Maybe Jeb Bush really did just check the wrong box on his 2009 Florida voter registration form when he self-identified as “Hispanic.” There’d be some serious cosmic irony in a Bush brother being penalized for Florida electoral confusion, after all, and the universe does occasionally have a sense of humor. But Bush would certainly have motives for purposefully self-identifying in that way, from the personal (he is married to the Mexican-born Columba Gallo) to the political (his sustained efforts to appeal to Hispanic voters). And if he did choose to define himself as Hispanic, American culture and history include contexts that both support and complicate that choice.
Supporting Bush’s ability to define his identity however he chooses would be the philosophies advanced by David Hollinger in his groundbreaking book Post-ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (1995). Assessing what he saw as the important effects, yet also the limits, of multicultural visions of identity and community, Hollinger made the case for “voluntary affiliations,” self-identifications based on choice and will rather than simply heritage or descent. In many ways the two decades since Hollinger’s book, and especially the six years since President Obama’s inauguration, have seemed to illustrate just how much we are not yet post-ethnic (or post-racial, in Obama-era parlance). Yet one possible response to those continued racial and ethnic conflicts and divisions would be to return to voluntary affiliations as a communal goal, and thus to define both Obama’s famous checking of “African-American” on the 2010 census and Bush’s self-identification as “Hispanic” as examples of precisely such individual choices.
On the other hand, those two actions significantly differ, and not only because of how consistently Obama has been defined from the outside as African-American compared to how rarely, if at all, Bush has been defined as Hispanic. In Obama’s case he was voluntarily affiliating with one part of his heritage and identity, that descended from his father, whereas no part of Bush’s heritage links him to the Hispanic American community. As such, if Bush did choose to self-identify as Hispanic, he was participating in a kind of cross-racial performance, the adoption of a non-white identity by a white American, that has its own long and complex national history.
Self-styled frontier cowboy and writer Joaquin Miller represents the most cynical cross-racial performance: one exploitatively enacted for self-advancement and profit. In his pseudo-autobiographical book Life Amongst the Modocs (1873), Miller told the story of his adoption into the Oregon Native American tribe—an adoption that, it seems, was at best exaggerated and more likely fabricated. Given that the tribe was in this same period resisting removal from his homeland and at war with the U.S. army as a result, Miller’s adoption of a Modoc identity could be read as a bold and progressive choice. But when viewed as part of a career-long practice of exaggerating his frontier exploits for literary fame and profit, it seems more clearly to be one more such performance.
At the other end of the spectrum are cross-racial performances enacted for more personal and familial reasons. Josephine Schuyler, the white wife of African-American, Harlem Renaissance writer George Schuyler, wrote in her 1946 piece “Seventeen Years of Mixed Marriage” about the tendency of couples in such marriages to “explain that the paler member of the union has distant Negro ancestry, and under the American ‘one-drop’ theory, their marriage is accepted.” Fifty years later, African-American author James McBride wrote The Color of Water (1995) about his mother Ruth, a Jewish-American woman who had married an African-American man and gradually, purposefully moved away from her heritage and racial identification and toward her husband’s. In such cases, it would be fair to say that the cross-racial shifts ceased at a certain point to be performances and became a genuinely new identity for the individuals and families in question.
Has Jeb Bush moved in such a direction, through his more than four decades of marriage to Columba? Could we accept that move and new identity as genuine? Would it be impossible not to see the choice as a cynical ploy for voter support? Or was it just another case of hanging chads? Whatever answers to those questions emerge in the coming months, a presidential campaign featuring both Bush and Ted Cruz seems destined to push our longstanding conversations about ethnicity and identification forward into their next phase.
Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.