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Shape Shifters: A Theory of Racial Change

Image: Li Xianglan (owner: Mantetsu movie company)
Wednesday, December 1, 2021, 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

We are accustomed to thinking of identities—racial, ethnic, national, gendered, religious—as if they were permanent, essential, unalterable features of individuals and groups. A is Black, B is Jewish, C is Chinese, and so are all of the members of their respective families and kin groups.  The people whose lives are the subject of this study are more complicated than that.  They are not tragic mulattoes, caught between two monoracial identities that reject them.  They are not really X but passing for Y.  They are shape shifters, people who, for various reasons, are changing races or other primary identities.  At different times in their lives, or over generations in their families, as they have moved from one social context to another, as they have made choices about their life trajectories, or as new social contexts have been imposed on them, their identities have changed from one group to another.  This is not necessarily racial, ethnic, or religious imposture.  It is often simply the way that people's lives have unfolded in fluid social circumstances. This lecture sets out an agenda for understanding the phenomenon of racial change.  My quest is to figure out what kinds of circumstances produce racial change, and what kind of work that change is doing.  I see three major intertwined processes at work.  Sometimes it is mainly a matter of changes in context and the menu of identities that are available.  Sometimes racial change is an individual's or a family's choice among existing identities in a stable racial system.  Sometimes changes in identity are imposed by governments, by institutions, or by society at largeThe complexity and contingency of these processes may tend to diminish our commitment to the very idea of social inquiry as science.

The seminar will be held on-line. To get the link please RSVP to Dr. Andrey Demidov at