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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2009

2 - Racial identification and identity


Attributions of identities as a man sometimes depend on the presence of a penis; sometimes they depend on the possession of XY chromosomes; in one instance, they required not having a baby. Similarly, attributions of identities as a woman are sometimes contingent upon capacities and proclivities, sometimes they look to sexual orientation, and at least once they were linked to shoulder structure. What remains constant in these various standards for sex and gender identity is their association with some part of some set of behaviors, roles, and preferences, including sexual ones. What is inconstant is that these parts and sets vary. Racial and ethnic status in the United States famously possesses the same sort of variation. I shall therefore begin this chapter with what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “exasperations of race,” to see what help they may be in considering exasperations of sex and gender.


Americans have been puzzling over their racial attributions for a very long time. In suits for freedom by slaves before the Civil War, in prosecutions for miscegenation between whites and non-whites after the Civil War, and in racial prerequisite cases from 1789 until 1952, states and federal courts had to determine whether particular individuals were black, white, American Indian, or whatever. Until the “one-drop rule” became widespread after the Civil War, different states employed different standards to decide the issue.

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