Devon Carbado & Mitu Gulati’s ‘Acting White’, Working Identity, And Negotiation As Assimilation

For most people reading this, it should be known that I grew up in St. Louis, Misery. Do not feel bad about that, I now reside in comfy and cozy Baltimore, MD. No, that is actually an upgrade. I kid, well, slightly. Given that I spent most of my life in an area I do not live in, those few lucky souls blessed to call me their friend have limited recourse to my time. That means I spend a considerable amount of time on phone calls making sure our bonds are secure.


So, backstory out of our way, right? While on a call with one of my friends of over thirty years, I have mentioned him in a few pieces throughout Asylum’s history, an interesting topic of social mobility came up. There were some people advising him to “talk Whyte”. I was honestly flabergasted, but it did make me think of those millions of US Blacks in areas where performing race in a particular way is their only means of balancing inequality at their workplace. It put me in mind of a book entitled, “Acting White?: Rethinking Race in ‘Post-Racial’ America”, written by Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati.


In their book’s prologue, they write:


Decision makers—whether voters, employers, law enforcement officials, or school admissions officers—-implicitly or explicitly demand that African Americans work their identities to satisfy decision makers’ racial expectations. Failure to work one’s identity can result in losing elections, unpleasant and even deadly interactions with law enforcement, losing out on jobs, being passed over for promotions, and denial of admission to educational institutions. The disadvantages are not a product of simply being black. They are a product of how black a decision maker perceives a particular person to be. In this respect, what we describe is not so much an interracial discrimination problem (decision makers preferring whites over blacks) but rather an intraracial discrimination problem (decision makers preferring some blacks over others).

“Acting White?: Rethinking Race in ‘Post-Racial’ America”, Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati, pg 16


In their first chapter, they explain their central artifact, “Working Identity”.
(Interestingly enough, this book’s first chapter opens with a description of a Dave Chappelle skit, “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong”. Anyone who follows OWL’s Asylum, knows I really enjoy Dave’s work, and I think much of this success of Key & Peele is due to their more racially palatable “Working Identity” as opposed to Dave’s less toned approach to his “Blackness”.)


From these authors we read:


As an initial matter, it is helpful to explain what we mean by identity. Nothing deep or philosophical. Th ink of identity as falling into one of two categories: sense of self identity (how we define and perceive ourselves) and ascriptive identity (how others define and perceive us). Admittedly, this distinction is artificial because how we see ourselves is shaped by how others see us. For example, a person’s view of herself as outgoing, creative, and witty is based in part on other people experiencing her in those ways. Nevertheless, the distinction helps, if only because, at the end of the day, most of us do develop particular views of ourselves. We sometimes call this our self-image. While one’s self-image can certainly change over time, at any given moment, we are likely to have one.


This chapter places these definitions of identity in the context of a broader discussion about race and professional identity in the workplace. We argue that because people of color often perceive themselves the subjects of negative stereotyping, they are likely to feel the need to do significant amounts of identity work to counter those stereotypes. What is worse, these stereotypes are often in tension with the institutional norms around which the workplace is organized. As a result of this tension, persons of color must master the ability to negotiate between their sense of self and their sense of who the institution wants them to be.


pg 24


These authors use another term in their framing to discuss that act of compromising one’s principles in order to assimilate. They this “negotiation” and there is a subtle hint that they might be suggesting that “negotiating” one’s identity to curry favor is an appropriate course of going about. This reminds me of Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci’s prison notes regarding US Blacks assimilating as course for survival. (Gramsci also promotes this particular stratagem of assimilation as means to employ US Blacks to invade and extend neocolonialism to Africa.)


I do believe there is a danger in applauding assimilation. There is something akin to Stockholm’s Syndrome about a group of people who reward with titles like “Black Excellence” those members who given exclusive honors by institutions that uphold tenets of Whyte Supremacy simply in their defining standards based on elite Whyte tastes and collective aspirations. There is a danger in presenting assimilation as a viable option for reducing economic inequality.