Race & Ethnicity

Artist Nikki Lee is more than a chameleon.  She not only takes on the pattern of her surroundings, she fully inhabits them.  In a series of photographs called the “Hip-Hop Project,” her skin has somehow acquired a darker shade than usual, she wears bling-bling jewelry, and is seen hanging out with rappers.  For the “Seniors Project,” she uses make-up to add decades to her face, wears dowdy clothes, and stands slightly hunched over, looking for all the world like an elderly white woman.  In other photo series she pretends to be a Latina from the Bronx, a blonde in rural Ohio, a Japanese schoolgirl, a sharply dressed yuppie, a panhandling punk, and a male transvestite.

Like photographer Cindy Sherman, Lee turns the camera on herself.  But the subject is in fact very different: not Sherman’s preoccupation with Hollywood imagery but, for Lee, the complexities of race and class.  Born in South Korea and now living in the United States, Lee hangs out with a different demographic for a couple of weeks until she feels part of the culture.  Then she asks her new friends to take photos of her.  So Lee is not a photographer but a performance artist, with the photos being a record of what she has performed.  Sometimes the impersonation is so convincing it fools even those she is impersonating.

Nikki Lee’s photos raise interesting questions about cultural markers, about assimilation, about perceptions and expectations.  By moving with apparent ease between different subcultures, she challenges her viewers to reexamine their own notions of race, class, and gender and come to some understanding of the fluidity of these categories.

As Nikki Lee’s photos suggest, neither race nor ethnicity is a natural category. Rather, they are constructed socially.  Nineteenth-century Americans didn’t consider Italians to be “white.”   In Africa, “black” as a racial category has a very different meaning than in Europe.  Some Asians (Japanese) in the United States are accorded “honorary white” status, while others (Laotians) are not.  Both Arabs and Jews are Semitic peoples, but anti-Palestinian sentiment is rarely considered anti-Semitism.  Race has no genetic basis.  It is, instead, a function of how societies respond to certain physical characteristics such as skin color and hair texture.

The science of race coincided roughly with the age of colonialism, as Europeans encountered different peoples in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  Race in these early scientific discourses became inextricably linked to value judgments: white as better, dark as worse.  In other words, the history of race is the history of racism.  Notions of ethnicity, meanwhile, developed in relationship to state power and “national” identity.  Who is “ethnic” – as opposed to mainstream – depends as much on power relations in society as the numerical breakdown of a population census.  As a result of centuries of policies shaped by racism – colonialism, slavery, caste systems – the concepts of race and ethnicity have become by their very nature controversial.

In the 20th century, with the disintegration of colonial empires and the first attempts to reverse the damaging effects of slavery, many groups have sought to turn around the language of race.  Racial and ethnic pride – a feature of the Black Power movement, La Raza, and various indigenous movements – have become an integral part of the cultures of many countries.  Artists and politicians have trafficked in racial and ethnic themes because of their power to inspire as well as to divide.  Race and ethnicity may well be “imaginary,” to use Benedict Anderson’s description of nationalism, but that diminishes neither their power nor their importance.

Where does a racial category end and an ethnic category begin? How does racial or ethnic identity interact with other forms of identity, such as gender or class?  How does the racial pride of a minority differ in substance from the pride of a majority?  By what mechanisms do majority populations manage to detach race privilege from race consciousness?  Has the significance of race declined in the United States, as sociologist William Julius Wilson has argued?  How has the mestizo and Creole experience in Latin America fared in terms of handling social conflict and inequalities compared to the more strictly policed color lines of the North American experience?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read Clarence Lusane’s exploration of race and globalization in Race in the Global Era, check out the scholarly articles in the journal Race & Class, explore the resources on the Chicano-Latino Electronic Network, see reproductions of the startling silhouettes by artist Kara Walker, listen to Billie Holiday or Nina Simone sing “Strange Fruit,” and see the story of two Vietnamese children adopted by an African-American family in Catfish in Black Bean Sauce.

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