Current Issue

Volume 79, Number 4

October 2004

Performing Racial and Ethnic Identity: Discrimination by Proxy and the Future of Title VII

Camille Gear Rich

Courts interpreting Title VII have long treated race and ethnicity as biological, morphological concepts and discrimination as a reaction to a set of biologically fixed traits. Meanwhile, they have rejected claims concerning discrimination based on voluntarily chosen physical traits or “performed” behaviors and that communicate racial or ethnic identity. Yet race and ethnicity are effectively produced—that is, they do not exist until one is socially acknowledged as possessing socially coded racial or ethnic markers, whether they are fixed physical features, voluntary appearance choices, or behaviors. This Article argues that it is error to distinguish between Title VII cases concerning morphological as opposed to voluntary racially or ethnically marked features, as the discriminator’s motives and the effects of her behavior are the same. Moreover, the morphological model of race/ethnicity is fundamentally contradicted by contemporary biological and sociological studies on race, discrimination studies, and identity performance theories, which indicate that individuals actively work to “perform” racial and ethnic status regardless of, and sometimes in spite of their morphological traits. Drawing on these studies, this Article shows that courts must hear discrimination claims based on voluntary features if they are to provide a more credible analysis of modern forms of discrimination.