Thinking About the End of Imposed Identities

Homer Adolph Plessy was the son of French-speaking Creoles. By racial classification standards he was an octoroon, meaning that he was 1/8th black. His phenotype was white and he could move about his life as a white person, riding white only train cars, etc. In an effort to strike down racial segregation laws, Plessy was recruited by to Comité des Citoyens to ride in a white-only train car. The group arranged for him to be arrested. 

As we know, in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), the Supreme Court upheld segregation laws (7-1). But Plessy’s situation raises an important question about the racial straight-jacket and an individual’s freedom of movement. Plessy could pass for white, but his birth certificate identified him as gens du couleur libre, or a free person of color. Because of what it said on his birth certificate, despite what he looked like or how he may have felt, he was not white by law. 

Decades later, the Supreme Court reversed itself, but the notion of race as essential has remained. When people see a person they have trouble classifying, they are often curious to know what the person “really” is. And when a person attempts to cast off the straight-jacket of racial classification, especially when they are deemed not to pass, they suffer repression at the hands of both majority and minority communities. Such is the investment in racial classification by the majority of persons regardless of racial status. 

When a man wishes to use the men’s room, regardless of what his birth certificate says, there is no problem unless observers doubt whether he is “really” a man. A man born female who can pass for male is in a similar position to Plessy. If there is a system in place that says he cannot use the man’s bathroom because he was born female then there will have to be some law that allows authorities to determine what he “really” is and compel him to use the “appropriate” bathroom (in many Muslim societies, as well as among Orthodox Jews, it would be necessary to know this in order to properly segregate public spaces). 

One solution would be to eliminate segregated bathrooms along lines of gender, just as we have eliminated segregated bathrooms along lines of race. Another would be to allow persons to identify as they wish regardless of what it says on their birth certificates and use whatever bathroom they like. Both are liberating in their own way. 

A person who is to be able to cast off the straight-jacket of assigned gender and choose whatever gender he or she desires — or choose no gender at all — without fear of negative consequences enjoys the power of personal liberty. And it should be the same with race if this is what the person desires. But the final liberation comes when de jure and de facto gender and racial classification systems are eliminated altogether and individuals can exist as persons independent of imposed identities.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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