Josna Rege

118. Racist Bracist

In 1990s, Politics, Stories, United States on August 1, 2011 at 12:32 am


At 13, like so many middle-class American children of his age,  Nikhil was fitted for braces, which he wore for about a year and a half during middle school. By the late 1990s there was no longer any stigma about wearing braces—in fact, they were practically a rite of passage. Rather than endeavoring to deflect attention from them, Nikhil and his friends  flaunted them, changing the color of the bands to suit the occasion; for instance, sporting orange and black bands at Hallowe’en.  But neither he nor I enjoyed our trips to the orthodontist, particularly at the beginning, when the braces were being installed.

During the long ordeal, Nikhil was immobilized with his head back and his mouth open, and I was seated anxiously by his side. The orthodontist, a tall, thin, grizzled man of forbidding aspect, had a tendency to hold forth from the beginning, but really let it rip once he had a captive audience. Some statements he had made in the first two visits had made me uneasy; nothing I could quite put my finger on, nothing I can remember now, but I began to get the feeling that this man held troubling views on issues related to race and immigration. He knew that I was not American and that both Nikhil and I were of mixed parentage, but he also knew which side his bread was buttered and was making an effort to be ingratiating. Unfortunately his best efforts turned him, in my eyes, from a mildly unpleasant figure into a monster.

Having lulled me into a false sense of security with small talk, he suddenly dropped his bombshell.  Apropos of nothing, he suddenly said, “Don’t let anyone try to tell you that he is not a Caucasian.” Before I could even begin to parse that sentence, let alone count the ways in which I found it despicable, he went on, looking into poor Nikhil’s mouth with a small flashlight. “See that feature on his palate? (I couldn’t, but it was a rhetorical question.) That can be found only in Caucasians. It’s here, and it’s incontrovertible.” The discovery seemed to delight him unaccountably.

In order for you to understand why at that moment I wanted desperately to pry those nasty hands out of my innocent son’s mouth and storm out of that sterile white room nevermore to darken its door, I may have to give you a little background.

I teach about the social construction of race and the history of racial ideologies such as biological racism. Saying that race is “socially constructed” means that our ideas about race are just ideas; that the ways we categorize people according to their differences vary according to time and place and are not essential or universal. Yes, people do look different, but the system of racial classification created in the 19th century to structure these differences was based not upon scientific principles but upon the desire to establish a hierarchy of difference so as to justify the colonial domination of the “lesser races” by their self-proclaimed racial superiors. “Caucasian” is an arbitrary category that holds no inherent meaning but that which its creators invested in it, and the continued use of it today, when those 19th-century categories such as Caucasian, Negroid, Oriental, and Malayan have been debunked, simply perpetuates that discredited worldview. In the United States today, “Caucasian” serves as a code word for “white,” and for a mainstream American. (See Carol Mukhopadhyay’s article, Getting Rid of the Word Caucasian; and my friend Jezra’s blog post, Don’t Call Me Caucasian.)

The orthodontist seemed to think that it was magnanimous of him to be giving his doctorly stamp of approval to my son’s Caucasianness, as if anyone should be honored to be admitted into that hallowed category. Much as I wanted to give him a piece of my mind, I held my peace for my son’s sake—and because, with the permanent fixative drying on his teeth, there was nothing else I could do anyway.

While his mother, who is, as one of her teachers in graduate school wrote, “inclined to hold strong opinions,” and whose opinions on the politics of race and racism are particularly passionately held, Nikhil just as passionately resists an identity politics that can be as divisive as the racial categories it opposes. When a census worker came to our door with the 2000 Census, the 14-year-old Nikhil stepped forward and intercepted the form: “I’ll do this, Mom.” Under “Race,” where I would have agonized at length and out loud over the inadequacy of the various choices, he filled in decisively, “Human.” Discussion over, as far as he was concerned. It was this idealistic son whom that horrid old tooth-straightener, that wolf in a white coat, was now seeking to lure into his Caucasian fold. Even today I shudder to think of it.

Q. What do you call an orthodontist who holds retrograde views on biological essentialism?

A. A racist bracist.

Tell Me Another


  1. I find the Dentist’s mindset deeply disturbing, even Nazi like.

    While I grasp the need of “Strategic Essentialism” and have seen the immense benefits in its collective action, whether we like it or not, no matter our race creed or class, it will always contains within itself dangerous and dormant seeds of tribalisms and nationalisms. There’s a thin line and I’ve seen it lose its balance and tip over the edge. Its not a pretty sight and can even end up breathing that dentists air. I’m from Africa, where we have to very carefully balance ourselves on this line.

    • Don, I agree with you on both counts. His words continues to haunt me, and I’m afraid that his attitude is more widespread than one might think. And you are quite right that strategic essentialism can be a very dangerous game. I respect and admire the new South Africa’s ideal, though as yet far from unrealized, of becoming a non-racial, rather than a multiracial, society. Thank you for commenting. To get there we will need to recognize and challenge the orthodontist’s mindset wherever we find it, even–especially–within ourselves.(And if that sounds preachy, I didn’t mean it that way!) Thank you for commenting and best wishes. J

  2. No worries — if you weren’t “opinionated,” your blogs would be boring!

  3. Of course you are right — I didn’t mean to sound as though I oppose existing legal remedies for very real discrimination. I was merely playing Devil’s advocate and following the logic through. I also agree that basing such remedies on economic status rather than race is the way to go. And (not having a PhD, perhaps!) I was not aware of the concept of “strategic essentialism.” But I totally agree that we need to act collectively when necessary, selecting from among our many identities, in order to effect political and social change. Thanks for a great discussion! xxoo

    • And I didn’t mean to lecture, sorry! I am way too opinionated. “Strategic essentialism” is by no means universally accepted. Lots of perfectly reasonable people don’t believe that the means justify the ends—that if you don’t believe in racial categories, then you shouldn’t shore them up, period. I love your last sentence; so clear. Thanks right back to you! xo J

  4. Me again — I forgot to say 3 things:

    1) You have a typo in para 3, line 2: “Don’t let anyone tell you….” (not “tell anyone tell you”)

    2) The photo at the top of this blog is going to give me nightmares.

    3) The categorization of people by race is further complicated and entrenched by corrective programs (affirmative action, for instance) that are used by groups that have been historically denied and excluded. So these groups will most likely fight to keep the race distinction, even though it is, as you say, a perverted and objectively meaningless social construct.

    Keep writing, Jo — I love your pieces.

    • 1. Thanks for catching the typo, eagle-eyed McNance! Andrew usually proofreads for me, but he’s been in Boston this past week.
      2. Yes, I thought it was delightfully horrific! My first departure from realist illustrations.
      3. Y-e-e-s, well; this is another fraught subject, and not so clear-cut. I flip-flop on this one. I agree that it seems–and is–inconsistent to shore up “racial” categories that have no scientific basis. But although race has no scientific basis, it does have a powerful social reality (so I don’t think it’s objectively meaningless). I believe in legal measures so as to ban and redress racial discrimination in housing, education, and employment, and those groups who are privileged, who have been favored by the status quo, are bound to be unhappy. As Bob Marley says, every little action has a reaction. Some people in the South are still reacting to the abolition of slavery, but I still think it was the right thing to do.
      But I’m not responding to your point. As long as there are non-discrimination laws and some government-funded benefits based on such categories (and demographic data drawn from the census), people are obviously going to identify themselves in part based on those categories. I don’t think such laws should be reversed and all such benefits discontinued. Should they instead, perhaps, be based on economic status rather than on race? In many cases, I think, yes.
      A post-colonial studies theorist came up with the term “strategic essentialism” to deal with the very conundrum you have presented. While we don’t believe in the social constructed categories of race and gender, she said, we sometimes need to band together “as blacks” or “as women” for political purposes, While we do not believe in “essentialist” definitions that would define us based on a presumed racial essence, we may need to marshall the category strategically at times, remaining fully aware of its theoretical unreality. Otherwise we can never act in our collective interests, but only as individuals.
      That was way long–sorry! I love receiving your comments! x

  5. If your story was from the 50s, I wouldn’t be so surprised. But12-13 years ago? Appalling. I sometimes despair that racism is wired into our genes somehow, from prehistoric days when you needed to know quickly who was likely to be friend or foe. Here’s hoping our wonderful, open-minded children can push back when confronted by such ignorance. Let’s hear it for the “human” race!

    On another note, does anyone else wonder why “white” people are obsessed with getting a “tan,” given our racist history? And why in many (if not all) cultures where everyone is a shade of “brown,” being a lighter brown is so desirable? Perhaps the latter is a legacy of white colonialism (i.e., being as close to pale like your masters was a plus). Furthermore, in Victorian times, it was fashionable to be pale — a tan was a signal that you were a low-class field hand.

    We humans are a a very confused (and confusing) bunch…

    • Yes, we have lots of outmoded reactions that no longer serve us, since instincts and emotions don’t evolve as quickly as our physical surroundings do (By the way, as the orthodontist explained it, even our children’s need for braces is based on the outmoded need for big teeth to chew raw meat with. Our jaws are getting smaller but our teeth aren’t–or not at the same rate, anyway!) Today our very survival may depend on de-activating that xenophobic gene, if there is such a thing.
      On the question of color prejudice (and the paradoxical desire for a tan), European colonialism surely plays a big role, but in India, at least, it seems to pre-date colonialism. I agree with you that class is a factor, too. But then “we confused humans” seem to desire (as well as distrust) what we are not. . .

  6. Doesn’t that just make my blood boil!!
    Luckily you never went back. What a jerk! There seem to be some like him in Congress
    these days. Would you agree?

    • In fact, to my shame, I not only went back, but never argued the point with him. I suppose Nikhil needed to go on seeing him for maintenance of the braces once they had been put in, and I decided that antagonizing him wouldn’t help, either for Nikhil or for me. But as you can see, I’m still smarting from it. And yes, I agree with you that, sadly, race-based hatred still feeds the hostilities in the embattled Congress.

  7. Wow. A little bit of “knowledge” is a fantastically dangerous thing.

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