George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

Race is a social construct. Genetic studies reveal how misplaced ideas of racial differences truly are. Individuals on the African continent sometimes have more genetic differences than individuals across continents, yet race throughout human history has been used, at a genetic level, to explain the differences between people, and in the worst of  times, to justify discrimination and biases. However, even though race is more of a social construct than a biological fact, humans still identify differences in appearance, customs, behaviors, and psychologies and treat individuals differently based on how they are perceived.
The book Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White demonstrates the power of this discriminatory way of identifying people, and how complex racial identities can be when we insist race is more than a social construct and use it to define people. Michael Tisserand, the book’s author, explains that Herriman existed at an intersection of white and black, and that he was able to pass as white to enter a professional world that excluded blacks. Doing so, however, meant that he had to abandon other identities, including those of his mixed Creole and black family from New Orleans.
In a sentence that demonstrates just how complex racial identification can be, Tisserand writes the following, “when questioned as part of court proceedings if he was colored, George Herriman Sr.’s {Herriman’s grandfather] brother in law, Charles Sauvinet, replied, when I go among strangers I am received as a gentleman. He added I never inquire whether I was received as a white or colored man.” Herriman’s family displayed ambiguous racial characteristics for several generations, and much of their racial identity was dependent more on how other people treated them than on how they chose to identify. Race was not within their own control and varied from place to place and situation to situation.
The implication in Charles Sauvinet’s response is that he was received as a white man, that people identified him and treated him as a white gentleman. His non-answer was effectively a way of saying he was white while simultaneously acknowledging that white did not capture the full complexity of his racial background. His identity, the race assigned to him, and whether he was considered a valuable and worthy gentleman or something less than was not dependent on his own personal qualities, but on how other people perceived his race. These ambiguous edge cases are helpful in exploring the role and power of race in the United States. The racial state of America today is improved over the days of Charles Sauvinet and George Herriman, but discrimination and racial bias still exists, and still fails to address the realities of people’s lived experiences and racial backgrounds, even if race is nothing more than a social construct.

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