While watching Trevor Noah’s standup special, “African American,” in an effort to learn about the new Daily Show host, I was struck by the similarities between one of his stories and one of Akin’s lines and started to think about the ways that I felt Akin was limited by both Human and Oankali expectation of him as a Human-Oankali construct.
In “African American” Noah describes his experiences as a biracial person in South Africa and in the US—amidst other jokes and some stereotype-heavy imitations. In one story he describes trying to start his life in the United States and in particular setting up a bank account. As he is filling out the necessary forms he is confronted with a question which asks him to check off his race, the options being White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and other. Much of Noah’s special is centered on his desire to come to America and “be Black.” He explains that growing up with a Black mother and White father under apartheid he was often not allowed to publicly associate with either of his parents. After describing the denial of a racial identity that he felt, he was told “You should come to America, Trevor, you’ll be Black there” and made this his goal.
Now in America, Noah is confronted with a bank form which asks him to identify his race, and is told that he can pick any option—that it is only for statistical purposes (though he explains that he later found out that some banks charge Blacks and Hispanics higher rates). “Choose whatever?” Noah describes himself thinking, “I’ve never been given that option before.” He asks the woman helping him, “so I can go with black?” (which he reminds the audience ‘is the reason he came’) and is met with the reaction, “yeah a lot of them choose black, yeah.” He then changes his mind: “you know what I’m white. I’m going with white.” Finally, he describes the awkward reaction of the woman helping him—in his estimation she didn’t agree with him, but didn’t want to be offend him either and in general did not know how to respond to what she clearly did not expect. Noah tells the audience: “and I’ve learned, I’ve learned, that’s the funny thing about being mixed race you know is that people are always happy to say you’re mixed, and you can say you’re black they’ll be fine with that […] but you can never go white, never, ever, ever […] even if you’re half and half you can never go white.”
While I am in some ways leery of mapping racial identity onto the world of the Oankali—I don’t want to assume that Butler’s work is about race—I do think the same kind of prescription of identity is present for constructs like Akin (though this is still not to say that I think Lilith’s Brood is about race or that the constructs should be looked at as biracial). During his first three years with the Resistors Akin—as the first male construct—grapples a lot with the way that his identity is tied to how he looks, and how his genetics give him a prescribed sort of ‘fate.’ In a discussion with Tate about the end of the human race Akin says, “I’m Human like you—and Oankali like Ahajas and Dichaan,” to which Tate responds merely: “You don’t understand.” Akin keeps pressing: “I need to. It’s part of me, too. It concerns me, too” but Tate is adamant: “Not really” (Adulthood Rites 403). Akin is being denied an identity that is both Human and Oankali. In this instance I realized, with chagrin, that I tend to think of constructs as Oankali—just as Tate seems to—even though they are just as Human as they are Oankali. In a way this reaction seems to me to be very similar to the one that Trevor Noah received when he checked the box to label himself as white. In both instances how a person looks dictates the way that they are allowed to identify and creates socially prescribed boundaries which do not lend themselves to easy crossing.
The humans, for their part, are consistently focused on appearance. The men who initially kidnap Akin comment that the only thing that matters is how human Akin looks—not how human he might actually be or appear to be after his metamorphosis. However, it could be argued that the Oankali do seem to allow Akin a somewhat fluid identity, telling him, “You’re more Oankali than you think, Akin—and far more Oankali than you look. Yet you’re very Human […] You’re as much one of them as you can be and as much of us as your ooan dared make you” (Adulthood Rites, 475). It still seems to me though that the Oankali are just as concerned with how his genetic makeup and appearance may allow Akin a way of connecting with the Humans. Thus, both the Oankali and Humans make assumptions about Akin’s ability to understand the experiences of specific individuals and groups based on his presented genetic identity.
Omar Ricks’s article in The Feminist Wire, “Playing Games with Race,” draws out some of the different aspects of multiracial discourse—and pushes back against other articles which claim that “multiracialism challenges racism by injecting into the racist structure a ‘more fluid’ sense of identity.” He posits instead that multiracialism still uses “the structure of race” and thus cannot escape the problems that race creates. Rick also discusses the fact that multiracial people are expected to identify in certain ways—which may vary depending on the observer but are still prescribed. For example he mentions Obama who is at times pressured to identify as biracial while also being presented as Black rather than biracial by other groups. In such debates Obama’s race is in some ways seen as important because of some idea that his racial identity might dictate his ability to understand people grouped in the same way as him.
The problem becomes the difficulty of existing outside of the socially expected identity associated with race and appearance. I think we can see this problem in Trevor Noah’s standup: he continually describes situations where his race is assumed and he is defined by his appearance, while also describing the ways that he feels excluded from group identities that he has a genetic claim to. We can also see it in Akin’s reception among the Humans and Oankali: each group generates assumptions about what he can understand based on his appearance and genetic structure and he is not allowed to violate the bounds of the identity they ascribe to him. In the interview “‘We Keep Playing the Same Record’: A Conversation with Octavia Butler,” with Stephen W. Potts, Octavia Butler says, “The constructs are an experiment. They do not know what they are going to be, or when it is going to happen,” which perhaps opens up space for a people who are not immediately placed into a certain predetermined identity; however, in my estimation, Akin is not allowed such freedom (Potts, 68).