Monday, July 31, 2006

Race, Performative Identity, and Why Oprah Is More Than Just Charming

Jeff Lipshaw has a great post up at PrawfsBlawg:

What makes charismatic people exude their personal power? I have heard stories about people (of all political persuasions) encountering Bill Clinton in person - is it size? looks? the fact he is/was the President?

But I have always wondered about that personal force. Was it the voice? The temper? The white hair? I speculated that it was a combination of two things: (a) despite the temper, amazing self-control and calculation, and (b) just not caring what other people thought of him. As to the first, another partner told the story of Brian just reaming an opposing lawyer in the hallway of the Wayne County Circuit Court, and in the midst of the tirade, winking at the Dykema associate standing behind the
unfortunate victim. As to the second, I once speculated that personal power arose because there was an imbalance between two people in terms of how much each other cared what the other one thought. I cared a lot about what Brian thought of me; Brian didn't seem to care what ANYONE thought of him. Consistent with that was something Brian told me about negotiating style. He thought you gained an advantage if the other side thought you were just a little bit irrational and needed to be placated; he once told me it wasn't really a negotiation if he hadn't walked out at least once.

That never worked for me; I always wanted to be loved more than I wanted to be feared.

To which I commented:

This reminds me of performative identity, or what sociologist Erving Goffman called "front stage presentation" of the self. Goffman compared human social interactions to performances on the stage, and in any interaction the people involved may be both performers and audience members. The goal of the performer is to create a favorable impression on the other, such that the performer gains influence over the other--a most important achievenment in a social network or organization, like an office. Charismatic people both attract and scare me---even if you are not aware of what or how they're doing it, you can feel the control they are exerting over you.

I wonder if charismatic people just know how to perform their identity better (suggesting something mechanical in their approach) or if it is something "inherent" that makes it so they don't even _have_ to perform. As if they're just that innately powerful. That would be even freakier.

I have been described as charming once or twice, does that count for something?

And to which Jeff replied:

I think charm is part of charisma. (Hmmm. charisma - charm. Is there an etymological linkage?) Love or hate the two of them, both Clinton and Dubya are supposed to reek of it in person. So I don't think charm itself is a sexual identity differentiator. But in addition to charm, men I think are more capable of being physically scary or intimidating (Lyndon Johnson was supposed to have combined both.) Maybe there is no real difference on charm, but if women have traditionally "male" charismatic qualities other than charm, we get into the other canards that affect strong women.

Maybe this links into your work on the transposition of ethnic stereotypes into performance characteristics in the workplace. Are some ethnicities seen to be more capable of charisma or personal force? (My own reaction is no: physical imposition, voice, charm seem to trump. But I don't know.)

And to which I replied:

I don't think race, ethnicity, or phenotypical markers of such would dictate charisma per se--rather, the social constructions of the power/intelligence/innate worth of race and ethnicity do. Oprah is supposedly the most charming, powerful, charismatic person in all of America. I don't even like her all that much (I have beef with her ending the monthly book club because of the preposterous reason "there is not enough good contemporary fiction"), but I sometimes watch the show and am struck by the pull she has over her audience--and sometimes, me. I too, now want to buy that beauty product or donate to her charity. I don't know whether "charm" is a dimunition of "charisma"--but Oprah can certainly be said to have both, and she is a "strong woman" without too many negative associations. Unlike, say, the blondenfreude associated with Hillary Clinton or Martha Stewart (although, arguably, that could be for other reasons too, like you know, politically flexible "centrism" or insider trading and being really mean about those who do not make their own chocolate shavings).

I think you're a good foot taller than me as well (I'm 5'2", and Asian), but I've been able to hold my own before a class of 30-40 students, some of whom were older than I was. Was it my performative identity that held sway, or was it the CV I waved over the class on Day 1 so that they could "get over" my performative identity? Were the two in interaction with each other, such as "impressive" credentials aside, I demonstrated myself to be warm, approachable, _and_ articulate? I don't think personal biography and performative identity exist separate spheres, and nor do I think racial performaitve identity and social constructions of race exist in separate spheres. They necessarily interact, and are either compromised or complemented by each other. But I think Oprah manages the interstitial space better than most.

It seems cheap to cobb a post from another post (welcome to bloggerville though), but I wanted to use it to launch a discussion about racial performative identity. Again, see Covering. The article I'm working on focuses more on discriminatory effects of social network exclusion, but performative identity has a great deal to do with why members of certain racial groups are excluded.

Paul's post on "charisma" and "charm" is interesting because you really do have to wonder about how some people seem to radiate more power and influence than others. Whether this ability is innate or learned and thus mechanical. Me? I radiate cuteness to the point of "help me." I do not say so to brag. In fact I wish I didn't. I wish I radiated confidence and power, and "don't mess with me." But I'm short, petite, smile a lot (oh, that I could look sullen like I did during the early '90s Grunge phase), and generally, I look pretty approachable. As in, at the airport, people just seem to want to help me load my luggage in the overhead bin or tell me their life story. At any store, even impersonal big warehouse ones, I walk along the aisles with a vague expression and half-smile (can't help it, my mind wanders, often in funny directions, and I smile) and everyone asks me if I need help, weirdly going out of their way to find me something I need. Once, standing in line at a club to see a concert and waiting for my "Yes, I am old enough to drink" paper bracelet, the surly, big-muscled bouncer (as in, could strangle me if he put me in a half-nelson) reacted to my cheery "Hi! Thanks so much!" with "You from around here?" to which I replied at length, yes and no, that is, I live--well, I go to school here, but I'm actually from ____ which is this small city next to ____" and by the time I've explained Orange County geography, Surly Muscled Bouncer Man was smiling and waving me in. I am generally so friendly I can make friends with Republicans.

But that is but one performative identity. The one that chats about pop culture, entertainment news (a great in when lecturing by the way), says "dude" a lot and even giggles. When I'm a teaching assistant or when I was an extern for a judge, I engage a different performative identity. I am not content to be merely charming. I want respect. Charm comes easy when you're short and have a hyper, happy personality (it comes from having a difficult childhood--some use humor to deflect, I used happiness and energy). But respect comes that much harder.

I remember going to TA training sessions when I was prepping to be a TA for a class in the Chicano/a Studies department and another in the Afro-American Studies department. I asked the more experienced TAs and professors how I would deal with the issue of my race, should it come up, as in my relatability as an Asian American female to a largely Latino/a or Black class. What if the students challenged my authority or ability to "relate" or "understand" their issues? Because both classes discussed the sensitive issue of race (one class was about affirmative action, the other about equal protection law), how should I handle the issue of students challenging my authority when it came to my subjective determinations of their analysis of the sensitive issues? How could I avoid being challenged for making a race-based determination or a political determination of the value of their papers?

It is strange to say this considering all the stuff I have read/said in the past: but I managed all these issues by attempting to be race neutral. That is, I did not play up my racial identity, and I didn't perform my racial identity. True, while I can't escape looking like a petite Asian American woman, I can play up other parts of my identity. On the first day of class, I had the professor introduce me as a CRS law student who had written a paper on affirmative action (in the other class, I was introduced as a CRS law student who had taken many classes in equal protection law). I basically waved my CV in front of the students, as if to cry "I'm legit! I understand! I know that of which you speak!" I also waved it to say "And don't you forget that I know my stuff and am capable of teaching and evaluating you." When grading the students, I left nothing to chance and typed my assessment to show them how their papers were deficient to justify my grade (as in, not because I don't agree with your position--although I dont--but because you don't explain it well or engage in critical analysis).

I do prefer to be loved than feared, usually. But with my students, I like a little bit of fear. I like my students to come prepared for discussion, having read the material, and having done their homework on time. But I didn't talk about being an Asian American woman the way I would have in say, well, Asian American Jurisprudence class, or the way I do in this blog. I attempted to abstract my racial identity, and not necessarily to being just a "minority"--I totally abstracted it to the point of being just a vessel for the class material. I was there to teach, not preach or confess. And it is weird to say this, because I've done work in race-conscious pedagogy, and I know I could--maybe should (maybe) have brought my racial identity into the classroom. But I didn't.

I wore heels (3-4 inches), professional clothes like suits and slacks, and did Powerpoint lectures. I spoke slow-ly (meet me, and you'll see the difference). I broke down the major cases and explained the muddled jurisprudence Bakke left in it's wake. I explained Liu's "causation fallacy." But I did not explain my personal experience with affirmative action stereotype or stigma (not having benefitted from it since they outlawed it in CA when I was a junior in high school, there's not much of a story anyway). I did not really do anything to highlight or bridge the gap in my racial experience and that of my students. I just lectured.

I suppose that is a good thing, but it is also a bewildering thing to me, the sometimes champion of race and gender conscious pedagogy. It is a bewildering thing to reflect on, particularly now that I've read so much sociological literature about identity performance and realize "ohhhhh, that's what I was doing!" It is good that I managed to get through two classes discussing very sensitive subjects and got good performance reviews (and gifts, the kids liked me that much) from both. But it is strange to reflect that when I attempted to traverse the space between cute and charming to respectable and authoritative, I felt I had to elide completely two major aspects of my identity: my race and gender.

Is "professor" a neutral, neuter term? In becoming a professor, a "gentleman" as Lani Guinier and Ann Barrtow might posit, does one become genderless and raceless? Do we all just wear the same suit? I once TA'd for a professor who prepped me right before class, and before my eyes, would roll down his shirt sleeves and put on a tie. "I like to show the kids that lecture is something important, and that there's a sense of of occasion that comes with learning," he said. I have always loved this. It is commonly called being a "gentleman professor," or the man in the tie and tweed jacket with elbow patches.

Yet I have no corollary for myself. I suppose jewelry is the feminine accessory--but does it carry the same gravitas as a tie? Jewelry seems frivolous and magpieish and distracting, the definition of feminine frou frou. (Not that I don't love and wear jewelry). But there is no way to perform an authoritative feminine identity or racial identity (what, like "Power Dreads"?) the same way there is of performing the ultimate Authoritative White Male Identity: suit, tie, briefcase. Think of "power suits"--even on a woman, it seems as if we stole male sartorial power. You hear about "power ties"--red is a great color against the white of the shirt. But where do you hear about "power jewelry?"

Power. Influence. Charisma. I want them. I recently gave an interviewing tip to a friend's dad to shake everyone's hand and look them in the eye while doing so. He said the committee seemed surprised at such directness. I wonder how they would have taken it from me, a petite and smiling Asian woman.

I want more than charm. I want, for once, to be feared more than I am loved.

Or maybe I just want to be Oprah.