In “But What Are You Really? The Metaphysics of Race,” Charles Mills offers an account of what it looks like to develop and understand embodied racial identities. His account problematizes the concepts of race, racialization, and self-identification with respect to racial identity while highlighting the complex nature of a systematic metaphysics of race as such. Moreover, he explores how historical, sociopolitical, cultural facts and features of our socially-constructed world impact the development and understanding of embodied racial identities. The present inquiry will briefly critique one particular section of Mills’ paper, Racial Transgressives, in an effort to shed light on a “puzzle case” that isn’t explored by Mills, has yet to be examined seriously by Critical Race Theorists or philosophers of race generally, and further problematizes the concepts of race, racialization, and self-identification with respect to racial identity: cases involving forced physical whiteness due to medical conditions that result in a change in skin color, and only skin color, over time.
This real life “puzzle case” is called vitiligo, an auto-immune disorder characterized by the gradual loss of pigment in one’s skin. One could also examine similar puzzle cases involving Black people living with ichthyosis or albinism, but for the sake of scope I’ll focus on vitiligo with the caveat that I plan to examine those phenomena elsewhere. To begin, while people of any race can develop vitiligo, it is obviously most apparent on bodies with darker skin tones. Some people are born with vitiligo while others develop it later in life. There are no known cures and no agreed upon causes. I understand this puzzle case on a deeply personal level because I was diagnosed with vitiligo when I was fifteen years old. Before my diagnosis, I was dark-skinned and “uncontroversially Black,” to borrow Mills’ language. Now, fifteen years later, my skin is approximately 50% brown and 50% white. The pigment comes and goes in some places. There is no guarantee that I will lose all of my pigment one day, nor is there any reason for me to believe that it would be impossible for me to regain my color.
For sake of illustration, in terms of Mills’ table of types of racial transgressives in the U.S. racial system, as seen on page 55 of the text, I would classify myself as Mx. Black and White Cookie. I am Black, I identify as Black, I am self-aware of my Black ancestry, my Black ancestry is known publicly, parts of my body are forcibly white, I have “clearly Black” features, I am “intersubjectively recognized” as Black, and I am “socially categorized as Black, especially by the crucial population,” the Black one. Prior to my vitiligo diagnosis, however, there was no need to clarify any of these facts. I had no white skin on my body so there was never any reason for anyone to question my racial identity.
Now, though, cases of mistaken identity do arise from time to time due to the nature of whiteness as a construct. In my experience, the fact that I have proximity to whiteness, albeit physical and fragmented, at all impacts the way I’m perceived by some people. I have never “passed” as white but I have passed as identities other than Black or Black and something else. The way “the lines of demarcation, the categorical boundaries” with respect to race are drawn are heavily influenced by social norms and ideologies rooted in white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Any body that raises any questions whatsoever complicates notions and judgments of race. That’s why even though I have 4C hair, phenotypically Black features, and was born into “Black culture” and continue to “steep myself” within it, some people will see the patches of white skin on my body and do the mental gymnastics required to identify me as anything other than Black.
To complicate things a bit further, my experiences with racism and colorism have varied depending on my skin color. The way I navigated spaces as a dark-skinned Black girl was much different than the way I navigate spaces as a Black femme and the reasons include, but are not limited to, the way I wear my hair, my gender presentation, the way I dress, and the degree to which I code-switch. Be that as it may, the ontologically deep nature of race, especially with respect to intersubjective phenomena, is deepened further when we take into account involuntary changes to certain aspects of one’s embodied experiences. The kind of changes brought on by vitiligo, for instance.
Mills treats “the superficial morphological characteristics of skin color, hair type, and facial features” as a package deal, referring to the three characteristics collectively as if they necessarily co-exist in triadic harmony. As if changes to certain superficial morphological characteristics can’t happen against our will. Those changes can and do happen. Mills’ designations of “natural” versus “artificial” represents a false dichotomy and his formulation of. “apparent” whiteness/Blackness fails to take into account the myriad causes of physical transformations.
Further, Mills. minimizes the complex nature of the “well-publicized cosmetic transformation of Michael Jackson,” a transformation influenced by the psychological effects of living with vitiligo. In vitiligo support groups around the world there are countless cases of people who struggle with self-image, discrimination, bullying, and many other struggles that sometimes drive one to physically alter themselves in other ways in order to appear less different. More “normal.” For Black people living with vitiligo these struggles are complicated even further, and can lead to existential crises, given the tendency for skin color to be essentialized in racial discourse. Michael Jackson shouldn’t be associated with the Schuyler Machine. His experiences should represent a puzzle case that factors in how involuntary changes to one’s skin color can impact one’s beliefs, behavior, and system navigation-related capacities in an anti-Black world.
Finally, the processes involved in developing and understanding embodied racial identities are impacted by many different forces. Some of those forces impose particular physical changes on bodies that complicate those processes in ways yet to be seriously examined, critiqued, and even included in mainstream discourse about race and identity. Given the ways that puzzle cases like my own, which shall henceforth be called “Mx. Black and White Cookie,” can offer new insights into experiences related to race, racialization, and self-identification with respect to racial identity, not to mention discourse related to diachronic identity and Blackness as such, it is imperative that philosophers of race take otherwise “uncontroversially” Black people living with vitiligo into account.