September 28th, 2008

corset & bougainvillea

Flying under the radar.

I'm pretty sure kyooverse wrote about this some time ago, but the concept of passing versus being passed has recently come up in the context of privilege. Not white privilege, but light skin privilege.

I know plenty of people who aren't white but pass/get passed as though they are. They may be Asian, Native, black, biracial, multiracial, Latin@, or Middle Eastern, but to enough people (and specifically enough white people), they "look" white and are treated as such--especially when there aren't many others around who have the same racial identity and look "white" like them. That is, in fact, one of the crosses they bear as people of color--to have the reality of their identity, which is something personal, cultural, religious, linguistic, familial--erased by members of a dominant group who ignorantly do not see beyond physical stereotypes.

That's not white privilege.

At the same time, being clearly identified as a black woman, even though that is not all that I am, or, rather, that doesn't mean what most white people think it means, is one of the crosses I bear. Aside from all the idiocy that ensues when my skin, hair, and features hit the nigger trigger in a white person on the street, at school, or at work, I've spent too much time explaining my family make-up for those who can't wrap their heads around the half-Native great-grandmother on my mother's side, or the white Jewish great-grandfather on my father's, or the half-black/half-Welsh half-brother who lives in New Jersey.

Because there are rules, dammit, for how people of color are supposed to look so that we can be easily identified by those who follow the rules about how we're supposed to be treated.

And that's the problem: these people aren't necessarily passing (actively) but being passed (passively). And unless they take it upon themselves to stand on the rooftop proclaiming their ancestry, loudly, to make white folks feel better, those white folks are gonna get mad when they discover that there's an Indian/Arab/Japanese/octoroon/Hispanic/high-yella negro in their midst and doubly angry to learn that that's no privilege, no privilege at all.


- Race and ethnicity are not only a matter of one's features and skin color or hair texture. Names, accents, religious affiliations, and more all act as the gotchas for people who might otherwise "pass" solely on appearance.
- Passing, actively, still drives home the point of just how powerful whiteness is. That one would give up one's familial and cultural identity, to whatever extent and for whatever period of time, for protection from racism says something about how powerfully privileging whiteness is and how awful and debilitating racism is.
- Geography and demographics play a huge role in how much one might pass/get passed. If there are no native folks in your area, you might not know them when you see them. If, on the other hand, there is a large community, even people who morons on the internet might peg as white may easily be identified by people in their area--and subjected to the racism that accompanies that identification.
- The need to constantly identify oneself as "not white" (particularly to white people) is degrading and exhausting and reminds me of when straight people demand that queer folks come out of the closet. I always want to ask, "Why? So you know where to burn the cross?"
- How light-skinned privilege plays out in communities of color is another conversation entirely, and this is not the place for it, in case you were wondering.