What is race? Sit down and think about it for a moment. What separates a white person from a black person, an Asian person from a Native American? This is one of the big questions Bhabha attempts to address in his essay “Of Mimicry and Men” (which, personally, reminds me of “Of Mice and Men” but that’s a complete—but extremely interesting!!!—side note).
Before we get into the deep stuff, let’s start at the beginning: what is mimicry in the context of race? Mimicry is, essentially, how white people desire the “other” (ie, every other race) to conform to be like them but still hold difference: “almost the same, but not quite” (126). The reason for this is, of course, so that white people are able to maintain control and power. However, Bhabha points out that mimicry is not quite working the way that white people want it to. The colonialized subject becomes a “partial presence” due to this slight difference. What this difference becomes is “almost the same but not white” (132). Partial presence reveals that the difference between a white person and say a black person becomes nothing more than the colour of one’s skin.
The biggest issue of mimicry, then, becomes the fact that in attempting to maintain power, the white person is actually revealing his/her lack of power and the power of the non-white person. The “desire” to maintain partial presence actually “articulates disturbances of cultural, racial, and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of the colonial authority (129). Partial presence, then, keeps the black man different from the white man while showing that differences are a threat to the white person. White people want the black person to be different from them, but by having African-Americans show their difference, Caucasians are revealing what’s so dangerous about this difference: the fact that beyond the colour of one’s skin, there is no difference at all.
Tyra Banks wears a weave, fake hair, and states that she’s aware “that everyone in the world doesn’t think that [her] natural hair is beautiful.” Why? Because it’s not the type of hair white people have. A Korean-American on Tyra’s talk show had a medical procedure to increase the size of the folds on her eyelids. Why? Because of the “Europeanization of beauty standards.” There is a sub-culture in Japan called B-Stylers. These young people alter their style, language, and physical appearance in attempts to look “as African-American as possible.” They tan their skin obsessively to darken their natural pale tones and style their hair in typical black fashion.
Bhabha states that mimicry becomes the “metonymy of presence”: if one doesn’t act like the white person, then one is not a person (130). Everyone wants to/needs to mimic the white person. But now, this mimicking has reached a new height: we can become white (or black, or Asian….). We can physically alter our appearance. As Tyra Banks says, we can become “one step closer to.” And this one step could be more than enough.
But what about white people?
“Dear White People”
This trailer also brings up the fact that “they [white people] want to be like us [black people].” But why? It’s almost as if white people want to take black culture and make it theirs, leaving the only difference between the two races to be once again, nothing but physical traits. According to Bhabha, this may be a fault of the white person, as the “slippage” of mimicry reveals that there’s nothing really different between races. But, at the same time, but taking someone’s culture, we are taking their identity. By absorbing black culture, the white person is taking away their sense of self, their sense of community, their sense of empowerment. Yes, the white person is revealing extreme racism by showing that the only difference is physical, but at the same time, the white person is revealing that the black person has nothing. Without identity, the black man is nothing but a shell of skin: a difference.
So what does this all mean? White racism and domination has reached a new level. The non-white person is encouraged to look more Caucasian through physical and cultural alterations, but these alterations demonstrate the error of mimicry: to keep the “difference” and keep in power, the white person must reveal that the only difference is skin deep. For those who don’t conform, who accept their difference (such as black communities and sub-cultures), the white person deems that unacceptable and bit by bit begins to take their culture away by submerging it into their own. The white person needs domination and to do so, he/she must remove all difference, except for the one that naturally cannot be changed. The white person needs us to be all the same.
So then, what is identity? How do we know who we are? How are we more than carbon copies, or bits and pieces of cultures shoved into one? How are we anything else but a being trying to hide his or her difference? Is there power in difference? Is there a way to stop this intense, subtle racism? How is the issue of racial identity related to issues of gender identity?
Don’t you hate it when questions don’t have answers?