in response to passing or not

April 19, 2009 § 15 Comments

this is a response to aaminah and nezua comments here

1. i am interested in narratives from folks who could ‘pass’ for white but instead have chose to identify as people of color.

i guess i use the word -choice- because i have known women who had one parent of color and yet identified strongly as white. i am thinking of two women in specific.
the first: was raised by her latina mother. but said that dealing with issues like race were too complicated so she just identified as white. plus she felt that her latina cousins didnt consider her to be -really- latina. and when i asked her why she didnt identify as a poc, instead she identified as a white latina, in the ensuing weeks she seemed to have a mental/emotional break down of sorts. like she could barely breathe the first time she identified herself as a poc in a public space. like she was coming out.
the second: was raised by her white mother and black father. and said that she identified as white because she didnt want to be exoticized because her father was black and she felt like she would be taking away from – real- woc by claiming to be one. she said it like she was doing it from a position of solidarity with woc. and i said: exoticism is a form of racism. so it sounds like to me, you just dont want to deal with racism.
so i guess i am wondering why do some -mixed- folks identify as white and other dont?
and i guess i am wondering this in part because i have a -mixed- baby myself who i think will be just brown enough to not -pass- as white and i wonder how she will identify.
and i am thinking about how most african-americans/slave descendants are part native. i think the average black person in the usa is 25 percent native. and yet we dont identify as mixed. you know? even though a good amount of afr-am cultural practices are native.
and i am thinking about being in mexico and having this conversation with a mexican woman who called aza: mulatto. and i said: no, mestiza. and then the next morning, the mexican woman said to me that ‘mestiza’ was what ‘we are called’, in that mestiza means white and native. and mulatto means white and black. and i broke down the meaning of the word mulatto and why i dont use it to describe anybody esp. my child. and then i pointed out that my kid did have native ancestry. and that lots of mexicans have african ancestry.
and i am thinking about how it seemed in southern mexico folks said there was no racism in mexico because everyone is mestizo, even though i experienced plenty of racism. plenty. in mexico. and there were few mexicans who seemed to think that they had any significant african ancestry.
and i am thinking about the black radical congress i went to in 1998 and how black meant african-ancestry and thus obviously included latinos. no, it didnt include latinos. it was assumed that if you were latino, then you were black. no question.
and i am thinking about how when i was growing up my mother would sit and try to figure out who had what in them. like: see, that girl has some black in her. you can tell by the skin color and the hair. and that girl has some indian in her. and i wonder what race his parents are? he must be mixed.
and i am thinking about my family. how we are all shades from black black to white black can pass. and we are all black. and that is just the way it is.


§ 15 Responses to in response to passing or not

  • Isabel says:

    this is interesting to me… I’m not mixed; I’m full Puerto Rican, born there but moved to the states when I was 3, don’t speak Spanish, “look white” enough so that people are usually surprised to hear I’m Puerto Rican. so me, I identify as white because I am (like, 100% – every single branch of my family tree can be traced back within a couple generations to people who came over from Europe, mostly Spain & Portugal), and I have white privilege and it would seem to me like a denial of my privilege to claim otherwise. like once in sixth grade some boys randomly decided to call me a “Puerto Rican coconut” and that’s the extent of the racism I’ve personally faced, you know? so when people talk about the Latina experience, in terms of discrimination, stereotypes, expectations, etc. I can’t relate on a personal level. in terms of how I’m treated by society, I’m white (though, interestingly, while I haven’t personally experienced exoticization, I don’t expect NOT to based on the fact that my mom definitely has and I look pretty much exactly like her; we definitely read as “not Anglo-Saxon” but the two of us have read as Brazilian, Russian, even Israeli by an Israeli woman – in other words we don’t specifically read Latina) with all the privilege that entails. I mean I’m white enough that sometimes other white people will say weird things about Latino/as to me, not like a “oh they’re taking out jobs” thing but just random generalizations that make me realize why POC are so hesitant to trust white people – because I know they wouldn’t say these things to me if they knew I was Puerto Rican.

    and I do also identify as Puerto Rican. that’s how I think of myself, and how I identify myself if asked. but to me, it doesn’t seem like a denial of that to also say I am white, just an acknowledgment of how I come across, I guess. but then, I am not mixed, just both (kind of like – Puerto Rico is part of the US, and also Latin American – which is maybe part of why I identify more as Puerto Rican than as straight-up Latina).

    and this is sort of long and doesn’t entirely have a point. I guess I am still sorting this out. but thanks (as always) for giving me something to think about.

    • mama says:

      thank you so much for sharing this.
      i admit from the start of this response…i dont really have a point either…but here goes…
      i have not experienced alot of racism of being called names or racial slurs in the states. that sort of ‘blatant racism’ normally for me happens outside of the states in the middle east and mexico. the experience of racism inside of the states comes from my constant insistence to not let whiteness be normative in conversations or other social areas including work, home, family life etc.
      and maybe this is what i mean by choice. if i only defined racism as that which i passively experience, or being called names, then i would say oh there is very little racism nowadays. at least that i have experienced.
      but if i define racism as the constant insistence that whiteness be centered, and racialized peoples be marginalized. then i experience racism constantly. and if i refuse to participate in this erasure of people of color, the response from white folks – well that is where the real attitudes of white folks come to the forefront.
      in other words if i dont talk about race. and remain relatively quiet when folks say fucked up shit about people of color… then the personal racism i experience would be pretty minimal.
      and i find it interesting that you seem to define whether or not you are a poc as to whether or not you have experienced alot of personal racism. which is not the criteria that i use to define myself as black, african american. or a poc.
      and you also seem to define yourself as a poc by how whites define you.
      and i guess there is a part of me that resents allowing whites to decide who is and who is not a poc. you know?
      i guess what i am trying to say is that for me being a poc isnt primarily about how much you experience discrimination, stereotypes, expectations…it is about a positive connections with my tradition, my family, my culture, my heritage, my love, my children, my music, my people. and yes this culture and love has been forged in the fire of genocide, rape, discrimination, and hate.
      but i dont have clear cut answers to the questions of identity. race. ethnicity. culture. nationality etc. i am interested in how we make these choices and why? what informs our choices of identity in terms of race and the liminal experience.
      i guess i am also wondering why is it that when we say: latino, we automatically are pulling up the identity of mestiza as normative. but when we say african american…we are not assuming that mixed (african and native) as normative…why is this?

  • Mamita Mala says:

    The concept of choice here is interesting. I meant to respond on the original post pero well you know, mami’hood.

    That said I could pass, I guess, and for many years when I was a child, I’m talking 9 years old, I tried to pass, telling peeps that I was Spanish (European) pointing out my light skin and eyes and dismissing my name as from Madrid or some shit like that. It helped that my fist name is fucking Maegan. Alot of it came from my mom emphasizing that we were “white” Puerto Ricans, whatever the fuck that means. In Puerto Rico colorism is huge and when my parents came here and grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood they used their light skin to deflect the hate the often received because of their accents and I picked up on that.

    And then there were moments at the same age when I was reminded how much I couldn’t pass, like when walking along the boundaries of changing neighborhoods here in Queens, the Italian kids knew I wasn’t one of them (as I talk about in my poem Slip). Now back in the hood I don’t try to pass and in an odd twist of fate many of my vecinos assume I’m gringa and tend to ask first if I speak Spanish before speaking to me.

    My kids can’t pass. They are darker than me. In fact I remember family members saying sorry to me, as if it was something to be mourned. Maybe she’ll get lighter as she gets older, they told me about my older daughter who his Rican and Chilean Indigenous. Pero also I don’t think they will grow up with the same ideas about the benefits of passing or of passing as a survival mechanism the way I picked up from my parents.

  • whatsername says:

    I don’t identify as WOC because I don’t think my experience growing up has been that of a WOC. I feel like I would be appropriating to take on that self-identification.

    I grew up with my Mexican grandmother as my favorite grandmother, but unless I publicly claimed her as my own (which I did, loudly), no one would know. Anytime I was in a room without her, I passed, and while I heard the racist anti-immigrant comments around me in a way I’m quite sure most white people don’t…I’m still far too certain of my white privilege to claim anything else.

    It would be extremely difficult for me to claim even “white Latina” even though on every census form and standardized test even when it said “pick only ONE” I would pick “white (non-Hispanic)” and “Hispanic”. :\

    I almost didn’t even comment here because I don’t think you’re really talking about people like me…

    • mama says:

      actually, whatsername you are exactly who i am talking about. (in general u know…not passive aggressively calling you out or anything ;))
      i respect your sense that you would be crossing a line, appropriating to take on the self identification of woc. but to be honest, i was talking to habibi a few weeks ago and he saw that you had left a comment and asked who you were. and i was like: oh thats whatsername…she is a white ally….one of those white folks i wish was a woc. and then it turns out that you have a mexican grandmother. and i have had this experience alot where i meet someone who is not a woc and i end up thinking: damn. wish you were. and then it turns out that my comfort with them (either online or off) is probably in part due to the fact that they have poc heritage.
      i wonder what that is about?
      and i also think about my daughter. and how when she was first born, she was very very light. and i would make jokes about how i was putting her in the sun 2 hrs a day so that she would ‘brown up’. but i also understood that when i decided to have children with my partner that my daughter might pass for white. and because she passed for white. she might identify as such. and i dont know, that seemed so sad.
      i think it is because the word: black. for me connotes more than just a racial designation. it is fists raised in the air. it is slave descendent gospel music. it is huge hats in church on sunday, and stories of survival, and love, and resistance, and new orleans (my fathers family birth place), it 90s hip hop and jazz music and just so much…that id hate for her to feel that she couldnt claim because of the slip of genes and color and…i dont know…
      i hate it hate it hate it when white folks appropriate poc work love creation history to decorate their identities and lives. but i also wonder about the difference between light skinned privilege, passing privilege, and white privilege.
      i dont know.

      • whatsername says:

        and then it turns out that my comfort with them (either online or off) is probably in part due to the fact that they have poc heritage.
        i wonder what that is about?

        For me it was an awareness of the world that I think other white folks don’t necessarily have. Anti-immigrant sentiment (which translates into generalized Mexican/Latino hate) is common here in California, and I heard it often enough. And I thought about my grandma… Without that it might have been easy to not notice what they said, because, especially in our formative years as kids, we don’t generally take notice of that which doesn’t effect us personally.

        Even for all the privileges I’ve had to work against and around since, in my foundation I knew there was something fucked up with the world and in other white people, even if I couldn’t articulate it.

        Maybe it’s that awareness, however small it is, that you sense in folks like me.

        What you said about your daughter…with you as her mother I can’t believe she won’t feel comfortable with that part of her heritage. Perhaps if I had grown up in San Antonio around my grandmother’s family, I would feel comfortable as a Latina. But I grew up in a north Bay Area suburb, where the Latinos mostly spoke Spanish and stuck together and while I knew we shared something in our genes I didn’t speak their language so how could I really share?

        Nope, I grew up with whiteness all around and accepted by it, if not by most other kyriarchal values.

        But then, the whiteness that is my own…it is raised fists too. It’s hippies and punk and 60’s music and anti-war marches and loving non-conformity and standing against “your own” with the people they want to hate. As much fucked-up-ness as there is in the history of whiteness, and there is a lot of it, there is some of it I’m proud of you know. In my family we talk about this stuff, I can tell my grandparents I’m taking a Whiteness Studies class and looking critically at whiteness as a structure and they think that’s so cool. We discuss this stuff, and feminism and queer studies and all the radical shit that I love. And that is the whiteness I know too… We know the world we move in is fucked up too, even if we stumble on our privileges in it sometimes.

        And I do think that awareness makes some difference.

        I still think, because of the culture I grew up in, that ultimately I am white and I need to own that. But even if I can’t feel comfortable calling myself a Latina, I’m never going to let my identity be uncomplicated. It is what it is and that is important to me.

        Geez, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about myself so much in a WOC space. I feel a bit self conscious now, *l*. But I wanted to respond to you, what you said really touched me. 🙂

      • mama says:

        ”we don’t generally take notice of that which doesn’t effect us personally.”

        this is so true. and it also makes sense in terms of how white identity is formed. like i have white friends who grew up in the bay area and will tell me that it is a mecca of post-racial, multi-raciality, multi-ethnic, etc etc. in other words there is no to little racism. now obviously i am highly skeptical. one of my friends tells me that she has never heard white folks talk about poc in derogatory ways but all of the latinos exclude her from their circles. and i didnt have the language to explain what a biased view that was. but that quote from you kinda says it all. in childhood we record that which affected us personally. someone talking derogatorily about poc wouldnt have affected her personally so she didnt note it.
        but it did affect you personally. or at least on a more personal and intimate level. and you did note it.
        i also love the description of your family that is conscious of whiteness. and the idea of whiteness as having a radical history. i agree. actually it is punk and 60s folk/rock and even the beats before that (i have a *thing* for kerouac and his fucked up honesty) i love in modern white history.
        and i like the idea of whiteness as a complicated identity.
        i think that we can create new paradigms of how we talk about identity and identity formation. like, honestly, rarely do white folks speak openly to me about how they became white or what it means to them. and i am deeply curious about what whiteness means to whiteness. and okay ones racial identity formation is complicated not simply a choice. but would you be more likely to identify as latina if you spoke spanish? if you spent significant time in mexico? if other mexicans started to identify you as mexican? what are those boundaries, in a larger sense, who draws them?
        like i identify as black. ok. but i could identify as native. how much of that is my choice. how much of that is me accepting that ‘black-american’ means part native? how much of that is others identifying me? how much of that is me accepting other cultures (not wanting to appropriate) and how much of that is me rejecting my own heritage (not wanting to complicate?)
        like 3rd wave =intersectional analysis post-identity
        4th wave=questioning the very boundaries that demarcate our intersectional experiences…or something like that…

  • twincitizen says:

    “i guess what i am trying to say is that for me being a poc isnt primarily about how much you experience discrimination, stereotypes, expectations…it is about a positive connections with my tradition, my family, my culture…”

    Hmmm… This is a really interesting conversation. I get what you mean about not letting white people define what it means to be a POC… But at the same time, if I were to use the whole tradition, family, culture thing to define myself, then I (a Black/biracial transracial adoptee, who can not pass) would be white. Really white.

    • mama says:

      @twin citizen
      good point. once again i had not really thought about this in terms of trans racial adoptees. yeah where does the issue of race, culture, ethnicity, background come in…
      the first image that came to my mind was of the middle passage. and i guess because in a (horrible horrible analogy) way it reminds me of the question i struggle with (living in africa) what does it mean to be the american descendant of slaves and yet still claim some connection to an african identity? ok ill just leave that there for now. and think about it more.
      i grew up in a strongly pro-black culture household. but i have black friends who didnt. and they do have a different relationship to their racial identity than i do.
      i guess the whole 70s pro-black culture movement was a way of taking back an identity (race, blackness) that had been put on us. you know? like i acknowledge that we (poc) did not create the idea of race. europeans did. and they did so specifically to be able to justify their colonization, genocide, and enslavement of us. so in political/social/historical reality, yes, there is the primary definition of blackness of race as a designation of who can and cannot be oppressed.
      and then there is the issue of ‘black’ culture. and the work of de-coupling the ideas around ‘race’ from ideas around ‘culture’.
      i am still working this out.

  • twincitizen says:

    To attempt to finish my still half-formed thought… I think that really, the only reason I identify as a POC is because of my experience –> I’m not white (perceived as white), and I was raised/live in the US. My life and outlook on things is radically different from a white person’s because of this. And I see this as a political/social reality… and culture just doesn’t factor in to it (for me). I mean if I were to go out and start adopting random aspects of African American culture, it’d feel weird, more than a bit like appropriation, not to mention kinda pointless. It wouldn’t make me feel more Black, or more like a POC, or more “authentic” or whatever the fuck. I’m Black, period. And the only real choice I have is wether or not I choose to acknowledge what that means… and then what I’m gonna do about it. Hope this makes sense.

  • […] so on my personal blog we have been having a conversation about race, identity, and ‘passing‘. […]

  • Tlönista says:

    Like whatsername, I have white privilege, and I pass. I think? As half Ashkenazic Jew, half Chinese-Malaysian, I’m solidly model-minority/honorary White, but get the odd “what are you?”. Some people (usually Asian or half-Asian, there’s a lot of us in this city!) know immediately what I am. Some people figure it out from my Chinese surname. Others don’t.

    Aaanyway, I am one pasty girl, and all the while I’ve been reading the WOC blogosphere I have not been thinking of myself as a POC. With my Malaysian family absent, I haven’t lived as such, and I’m not typically taken as such; it would feel like denying privilege. OTOH having people assume I’m white would be deny…aaagh.

    At any rate, I’m also interested in hearing these stories.

  • whatsername says:

    i have white friends who grew up in the bay area and will tell me that it is a mecca of post-racial, multi-raciality, multi-ethnic, etc etc. in other words there is no to little racism.

    Yah, I’ve heard that before too. And I will give the Bay it’s props, you will find a lot more white people here who came through the 70’s understanding something of what POC go through and caring about it and passing down a desire for justice into their kids (like my parents, especially my dad). We ARE a unique area in this respect, though you will find people like that in Seattle as well, and I’m sure in other places. Because when you travel inland, I mean, I’ve got friends who live in Utah so I’ve been there a few times and interacted with those folks and well, I think I would make some of their brains explode if I talked honestly about whiteness.

    So comparatively yah, we’re doing ok. But that doesn’t mean we’re in some post-racial paradise. Next time one of your BA friends says something like that, ask them what they think of Oakland. See what they say. If they’re as blind as I am afraid they are, they will probably tell you what a shit hole it is and how high the crime is and that they’re scared to even set foot in my city. This is a ridiculous attitude but it’s common around here in the white folks, I held it myself, before I knew any better, and because of that I wouldn’t even live here if it wasn’t for my step-mom telling me how much she thought we’d like it here (she used to work out of Oakland, she’s a property lawyer, works with poor and working class people whose landlords are ripping them off and such, notably, she’s also a white Latina like my dad and me [I feel so bad for her father, he and my dad’s mom, that Tex-Mex grandma, always used to gravitate to each other at holidays and talk about who knows what exactly but you could tell they both got a lot of pleasure out of it so I’m sure it’s stuff the rest of us wouldn’t quite understand, you know, and now she’s passed…]). Attitudes towards Oakland is a good test of just how post racial a person around here is. Now it’s true that crime is high in my city, but if that’s all they say they don’t know shit. Ok enough tangent on that… lol

    rarely do white folks speak openly to me about how they became white or what it means to them. and i am deeply curious about what whiteness means to whiteness.

    Well first of all, as I know you already know, white people often don’t think they “became” anything, lol. The very suggestion that they could “become white” will throw some through a loop. But you know you’re right, us white folks who are dedicated to being anti-racist allies don’t talk about ourselves or our whiteness much. I can only speak for myself but when white privilege suddenly became a concept for me it made me a bit afraid to talk about myself in some ways, I was very unsure of myself and didn’t want to open my mouth and fuck up. I think too, that once I became aware of this and thinking about what it could mean about me, I started, naturally, reading a lot more blogs by WOC. And in a WOC space, it’s simply not generally appropriate to turn around and start talking about what I like about my own personal whiteness. And perhaps that sense extends to what we talk about on our own blogs. I know me and Mzbitca (from “What a Crazy Random Happenstance”) were having a conversation recently between ourselves about privilege and stuff, what has been difficult and our missteps and such. I realized when we did that I didn’t feel like I had much of a space to discuss that before either. Adding to that thought what you’re saying here, I’m starting to think that moments and places for white allies to discuss whiteness is probably pretty important for our own growth as allies… Hmmm… I will have to think about that more, perhaps I feel a post forming.

    but would you be more likely to identify as latina if you spoke spanish? if you spent significant time in mexico? if other mexicans started to identify you as mexican? what are those boundaries, in a larger sense, who draws them?

    Yes, I would, to all of that. I did learn Spanish in high school, but of course that has fallen by the wayside in disuse. I think all these boundaries are a give and take, where and what you feel comfortable with, you know? If I was involved in Latin@ organizing or some such thing it would perhaps become a possible identity for me. It’s all about community, what community am I a part of? I’m part of the student community, that’s my place, and it’s a multi-racial community which is nice but it’s got some amount of invisible whiteness permeating it which is not so awesome. At least at my school though, there is a possibility of that being challenged by folks. Identity is a give and take to draw our boundaries, what we identify with on the inside is influenced strongly by what we’re experiencing on the outside.

    Choice is a sticky subject for me. I just got finished reading a couple chapters out of the book Ethnic Options which is all about how white people choose what ethnicities they are and identify with. The author interviewed white people about their ethnic backgrounds, and it does seem a lot of the time that we pick and choose. She said that often when the tape recorder was off, after this fairly lengthy interview, someone would suddenly remember another ethnicity in their background they’d forgotten about. And you know, I know about that, I’ve done that too. My dad traced his mom’s family once, our family tree you know, and when he told me that on their way here the family had gone through Ireland I was like “hell yah, I’m Irish!” And I for a while I would proudly throw that into the mix (German, Mexican, Norwegian, Irish). So, yah, I do think there is some amount of choices that we make in our identification.

    And I wonder if the reasons why I identify as white and you identify as Black aren’t similar reasons. The outside world like tidy boxes and what you “look like” is what they label you. How much of that have you and I absorbed and accepted?

    • mama says:

      i guess the whole idea about passing and choice. and yes, i do use the word choice consciously…is me wondering how do we queer those tiny tidy boxes?
      like, i am about to fuck with some boxes in the outside world. ive gotten pegged in this lil expat world i live in as the threatening black girl…its a meme…
      and part of me wants to just run away from expat world. and part of me is ready to just fuck with it hardcore. and be like bitches! im indigenous. indigenous/african/american. not identifying as indigenous primarily to fuck with them. but am tired of not identifying as such because it would fuck them. does that make sense?
      like i used to identify strongly as first nations. and then kind of stopped doing so in public a few years ago. cause i got tired of the ignorant ass questions. and the oh…you are running away from being black…as if i could do that…
      so i just accepted that blackness includes the assumption of indigenous identity…but thats not really true either….
      im not letting other folks define me. and i think about this in terms of gender queer identity. can we be racially queer?
      and i would to have conversations with white allies about how they view their whiteness. i know that most white folks dont view themselves as white. but white allies, whiteness studies folks…have actually been thinking about it.
      and i am thinking about it in terms of childhood: thandeke’s white identity as a childhood trauma.
      and your statement that children only notice that which personally affects them.
      how do these two statements go into the formation of white identity?

      • whatsername says:

        What you’re saying totally makes sense.

        I don’t know for sure how to queer the box I’m in. Whatever I do I want to make sure I don’t do it in an appropriative way. Which being socialized as white I’ve realized I have been taught I have the right to do (appropriate). One of my personal demons has always been standardized tests and what they ask you to fill out race-wise. I used to be obstinate and pick both white and “Hispanic” but the last couple I’ve put down “Mixed Race”. I’m not sure about this yet, but it’s an identity that I’m seeing how it fits.

        Your question about being racially queer is an interesting one. I was just making choices about what classes to take in the Fall and decided to sign up for one called Coloring Queer. Now, it’s sort of the other side of the coin of the idea you’re thinking about here, but it did get me thinking along the same lines. And I want to say “fuck yah you can queer anything” but I haven’t given the implications of using that word in that way a lot of thought yet.

        I’m happy to continue conversing with you about whiteness, and what I’ve figured out so far and where I see the influences of whiteness in my life, good and bad and ugly. Anytime you want really. We can continue here as we have been or if you have one of the IMers we could chat in real time or email, whatevs.

        As to your last question, I don’t have an answer, but it got me thinking about the topic.

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