Imagining a future where racial reassignment surgery is the norm

Assimilation has failed.
Assimilation has failed.
Image: AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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Jess Row’s haunting new novel, Your Face In Mine, is an invitation to the future, an era bound only by the limits of imagination, money, and technology. It’s a time when you can edit anything about yourself—your location, occupation, your status and even your race—if you are a part of the right network.

In the future Row casts, some of us have grown accustomed to the sights and sounds of diversity and the ideal that law and culture treat every person equally. While others are experiencing “racial dysphoria,” or significant discontent with the racial identities we’ve been assigned at birth or the stereotypical roles associated with those racial identities. Row’s novel argues that racial dysphoria stems from the failure of racial assimilation in our techno-driven world. It’s a sign that racism persists even as race no longer seems to matter. The future Row casts is eerily reminiscent of what many cultural critics call our “post-racial” present, a time in which real racism persists without any real racists to blame.

Let’s take the real-life case of African American journalist Jamie Nesbitt Golden as a point of departure for understanding how technology allows for and complicates expressions of racism and racial identities. In April 2014 Nesbitt Golden penned an article for XO Jane explaining why she, a black woman, passes (or presents herself) online as “a white bearded hipster guy on Twitter.” Nesbitt Golden argues that she is trolled less and respected more for her opinions when she attaches a white male avatar to her profile. She writes:

The number of snarky, condescending tweets dropped of considerably… I had suddenly become reasonable and level-headed. My racial identity no longer clouded my ability to speak thoughtfully, and in good faith. It was like I was a new person. Once I went back to Black [and female], it was back to business as usual.

Nesbitt Golden’s experience reminds us that in a culture whose values and opportunities are reserved largely for the bodies of “white bearded hipster guys,” it is often necessary to take on the characteristics of such bodies to become more valuable and visible. Golden knows that assimilation doesn’t work. That’s why appropriation takes assimilation’s place as her strategy for being seen and heard.

In the novel, Kelly (a white man who will become Chinese) starts out believing that Martin (a white Jewish man turned black) is only trying to assimilate to racial categories based in white supremacy (because all racial categories are based in white supremacy). He eventually realizes that Martin’s transformation actually represents the profound failures of such an assimilationist project.

As I argued in Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, the very fact that some feel that they cannot even inhabit white male racial identities suggests that even the most privileged among us can find racial norms unacceptable and constraining. What’s more, Martin and Kelly teach us that when assimilation fails appropriation—through the dramatic step of “racial reassignment” surgery in their cases—takes its place. The fact that this elective procedure is available to the likes of the white, wealthy protagonists also begs the question of whether race—equal parts biology, sociology and, now, consumer choice—can ever be transcended.

Row doesn’t seem to think so.

He hints at the idea that there will never be enough white people who will racially reassign themselves as there will be people of color who choose to reassign themselves as white. Racial reassignment to whiteness is the most difficult and costly procedure because it requires removing so much from the “patient.” Row’s reference here is two-sided: On one hand racial reassignment to whiteness invokes ideas about the global market for skin lightening treatments, which is projected to reach $19.8 billion by 2018. On the other hand, Row is also suggesting that racial reassignment to whiteness also involves removing the parts of a person’s spiritual and cultural core that (s)he finds too difficult to confront, a process so costly that money is no measure.

In the end, Row’s unique take on race, racism and identification presents us with an opportunity to think more about some dilemmas of identification and representation in the future. And, Row’s approach suggests that what is concealed—potential consequences characters face as they accrue status and benefits in through racial reassignment—is as interesting as what is revealed. If Row is right, then there is only one way to end racism and it can begin right now. Ending racism starts when people embrace all parts of their histories instead of denying or running away from them. Only then can everyone else begin to acknowledge and dismantle racism and promote an egalitarian society that provides safe spaces to be whatever we all are.