Whose Skin Is This, Anyway?

By Guss, David M. | ReVista (Cambridge), Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Whose Skin Is This, Anyway?


Guss, David M., ReVista (Cambridge)


an aFrican-american DreSSeS aS a PlainS Indian, as if seen through the lens of Fellini, while Andean natives wear white masks and carry whips, pretending to be colonial overseers. Whites don blackface and blacks whiteface. But blacks also dance in blackface while Indians perform as blacks costumed as whites as imagined by slaves in the brutal silver mines of co- lonial Latin America. The combinations in these dances of ethnic cross-dressing are nearly endless as are their many inter- pretations. The caustic bite of dominant groups parodying minorities has rendered many examples of this often ribald behav- ior politically incorrect and unaccept- able. Yet while it is true that many forms of ethnic cross-dressing can be seen as a theatre of domination, so too can many be understood as a powerful means of transformation by which groups take on new identities and nations are redefined. Fraught with ambivalence and contradic- tion, ethnic cross-dressing, a term that I have coined for this practice, is nearly uni- versal. It is also a driving engine of festive behavior throughout the world.

Despite its global significance and complexity, there has been relatively little theoretical attention paid to eth- nic cross-dressing, and what does exist has been generally preoccupied with condemning its racist manifestations. Without doubt, the sinister legacy of blackface, emerging from 19th-century minstrelsy, has understandably stigma- tized most discussions of the subject. But even in this long-enduring tradition, one can discover meanings beyond the simple appropriation and parody of Afri- can-American forms. Michael Rogin, for example, argues that such "racial cross- dressing," as he calls it, was an important if painful strategy in the naturalization of such marginal immigrant groups as the Irish and Jews. While acknowledging the cruelty in a tradition that makes oppres- sion entertaining and real history invis- ible, it was also a vehicle for remaking identities, one of ethnic cross-dressing's most recurrent themes. As such, it is filled with ambivalence and contradic- tion, or as Rogin writes in Blackface, White Noise: "Admiration and ridicule, appropriation and homage, transience and permanence, pathos and play, decep- tion and self-deception, stereotyped and newly invented, passing up and passing down, class, sex, and race-all these ele- ments in contradictory combination can play their role in masquerade. Because cross-dressing contains multiple pos- sibilities in theory, celebratory accounts must enter history." (1998:35)

An even older U.S. tradition of ethnic cross-dressing than blackface is that of "playing Indian." While today it is most commonly associated with the fraternal orders of white, middle-aged men and the controversial antics of buckskin-clad team mascots, its multifaceted roots stretch back to the Colonial era. After all, the Boston Tea Party, one of the United States' most sacred foundational myths, is based on ethnic cross-dressing. As Philip Deloria points out in Playing Indi- an, the Sons of Liberty, who dressed up as Mohawks and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, weren't disguising their identities but rather cre- ating new ones. By dressing up as Indi- ans "Americans redefined themselves as something other than British colonists." (1998:2):

"Increasingly inclined to see them- selves in opposition to England rather than to Indians, they inverted interior and exterior to imagine a new bound- ary line of national identity. They began to transform exterior, noble savage Oth- ers into symbolic figures that could be rhetorically interior to the society they sought to inaugurate...As England became a them for colonists, Indians became an us." (Ibid. 21-22).

While assuming Indian identities may have been a powerful metaphorical tool for 18th-century American rebels, it was no less ambivalent than the use of blackface by immigrant performers. In fact, Deloria describes the relationship of whites to native peoples in a similar way as Rogin and others do between black- face entertainers and African-Ameri- cans, or as he characterizes it, "a dialectic of simultaneous desire and repulsion" (Ibid. …

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