Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles Against Subjection



Publication Details

Ehlers, N. 2012, Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles against Subjection, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, USA.

Additional Publication Information

Nadine Ehlers examines the constructions of blackness and whiteness cultivated in the U.S. imaginary and asks, how do individuals become racial subjects? She analyzes anti-miscegenation law, statutory definitions of race, and the rhetoric surrounding the phenomenon of racial passing to provide critical accounts of racial categorization and norms, the policing of racial behavior, and the regulation of racial bodies as they are underpinned by demarcations of sexuality, gender, and class. Ehlers places the work of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler's account of performativity, and theories of race into conversation to show how race is a form of discipline, that race is performative, and that all racial identity can be seen as performative racial passing. She tests these claims through an excavation of the 1925 "racial fraud" case of Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and concludes by considering the possibilities for racial agency, extending Foucault's later work on ethics and "technologies of the self" to explore the potential for racial transformation.


On November 9, 1925, proceedings began in a Westchester county, New York, courthouse, in the trial of Alice Rhinelander, nee Jones. Alice's husband, Leonard "Kip' Rhinelander had filed for an annulment of their marriage one year earlier, only a month affter the young couple's wedding and at what seemed the insistence of his family. Their marriage colud have been romanticized as a fairytale union across class lines, for Leonard was the scion of one of New York's oldest and weathiest families, descended from the French Huguenots, while Alice was the working-class daughter of immigmnts. In the legal complaint that initiated the trial of Rhinlander v. Rhinelander,. however, Leonard charged Alice with fraud lhat went to the essence of their marriage, accusing her of having lured him to wed by claiming tbat she was white and not "colored." Alice had supposedly misrepresented her race, crossed the color line, and passed as white. Yet what carne to be the central iisue in the case was not whether Alice had indeed passed but, rather, whether she able to pass. Equally irnportant was the question of whether Leonard knew . lf Alice had been able to pass, this would unsettle a racial economy that relied on the visual significaiton of what is supposedly racial truth. And, if Leonard had known that Alice did possess 'colored' blood' but married her nonetheless , then he had knowingly trangressed social protocols that Censured interracial unions . The answer to these questions was ultimately sought through recourse to the examination of the bodies of the Jones family and, in the most sensational aspect of the case, AIice's own body, which was stripped naked and paraded before the all white , male jury.

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