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Publication Details

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


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 after 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 immigrants. In the legal complaint that initiated the trial of Rhinlander v. Rhinelander, however, Leonard charged Alice with fraud that 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 came to be the central issue in the case was not whether Alice had indeed passed but, rather, whether she able to pass. Equally important 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 signification 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.