In 2010, while a graduate student at Cornell University, I signed on to teach a course as part of the Cornell Prison Education Program. The semester prior to my course, I drove to Auburn Correctional Facility along with a group of other new volunteers, to complete the mandatory orientation. Because things had started late, the time had since passed when we’d expected to arrive back on campus. In an attempt to expedite completing the paperwork necessary for volunteers, one of the guards collected our drivers’ licenses and used these to fill out the forms on which our fingerprints would be imprinted. Before the fingerprinting, we were asked to look over the cards and verify our information. When I received my card for review, what I saw excited me as a scholar of critical race studies.
Boxes 9, 10, and 11 of the form indicated categories for “Race,” “Ethnicity,” and “Skin.” Instructions dictated that a single-letter code be entered for each category; the codes were listed on the card’s reverse side. On my card, the guard had marked a “W” for White in box 9.* As a mixed-race woman of Caucasian and African-American descent, various things – from my tan skin and thick, kinky hair to my African-American family members to my work in critical race studies and African American literature – make clear my position as a woman of color. I am seldom mistaken for white, but when I have been it has generally been when darker-skinned African American people were present and not in the predominantly-white academic circles in which I’ve grown accustomed to circulating. Generally, my experience of race resembles that of other mixed-race women. My ambiguously-raced body stands in confusing contrast to people unfamiliar with the spectrum of people of color. There were two other black women volunteers with me that day at Auburn, and I did not look like them. My face is freckled. My hair was straightened at the time. My skin was on the paler side of its yearly gradation, from winter months, cloudy upstate New York weather, and the indoor-dwelling necessities of dissertation research.
Still, the situation at Auburn presented what had become a relatively-common problem for me by the time I was in my 30s: Not being mistaken for a “White” woman, but the problem of single-racial-determination on identification forms. Although the United States Census began allowing the population to check more than one box for “Race” in the 2000 census, other surveys requesting such information had not all followed suit over the past decade. As a young child, sometime in the early 1980s, my mother had had my fingerprints taken. The accompanying identification card listed the entirety of its racial possibilities as “White,” “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Chinese,” “Japan,” and “Other.” (This would be more amusing if it were not true.) My mother had checked the “Other” box and written in “mulatto,” a word that, in my family’s usage, lacked its negative historical connotations. Later, as I applied to graduate school, I’d angrily printed and hand-delivered an application because the university’s online form would not allow me to check more than one box for “Race,” and the “Other” category allowed an infuriating fourteen characters of explanation.
I was not terribly surprised that the Department of Corrections forms had no mechanism for placing more than one letter in the box for “Race.” Looking past the “Race” box into which I could not neatly fit my two-lettered racial category, I noticed an “N” in box 10, for “Ethnicity.” My initial, potentially naïve, thought was that this stood for “No,” indicating that I had no ethnicity. Flipping the card over, I found that I was not far from the truth, as the extent of the available choices were “H” for Hispanic, “N” for Not Hispanic, and “U” for Unknown. Moving to the even-more-perplexing “Skin” category, I read an “F.” Surely this was for “freckled,” I chuckled, and turning the card over, read, “Enter the skin tone code for the category which best describes the person’s skin color (complexion).” Though familiar with histories of racial categorization, in the United States, I was astounded at the choices: ALB – Albino, BLK – Black, DRK – Dark, DBR – Dark Brown, FAR – Fair, LGT – Light, LBR – Light Brown, MED – Medium, MBR – Medium Brown, OLV – Olive, RUD – Ruddy, SAL – Sallow, YEL – Yellow, OTH – Other, UNK – Unknown. Each skin tone description was somehow more unintelligible than the next. The form really should have come with a color swatch card – the kind you get at a paint store, or maybe a box of Crayola Multicultural Crayons. How the guard had chosen “Fair” for me was equally astounding.
When I attempted to explain the problem to the guard who had filled out the card, he didn’t quite understand why I was asking whether the answers might be changed. “You mean you’re not White? How would you identify yourself?” he asked. I told him that I would rather put letters for both Black and White in the box. He appeared stunned by the answer, which was beyond the racial possibilities that he (or the creators of this form) could envision. I was taken aback at his surprise (“Surely he’d met a mixed-race person before, working in a New York state prison?” I thought). Though trying to be polite as possible through my increasing discomfort, I couldn’t help saying that I didn’t quite think I was “fair.” The guard held his tanned arm up next to mine. “Look, you’re lighter than I am!” he laughed. I felt that I was entering into the world of the nineteenth-century novels of racial ambiguity I taught and wrote about, in which legally black and enslaved heroines are “as white as any white woman.” “What would you have chosen?” he asked. “Medium, I guess?” I’d said. It seemed simultaneously the most ambiguous and most definitive category.
Ultimately, I did not have the will to continue this argument with a white Upstate New York prison guard who assumed he could more accurately classify my racialized body than I could myself. I gave up for purely pragmatic reasons. I needed to fill out this form – somehow – and there were others with whom I had driven and who were also waiting to leave the prison we had intended to leave over an hour earlier. Doubting that this form on which my fingerprints are filed with the State of New York mattered much in the grand scheme of my self-identification, I opted for the easiest choice – that which did not require further argument or for it to be laboriously re-written by the attending guard who had apparently determined my race from the washed-out picture on my drivers’ license. Still, even on this archaic card, the purposes and meaning of which I remain unaware, I remain extremely reluctant to “pass.”
This episode is ironic not only because the description “fair, white woman” in no way accurately describes my body, but because this instance of identification is characteristic of the particular brand of racial (micro)aggression I habitually experience. The white guard’s insistence upon identifying me, rather than allowing me to identify myself, deliberately undermines my ability to self-identify – as a woman who has lived in a distinctly-racialized body for over 30 years, and as someone whose academic specialization involves the critical study of race, and interracial kinship in particular. The guard’s coopting of how I ought to articulate my racial identity would be echoed by a senior faculty member later in my graduate career, who instructed me to list my mixed-race identity on my curriculum vitae, because “departments have money for that kind of thing.”
Another irony of this story is that my research and teaching about race and racism in literature has left me with little inclination to engage in the work of teaching white people about race in my personal life. While I used to be more inclined to explain things about my mixed-race identity to strangers (and I assure you that mixed-race people are accosted with a surprising number of demands to do this in their daily lives), I now get paid to explain things about race to actual students to whom I am obligated as a teacher. I no longer have the emotional energy to do this in every personal racist encounter. Moreover, I have come to acknowledge the fact that it cannot be the personal obligation of people of color to correct and instruct white people on race and racism. I am grateful to white antiracists who do this necessary work.
I moved to Madison with my partner in the summer of 2012; both of us teach at UW-Madison. As I settled into the city I now call home, I became increasingly aware of the racial disparities in both Madison and in the state of Wisconsin. As a professor of color at a university with alarmingly-small populations of both students and faculty of color, I understand how my own embodiment affects my instruction on topics of race and racism. That embodiment is couched in particular forms of cisgender, heterosexual, educational, and class privilege, further complicated by gender, and informed by mixed-race people’s specific experiences of racism.
Just as there is a skewed impetus for people of color to address problems of racism in the world, there is a skewed pedagogical impetus on faculty of color to deal with these topics. As I make my academic career in Madison, I understand it as inherently intertwined with local racial contexts. My specialization is in nineteenth-century literatures, a body of writing in which race and racism figure heavily, and which must be explained both with regard to the original historical contexts in which individual texts appeared and the current context in which readers now try to comprehend them. During classroom discussion, I am often obligated to warn students against simply absolving racism in the past. An all-too-familiar argument students give when reading racist literature from the nineteenth century is something like “people were just racist back then, and it would be wrong to judge them by modern standards.” Here, I often pause the discussion and talk briefly about the dangers of such a statement, how it conflates the commonality of a particular belief and its moral acceptability, how it masks the historical presence of anti-racist and non-racist people, how it prioritizes the viewpoints of racist white people over all others, and how it discourages making connections between past and present forms of racism.
At the end of one class discussion like this, some UW students stayed after class to thank me for how I handled a particularly emotionally-charged exchange. I explained that we, the professoriate, need to do a better job of having these difficult conversations in the classroom, allowing marginalized voices to be heard, and not prioritizing the worst of bigotry simply because it was common. In short, we need to stop prioritizing those who might be made uncomfortable by talking about racism over students who are actually oppressed by that racism. You may recall reading about Shannon Gibney, a professor of English and African diaspora studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). In 2014, Professor Gibney was formally reprimanded via her college’s anti-discrimination policy after a complaint from some of her students. The students claimed to have been made uncomfortable by her course’s lesson on structural racism, because they felt singled out, as white men. This worries me as a woman of color who finds it harder and harder to shy away from these difficult conversations about racism in my classroom, even as I continually figure out how to have them.
Additionally, I realize that I must continually figure out how to deal with the uncomfortable and sometimes racist encounters in which I find my embodied self. People’s desire for classification in the face of my own seeming racial ambiguity both annoys and fascinates me, because one’s own racial identification is often rather mundane, even while self-identification matters immensely. But the racial inequalities in which I find my students making their way in the world, in which my own family is situated, and in which I see my friends and colleagues alternately attempting or refusing to engage prompts me to continue to have these uncomfortable conversations.
*I owe many thanks to Toni Wall Jaudon for sending me images of the DCJS fingerprint form.