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Is race elective?

Lance Gallop | Monday, November 27, 2006

Superficially, Anatole Broyard (1920-1990) possessed all of the classic attributes of a New York intellectual and socialite: wealth, a powerful mind, prestige earned through decades as a high-profile New York Times book reviewer, a gift for words, and an insatiable appetite for self-gratification. From the very beginning Broyard was naturally suited to the lifestyle that he had made his own, save for one snag. In the middle of the 20th century, in a profoundly discriminatory era, and in an absolutely elitist profession, Anatole Broyard was black.

Broyard fought his entire life, more or less successfully, to conceal his birth race (He was aided in this by an uncommonly fair complexion). And while few should disagree that Broyard’s reasons for his lifelong deception – primarily to protect his career – were petty, his modus operandi flawed, and his lifelong disguise ultimately harmful to himself (this tension is very clear in his writings), at the kernel of his deception lies a fascinating idea. For Anatole Broyard, his race was his choice.

Although Broyard’s life demonstrates beyond doubt that his idea has potential for abuse, there is nonetheless a compelling quality to the notion that race is ultimately elective. Part of this, I feel, stems from our subconscious realization that concepts of racial supremacy are dominated by the doctrine of absolute rigidity. For the supremacist, race is ordained by God or by nature, and its boundaries must never, under any circumstances, be crossed. What could be more antithetical to this viewpoint then the idea of an elective race, where not only are those boundaries crossable, but they are altogether mutable?

Of course in practice, few would dispute that the adoption of an elective notion of race could never reach this pure ideal. Were the idea to be grafted directly onto our society, I believe that three common responses would emerge. One portion of society would look upon the idea as a grave insult to its identity, a second would adopt Broyard’s brand of hollow racial escapism, and a third would agree with the idea yet change nothing about the way it views the world. At best the entire situation might devolve into an almost surreal game of “race tourism” with little depth or understanding. In no regard would it live up to what the pure ideal of elective race aims to be.

But the failure of the idea itself is telling. The very reason that a Broyard-style system of elective race fails is because the idea of race that underlies is not equivalent to what most of society understands race to be (For Broyard race was skin color, nothing more.) But our reactions to the failure also show that our essential views of race itself are fundamentally fragmented.

On the one hand there are those for whom, like Broyard, race is nothing more than a collection of visible characteristics (possibly with underlying genetics) the most common of these being skin color. Some of these people may be uncomfortable with the idea of race in general and therefore they tend to favor a landscape in which, for all intents and purposes, race does not exist. These are the kind of people who voted to ban affirmative action in Michigan a few weeks ago. Their ultimate goal is to achieve complete and total “color blindness.”

However, for others, race is a state of being. It is not attached so much to the color of a person’s skin, although that is undeniably part of it, as it is to his or her universal experience while wearing that skin. Race is both a kind of righteous anger and a kind of solidarity, such as was witnessed after Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans. Through this lens, it matters not so much what you are as what you know and what experiences you have been through. Sometimes the ultimate goal of this group is overcoming what faces it, sometimes it is to transcend it.

But the very fact that both of these views can be held by the same culture simultaneously is partially a vindication of Broyard’s ideal. In reality, it is not that I elect what race I shall call myself, but rather that I elect how I shall view race altogether and this limits all of my subsequent choices. It is this election that really makes a black woman black and a white woman white, more than the color of either’s skin.

Perhaps, in realizing that the concept of race is already elective, we can go a step further to making the actuality of race elective as well. At the very least, our understanding of the choice we make in viewing what race will mean to us should inform our relations with others in this diverse culture.

And maybe, just maybe, Broyard will have the last laugh after all.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.