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In the 1980s, Susie Guillory Phipps discovered that she had been identifying as the “wrong race” her entire life. At least according to the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records, which designated her as “Negroe,” when in fact she had believed herself to be a white woman. Even though she was light-skinned and raised as white, the government wouldn’t recognize this significance because of a state law created in 1970, which decreed that if a person had 3.125% “Negroe blood” or more, they were black. After years of battling the court for a legal racial identity change, she was denied and forced to come to terms with her new label. This classification not only shows how intricately involved systems of government and racial identity are in matters of interpretation of race but also how insufficient these systems of government are in regards to race as well. It also shows how the average American can still be suffering the ramifications of racial legacies hundreds of years after the abolishment of slavery. These dangerous interpretations of racial identity applied to Phipps go against our traditional understandings of racism and discrimination as a fixed and constant variable originating from a biological basis and perceived through phenotypical traits, such as skin color and ethnicity. Instead, we can identify it as a concept specifically designed to justify the separation placed upon races in relation to class, education, and politics through cultural representations.
The case of Susie Guillory Phipps, as analyzed through theories of racial formation, the constructed development of racial identity and how its dynamic relationship with social structures are organized, and intersectionality, the classification of distinct individuals and the relationship these characterizations share with one another. “Intersectionality” proves that the way the government designated her race wasn’t a matter based on the color of her skin as many people think. Instead, it’s an amalgamation of a multitude of ideological discriminatory practices that give rise to the implementations of prejudicial applications and racial projects originating from specific beliefs based on and strengthened by politics or religion, that may that still affect people to this day. In contrast, the verdict reached by the Louisiana state court had no effect on Phipps’ life. Her new designation as a “black woman” wouldn’t influence her career or status or lifestyle. It would neither change the way she grew up nor ease the discordance she would now experience with her new label. This ever-changing perspective of race is most effectively analyzed under the lenses of racial formation and combined with intersectionality, they encapsulate the two biggest themes in Dimensions of Culture. So how did racial formation and intersectionality allow this misidentification to occur? To answer this, we must reflect back on how the harmful stigma against certain races, specifically the African American race, came to be. Although slavery was practiced for over a hundred years, the writing of the Constitution in 1787 can be identified as the point where slavery was no longer just a common practice but indirectly institutionalized with the three-fifths compromise. This controversial compromise, which stated that a slave would only represent three-fifths of a free individual, put a value on how much an African American was worth in the eyes of the dominating white male government.
The archaic mindset of this government is comparable to the mindset of the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records, who demonstrates a similar understanding towards race by officially recognizing Phipps as a “Negroe” woman. One could even make the argument that not only does denying African Americans their freedom by law resemble the Louisiana state law denying Phipps the right to legally change her racial identity but that the state law is the direct descendant of the dominating white male government that founded our nation. It’s the government’s definition of race that determines the value of a slave or the percentage of blood that determines who is “Negroe” under the law. The government’s implementation of race highlights the part humans play in the formation of racial categories, specifically as they strive to maintain them through social structures such as laws. These interpretations permeate throughout history and leave an enduring presence in both Phipps’ and our society today. Flash forward to 1861, and there are thousands of African Americans who escaped from slavery to fight for their liberation in the Civil War. Under President Abraham Lincoln, these “black warriors,” made a decisive effort in the struggle for emancipation. However, even after slavery’s abolishment, it wasn’t enough. These institutions of oppression have objectively facilitated the cycle of corruption and effectively reinforced the hierarchy of race in society.
The cultural representation of African Americans, such as Sambo who portrayed African Americans as obedient and child-like, was not only well established into the minds of the slave owners who have now lost their source of “cheap labor,” but also the slaves whose ancestors had suffered hundreds of years of injustice, keeping them in check for many years to come. These cultural representations aligned with the government’s definitions of race, which ultimately defended the need for segregation and acted as a hegemonic way to marginalize and discriminate against African Americans after the war. But how does this relate to Phipps? Well, it’s the fact that Phipps will never have felt this marginalization or discrimination that we can draw the connection towards the juxtaposition of the average African American woman experience versus Phipps’ as someone who grew up white. There are inherent aspects of life as an American woman that differentiate between race and the governments’ disregard towards this implies an arrogance that exists within the system enforcing it. These cultural representations haven’t and won’t ever harm Phipps even though the government has labeled her as “Negroe,” thereby indicating the flaw within their biological basis of race as a way to interpret a person’s identity. This exposes the contradictions intrinsic in the social structure of race based on biologically-based traits that are consequently upheld by structure and representation. So that brings us to 1983, with Susie Guillory Phipps failed attempt to change her racial identity under the law. Even after most states had already abolished this unconstitutional practice, the Louisiana state court still found Phipps’ case not strong enough to ameliorate this identification. This decision is significant because it demonstrates what is erroneous with our system of government in regards to acknowledging race. Their decision will not change anything about Phipps’ life, or relationships, or occupation. She will have never felt the consequences nor undergo the discrimination of being defined as “black” in American society. This is why designating race is such an intricate task. When someone defines themselves as “black” or “brown” or “white,” they are not acknowledging just the color of their skin or a certain amount of blood they have. They are acknowledging a combination of experiences and emotions that constantly change with the passing of time. Phipps is not a black woman and this intersectional cognitive dissonance from her race with her racial categorization is one the Louisiana state court did not understand.
As Omi and Winant emphasize “the deep involvement of the state in the organization and interpretation of race”, indicating, as individuals, do not always have the power to identify ourselves, but rather hegemonic systems of power often decide this for us. Because of this there now exists an inconsistency between how Phipps identifies her race, which she is now legally excluded from, in comparison to how the government’s forced “unbelonging” has identified her. Phipps’ case is one we can look back on when we analyze history under the lens of racial formation and intersectionality. By recognizing how race came to be and how different categorizations of it interact with each other, we can not only gain a deeper understanding of how and why certain aspects of society and government are the way they are, but also the effects of these aspects as they currently are. Through careful examination of cases similar to Phipps’ under the contexts of citizenship, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality, we can also compare and contrast their ramifications individually and as a whole. In addition to this, racial formation and intersectionality can teach us to be wary of institutions of government that marginalize and prey upon minorities through hegemonic practices, dominance, and control. In these politically charged times, it’s imperative that we remain conscious and aware of how race influences and shapes a person and the way they interact with others. Furthermore, by comprehending how racial formation and intersectionality can be used as a way to divide certain individuals and/or groups, we can remain cognizant of its presence in our present society and predict how the comprehension of race can change in the future.
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