We have long known that race has little genetic basis and is a purely social construct. This essay shall attempt to analyze the intersectional social construct of the ‘White Race’ within the African-American characters in the Novel ‘Caucasia’ (1998) by Danzy Senna, a female author who self-identifies as African-American and is of Caucasian and African-American ancestry.
‘Passing’ or trying to pass as white, has a long history in the African American community. Lighter skinned ‘mulatto’ slaves would often seek freedom from slavery through ‘passing’. The ‘mulatto’ was usually the product of a union between a white man and his captive African-American slave woman who lacked the power to resist his advances.
In the pre-civil war south, it was common for slave owners to use their female slave women sexually, the fate of the resultant children depended upon the extent to which their physical features represented their European or their African ancestry. If the child was white enough, it would be possible for it to be brought into the family, if it was too dark to pass off as a Caucasian person, it would remain a slave. The slave child would then be subject to all the indignities that accompanied slavery i.e. forced labor, being sold, sexual exploitation at the hands of the owners etc. who were often their own male relatives.
The novel Caucasia is also a story of “passing”. The novel depicts the story of two bi-racial girls Cole and Birdie, from Birdie’s perspective. The girls’ father is an African American political activist and their mother is a pale, blonde, blue-blooded woman. The daughter of a Harvard professor, she is a white member of a Black Power underground cell, more radical than their father.
Cole is dark skinned and has curly hair while Birdie has lighter skin and straighter hair. The girl’s father is mocked by his fellow black power activists for his white wife and daughter. Seeing him with his light skinned daughter, a policeman accuses him of kidnapping her. He is disgusted with the pervasive racism he encounters (as Bell Hooks puts it: “I think one fantasy of whiteness is that the threatening other is always a terrorist” (Hooks, 1992)) and decides to leave for Brazil. Cole being dark skinned goes with him while Birdie, leaves with their mother.
Increasing radicalism puts Birdie’s mother under the gaze of law enforcement agencies and she and her mother escape surveillance under false identities, eventually they end up taking residence in New Hampshire.
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