Almost Black, the forthcoming story and book by “Jojo,” err, Vijay, an “Indian American who got into medical school pretending to be an African American” has the internet abuzz and many in a rage. After shaving his head and trimming his “long Indian eyelashes,” 17 years ago Vijay Chokal-Ingam, the “Indian-American frat boy” with a 3.1 GPA, transmuted into “Jojo,” the African American affirmative action (which he refers to as state sponsored racism) applicant to medical school.
“Why now?,” many have asked, to this Vijay responds that “…he’s revealing his race ruse now because he heard that UCLA is considering strengthening its affirmative-action admissions policies,” arguing that, “…it’s a myth that affirmative action benefits the underprivileged.” Also, and perhaps most pressing, he has begun promotion for a memoir he is working on, Almost Black, which chronicles his “social experiment.” To add humor to the explicitly politically problematic, Vijay pats himself on his own back by affirming the public benefit of him not becoming a doctor.
There is a good bit of “obvious” grist for the mill to pick and pull apart here, but let’s for a moment bracket the “politics” of this code-switching-gone-wrong (or right, depending on perspective) social experiment, and focus rather on the manner in which such “passing” happens so very often at the level of the seemingly “mundane.” You know, the “stuff” that is so ordinary that we often forget, it too, is no doubt an appendage of the “operational acts of identification” that are strategic and socially, culturally, and politically interested. Although Vijay has something much more strategic in mind with capitalizing on the “results” of his social experiment, his story about why he “really” got into medical school is made possible by connecting and constructing exaggerated illusions of disparate data over and against an obvious case of missing data. For one, he never tries to apply as an Asian American-Indian (thus, the comparative data is lost although he later received his MBA from UCLA where he decides to apply as “himself”); two, he assumes that admissions standards are formulaic and self-evident (they are not); and lastly, he fails at his own “social experiment” once he assumes that he must “authentically” live that which he initially designated (i.e., self-identifying as black on his application). Perhaps I am wrong about this, but in my experience, I have never heard of an admissions counselor sneaking into dorms to “inspect” the identity of admitted applicants to ensure that the properties of ones’ self-identifications “match” that of their prior designations. Maybe, after all, Vijay could have kept his “long Indian eyelashes” and spared his “Indian hair” (and identity) from the chopping block. With the “politics” of what Vijay is currently doing with his self-constructed data aside, the public upset to his social-experiment-gone-wrong-but-right reveals more about identification more broadly than the actual story itself.
The detractors lobbying that he “cheated the system” assumes, a priori, that blackness is inherently pathological, at a deficit in its very definition, defined as deficit, and something that through its self-naming affords social privileges that are unwarranted and unsubstantiated. Are there not ways that JoJo’s story might offer a moment to reflect on how we’re understanding and defining something like blackness—with a pathologized “need” (i.e. those “worthy” of a handout) vs. blackness as industriousness in the face of adversity whether real or imagined (i.e. those who refuse to accept the need for a handout). That is, in his act of defining himself as “black,” does he not effectively become black, in his refusal to be refused admission into a site of social privilege? Perhaps these aren’t the only options for blackness, but the identitarian sleight-of-hand, at the very least, offers a moment to calibrate (or recalibrate) what sort of operational acts are taking place in the deployment of blackness (whether by “black” folk or [presumably predominately] white) admissions folk. And does not the “admissions” board or committee represent American normativity, and the prospects of if, when, and how black might ever come to constitute a component of American social normativity? Who decides what is normative? And by what criteria of evaluation are norms determined?
In addition to using his story to critique affirmative action policies, he also chronicles the “unintended consequences” of his social-experiment-gone wrong: what happens when one is perceived or read as black. To this he adds, “Cops harassed me,” “Store clerks accused me of shoplifting,” and “Women were either scared of me or couldn’t keep their hands off me.” When the everyday realities of being signified as black met up with the rubber of a lopsided social system, seems as if Jojo gained more than admission to medical school when the “experiment” got too real.
But rather than selling that story in his memoir, he has instead chosen to use his experience (from over 15 years ago) as a sensationalized universalized empirical appeal to challenge affirmative action policies today in a transhistorical manner (that somehow what happened “then” happens exactly as is “now”). Unfortunately for Jojo, in an age when state sanctioned violence continues to mark black humanity in America, that he survived to tell, sell, and market, his story, when Walter Scott, and Trayvon Martin, and so many others did not should welcome critical reflection as to how stories are told when we turn ourselves into data and for what purposes turning in on oneself serves (my colleague Russell McCutcheon’s latest Edge post is a good example of how to effectively make this move). Jojo has done well to manufacture a crisis of his own making, and the public reaction to his story provides a market for his story to be bought, sold, and traded in a market obsessed with narratives about the promise and peril of identification, as such. In the end, seems as if Vijay wanted the assumed social privileges of claiming marginality within a carefully managed setting of self-utility, from the inside-out without the “extras” that often come with how our identities are often read from the outside-in—those most notably situated somewhat outside of our full ability to control and manipulate the projected gazes and interpellations.