13 July 2016

"Passing"

No one ever guesses that I am black. If I saw me on the street, I probably wouldn't either. As soon as they hear my college-educated Northern speech patterns, learn my last name, and see my (very pale) children, I am automatically accepted as some kind of tan European person. This is what black folks call "passing" for white.

I must confess that, at times, there is some relief in that. I don't experience the latent or overt racism that my brothers and sisters with darker skin tones do. I'm automatically accepted at job interviews and people smile at me when they walk down the street. It makes life easier to be automatically accepted.

There's guilt, too. For example, about once every few weeks, a truck with a giant confederate flag purposely rolls up and down the main thoroughfares of our town. My survival instinct kicks in and I stop wherever I am, cowering and thanking God that I'm not dark enough to warrant a stop - and I'm disgusted by my fear and ashamed of how scared I am to be counted among my own people.

I have anger sometimes with other black people who call me too white or look at me at in a room of black people wondering why I am there. I get angry when they try to dismiss my experience of life as a biracial person by telling me that it is not a valid part of the black experience. The irony of being discriminated against does not miss me - especially since almost every black American (outside of actual recent African immigrants) has at least one white ancestor.

On the other hand, I know that I will never fit into the racial construct of "whiteness". As most people of color know, according to the standard of "whiteness," if you're not purely European, you are not white. I certainly don't fit that mold.

 I know that if the wrong person knew my heritage they would automatically begin to discriminate against me, my children, and probably even my husband for "diluting the gene pool." I know for a fact that certain people on both sides of my family told my parents not to get married, ostensibly under the guise of protecting my white mother from racism. I know for a fact that if certain members of Eric's family had been alive when we got married, no matter how white I looked, they would have rejected us completely from their family tree. Those are just some examples, but I have dozens more - conversations I've overheard when certain people thought they were alone;  Questions people addressed to me because "I would understand" since I'm "not really black;" the way my family is looked at in a restaurant based on which of my parents are also in attendance; or the fact that I am taken more seriously by my colleagues if I say the same thing about the black experience in a meeting at work as my friend who has darker skin.

Just recently, I had some tell me I shouldn't really tell people I'm black, because I'm really just white (i.e. My appearance is not like most people of African descent). Another time I was expressing my fears about racist backlash if a Trump presidency occurs and I was told, "it's okay. You're white enough. You can just hide."

 ...  As if it would be totally normal to watch my father, aunts, uncles, and cousins be rounded up while I sat in my house watching Netflix.

My Facebook feed fills up with comments from "conservative" white friends and family who think that they have all the answers to racism in America or who consistently use demeaning language to talk about people of color. I would classify myself as a moderate or conservative most days, but the things I see make me question whether the people who identify the same way even care about anyone who is not white, Protestant, and/or affluent. If I were to take a screenshot of my Newsfeed, and substitute the word "white" or "Christian" for what is being said, most people would probably start crying from all the hate. And because people don't think of me as black, they don't think about the fact that I see their posts and I always remember who wrote it. 

Each post becomes another stab in the gut proving that, at the end of the day, when these people feel their comfort threatened, they will turn on me. I cannot believe that they have my best interests at heart. Often I'm told I'm paranoid in response to my concerns, which only drives home the point that these are people I cannot trust. I still love them, but wariness becomes a constant in my relationships with them. Blending in - passing - becomes the norm because I believe calling attention to my difference will result in being treated as a threat.

The thing that makes me most upset in all of this is that passing should not be a survival tactic or a tool to get ahead in the world - it shouldn't exist at all. Being a person of African descent is NOT something to be ashamed of or protected from. I'm exceedingly proud of my heritage, whether we're talking about my ancestors who survived the absolutely inconceivable horror of slavery; the Irish ones who left family behind forever at the turn of the 20th century to make a new life in the US; the German ones who came in the 1800s; or the Native Americans who lost their homeland and still survived. All of them are Americans who love this country - who fought in its wars since the Revolution (though, to be fair, one group on the white side of the family were loyalists in the War for Independence and had to flee to Canada... 😬).

My lineage is, without exaggeration, the story of America, with all its beauty and some of its festering boils. I could not exist as I am in this 21st century woman's body if I were not in America. I love it for what it is. But I am tired of being told that one part of my story is less desirable than another. If my existence challenges your perceptions about race in America, then I am glad. I don't care it makes you feel uncomfortable because you feel like you have to ask me the question "What are you?" when you see me since your racial categories are too strict to allow for my uniqueness. I have always loved myself and I always will. 

I am proud of my hair, my nose, my skin, my body shape, my pattern of speech, my racial ambiguity. I don't care where you think I belong. I am not "passing" for anything but for being myself.

1 comment:

  1. Beloved Shannon, I have tears running down my face because of the beauty and the "burden" of being who we are. I love you so much in this moment that my heart feels that it will burst. Pride, respect and appreciation for the marvelous woman you are. Thank you my heart, for the gift of your heart today.

    ReplyDelete