Miscegenation, Assimilation, and Consumption: Racial Passing in George Schuyler's Black No More and Eric Liu's the Accidental Asian

Article excerpt

"[E]ither get out, get white or get along."

--Schuyler, Black No More (11)

"Some are born white, others achieve whiteness, still others have whiteness thrust upon them."

--Liu, The Accidental Asian (34-35)

In her influential essay "Eating the Other," bell hooks examines the ways in which race is commodified in our intensifying hypercapitalist world. She expects that "cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate" (39). The other is "eaten" and the white self is satiated through consumption of aspects of the other's culture--food, tattoos, music, language, tourism, or even the other's body. Over a decade later, a casual stroll down any drug store cosmetics aisle attests to the voraciousness of this white appetite. L'Oreal's True Match foundation line caters to a wide range of skin tones, with white, Asian, and black models posing for its stylish magazine spreads. True to hooks's observations, the darker the color of the foundation, the more edible the skin tone becomes: on the lighter side of the pigment spectrum are colors such as "porcelain," "alabaster," "ivory," "nude," and "natural." In contrast, the darker end includes "honey," "caramel," "creme cafe," "cappuccino," "nut brown," and "cocoa." (1) No matter that the latter colors are also advertised as daily specials on any Starbucks menu, the blatant metaphors of consumption and the exotic appeal of dark skin juxtaposed against the purity and neutrality of light skin are hard to ignore.

Two seemingly disparate texts, George Schuyler's Black No More (1931) and Eric Liu's The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (1998), pick up the question the cosmetic industry begs us to ask: what impact will consumerism have on the perpetually changing meaning of race in this age of late capitalism? In theory, in this post-Civil Rights world the category of race is less dependent on the state for its demands of equality; legally, at least, for example, the state no longer sanctions Jim Crow segregation or condones lynching. Perhaps in this epoch race has become a marker of personal taste, one that can be consumed by the highest bidder. In contrast to hooks's emphasis on the white cannibalistic consumption of the other, these two texts complicate this racist schema by positing others as the ones who can consume their way out of their respective races and into the white one. This article compares the literary trope of racial passing in Black No More to the social narrative of assimilation in The Accidental Asian to show the changing nature of race under the pressures of late capitalism. In Black No More, racial passing challenges segregation laws that deny racial minorities entry into the labor market in the interest of protecting capitalist accumulation. In The Accidental Asian, assimilation is the contemporary version of racial passing; assimilation is promoted to incorporate racial minorities into the market as consumers, to make them pass into an appropriate category of consumption and whiteness. Despite their attempts at imagining a nation where race no longer matters, the persisting racial passing narratives of both texts question their proclamations of "post-racism."

Though written over sixty years apart, both Black No More and The Accidental Asian present eerily similar futures of an anti-racist nation premised on miscegenation. Historically, miscegenation derived from the white slave owner's exploitation of the black female body in order to protect and increase his property. Under Jim Crow segregation, miscegenation signified a danger to the white racial "purity" of the nation in the form of a supposed black sexual threat against white women. For Asian Americans, miscegenation has served historically as a contested battleground for legal inclusion into the nation in the forms of marriage and immigration laws. (2) At the turn of the twenty-first century, however, miscegenation sometimes is celebrated as a means to achieve a multicultural and racism-less society. …