, culture, and whiteness.
“Walking the Dog/Being the Dog”
Throughout my life, my black father told me stories about living in the Jim Crow South. Many of these stories hinged on a strained performance of servitude under the lingering privileges of whiteness and the dangers of blackness. My father told “back of the bus” stories and “back door” stories. He told Ku Klux Klan stories and lynching stories. He told, “Don’t look at white women stories” and “Don’t look the white man in the eye stories.” And, like my father, my mother told “daughter of a sharecropper” stories. She told “being a black female domestic” stories.” And she told “having to care for white babies when her own babies had to go without” stories. The stories they told were not told as entertainment or as fanciful tales of days gone by. These were pained stories that my black parents told me as lessons, not of their hardship or sacrifice, but of their strategies for survival.
I currently live in a neighborhood adjacent to the private Catholic-Jesuit university campus where I work. Some might describe the neighborhood as upscale.
There are several white faculty members from the university who live nearby, including several from the college that I serve as the academic dean. In the dailyness of my excursion back and forth between campus and home, I see few other black folks. But more important to this story, the white folks who see me see very few other black folks in their neighborhood. One day I was walking my dog, a thirteen-year-old cocker spaniel named Pepper Anne (Peppy for short). I was wearing my hoodie and a knit cap. (Maybe I looked like Trayvon Martin). We walk every morning and see some of the same people; people walking their dogs and people leaving their homes in the morning to begin their day.
Peppy and I are a friendly duo, so we say good morning as we cross paths with others during our morning ritual. Often, we pause as she, the dog, meets and greets her friends. It is an interesting thing to walk a dog, because I probably would not have much to talk about with many of these people other than to exchange greetings, but the dogs seem to find a conversation of engagement that forces the humans to perform sociality.
On this particular morning I see a white woman whom I have seen before walking her dog. I recognize her coming toward me from a distance on the sidewalk. She is slight of build and her dog is bigger and maybe a little sturdier than Peppy.
The difference today is that she continues moving in my direction as I move in her direction. Usually she crosses the street before we encounter each other. This is a person on whom the niceties of morning greetings are usually lost. While I might wave or say “good morning” or Peppy might bark, she never responds. This morning she is walking toward me and not crossing. We get about 20 feet away from each other and she begins to scream, “Stay away from me! Stay away from me and my dog! I am warning you!”
She is really screaming! And at that point her dog becomes unruly and she becomes entangled in his leash. I am not fully aware of what’s going on in the moment, or whether the dog is in attack mode to protect his owner because of her screaming, or whether the attack mode is the true nature of the dog and she is trying to protect us (or herself). I only know that she began to scream before the dog became unruly. Because there are cars parked on the side of the road to my right, my only option to avoid her is to walk into the yard to my left, to walk the distance through the yard to pass the spectacle of which I am not a part. Peppy leads the way because she is scared, and she wants to get away from both the barking dog and the screaming white woman, as do I.
In that moment, the screaming attracts the attention of other good white folks. Several of them pause, standing outside their cars, looking to see what is happening. I see a few faces looking through windows. The man whose yard I am crossing is now standing on his front porch with his hands on his hips. It is a fucking 360° cinematic moment with me at the center pivoting to see multiple pairs of white eyes staring at the scene, staring at me.
In that moment I am vulnerable to this historical legacy of relational dynamics—a white woman screaming in a white neighborhood at to what appears to be a black man encroaching upon her and other white people seemingly coming to her rescue.
- And I am one of their neighbors too.
- And I walk this path every morning.
- And I have a PhD, dammit!
- And I am an academic dean at the private Catholic Jesuit University that is a block away.
- But I am a black man first, and none of the other traits offer me protection in the moment. I offer the onlookers a befuddled look, as if to say,
- “I am also confused.”
- “I don’t know what is going on.”
- Or as if to say,
- “I am innocent.”
But I actually say nothing and keep walking. Quickly. And I do not turn fully around but take only side glances to ensure that no one is following me. That morning, Peppy and I take an alternate route back home.
While the scene I have described could have been about the white woman warning me of her aggressive dog, there are missing pieces in her public performance that go unresolved.
- Like maybe the actual evidence of threat, other than my black male presence; or
- Like maybe the specter of my snarling vicious cocker spaniel threatening an attack,
- Or maybe even an apology.
(Alexander, 2017, p. 62–64)
Within this short performative script (which has been performed in front of an audience), I am seeking to exemplify the politics and polemics of performing race, culture, and whiteness in an everyday situation. Within the narrative there is a naming and recognizing of features that mark particularity and difference. By virtue of place and circumstance there is an establishment of relational orientations that activate the properties and proprieties of community. Through the racial subjects in the narrative there is an instantiation of hierarchies of power that regulate the players, actors, and audience in the unfolding social drama. And the communicative strategy of outrage and fear, both to the presumed victim and perpetrator (not clear which is which) invokes positionalities of value to which action and response are needed. And the historicity of racial roles and cultural relations mediate social understanding as it shapes the performance in the scene and of the scene.
The construction “performance of race, culture, and whiteness” invokes an interrelatedness of intensions and effects. Race, culture, and whiteness are all social constructs that are animated through performance: doing, telling, showing, being. In which case performance is process and product, productive action with purposeful intent, and performance becomes the engine of performativity’s stylization while also presenting the possibility of transformative disruptions and interventions as resistance. The social actors in the dramas of everyday life do not always self-select the roles they play. But they can reshape the performances with which they engage in promoting productive culture and establishing constructive relational engagements toward social justice.
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