Clothes Epidermalized, as Republican Representative Targets “Illegals”

In his 1974-1975 lectures at the College de France collected in the volume Abnormal, Michel Foucault discusses the creation of new technologies in modern “criminal justice” that categorize individuals who “resemble their crime before they commit it.” He’s specifically inquiring into the emergence of criminal psychiatry, but as we know so well, sartorial-racial profiling has become another such “rational” method of categorization (based on interpretations of signs as “symptoms”) and criminalization. (See sagging pants on young black men, turbans on “Muslim-looking” men —even if they are Sikhs— and some forms of hijab on Muslim women in Canada and France, for the most relevant contemporary examples.) Now, in the midst of a hostile anti-immigrant movement, Representative Bill Bilbray (R-Calif) claims that “trained professionals,” presumably experts in scientific methods of observation and evaluation, will be able to identify “illegals” by their clothes. As the Huffington Post reports:

Discussing Arizona’s pending profiling bill on “Hardball,” Chris Matthews challenged Bilbray to cite a “non-ethnic aspect” by which law enforcement agents could identify illegal immigrants. “They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there is different type of attire, there is different type of — right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes,” Bilbray replied.

Arizona’s draconian new immigration law has now legislated what has been an informal policy of racial surveillance, what we might call “being public while brown.” (Or as the New York Times‘ legal reporter Linda Greenhouse puts it, “breathing while undocumented.”)  SB1070 makes it a state misdemeanor to lack immigration documents (and more, to fail to carry such paperwork at all times) and compels police officers to determine immigration status if they form a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is in the U.S. illegally. Those who cannot immediately prove their legal residency may be arrested. (For more analysis of the law and its implications, see the Immigration Law Professors Blog, which dubs the law “The Latino Racial Profiling Act of 2010,” the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the National Immigration Law Center.) A New York Times editorial observes, “Opponents say it verges on a police state, which sounds overblown until you read it.”

Rep. Bilbray’s disingenuous efforts to deflect from the state’s racisms by locating the “trained” apprehension of “illegality” on clothes, on behaviors –rather than skin– do not constitute any sort of departure from race discourses that target the body as a continuous surface of legible information about pathology, capacity, and so forth. The cognition of race has never been a simple matter of skin or bones. Especially for racialized others, their clothes are often epidermalized — that is, they are understood as contiguous with the body that wears them, a sort of second skin, as we see with hijab or turbans. The normalization and regulation of dress codes as pathways for racialized others to achieve liberal selfhood and signal cultural competency (another example being the sartorial disdain encapsulated in the declaration “You look like a FOB (fresh off the boat)!”)  are absolutely integral to racial taxonomies and their histories.

Watch the video, if you have the stomach for it. Then wash out the bad taste in your mouth with the Colbert Report segment on the new immigration law.




9 responses to “Clothes Epidermalized, as Republican Representative Targets “Illegals”

  1. Pingback: 308. Although it’s lovely to exist in a state of deshabille, thank you Meggy & Dorothy Height for reminding us to fight for the right to dress up and not be put down « Fashion for Writers

  2. Pingback: 308. Although it’s lovely to exist in a state of deshabille, thank you Meggy & Dorothy Height for reminding us of the continuing fight for the right to dress up and not be put down « Fashion for Writers

  3. minh-ha t. pham

    Thanks for posting this, Mimi! I just wanted to add, too, that along with the MANY other constitutional problems with this bill is its reinforcement of the racial myth of illegal immigration. Studies by INS, the Pew Hispanic Center, and sociologist Douglas Massey all find that between 41-45% of illegal immigrants are “visa overstayers” from more than 2 dozen countries including Canada, England, and Australia. And most of these overstayers are college students. If SB 1070 was really about counteracting illegal immigration, then will white Canadians wearing college logo sweatshirts be profiled? Nope – because as Colbert points out – “Harassing Latinos with racial profiling isn’t an inevitable side effect of Arizona’s anti-immigration law – it’s the entire point.”

  4. Pingback: New Technologies of Style and Selfhood « threadbared

  5. DarkTempe

    FYI, Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh killed in AZ after 9/11, was the uncle of an ASU Student of mine. (I have yet to acquire a copy of the docu yet, nor gone to visit a memorial plaque that’s around here somewhere.) #AZfail

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  7. Pingback: Feather in Your “Native” Cap, Redux (in the time of SB1070) « threadbared

  8. Pingback: Precision Targets and the Militarization of Everyday Life (It’s Relevant, We Promise) « threadbared

  9. Pingback: # ARCHIPELAGO /// Epidermalization of the Public Body: Archipelago with Mimi Thi Nguyen | The Funambulist

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