“I don’t look black, I’m not treated black, but I feel black. I know I’m white-passing and frankly, it’s frustrating,” said James, 32. “I feel like I’m whitewashing my own family away.”
And he’s not alone.
America’s diversity continues to increase, and more and more people are identifying as mixed race; but the concept of ‘white-passing’ and the struggle to define identity in a world dominated by whiteness is not new. White-passing has been used throughout American history to describe someone who, despite some or all of their non-white ancestry, looks white.
Even with this increasing diversity and array of backgrounds and identity, the experiences of those of us who are often considered white-passing are similar: uncertainty about how people racially categorize you; discomfort for “coming out” as non-white; and the haunting guilt that you’re disrespecting your family by not presenting as your actual race(s).
One of the complicating factors of multiracial people’s experience is that other people’s reactions to race vary widely from muddled confusion to ignorantly offensive. As a half-Japanese, half-white adult, I have heard everything from, “obviously you’re white” to “I visited China last year, your food is great!” to “where in Mexico are you from?”
“One of the few ways I know someone doesn’t realize I’m black is if they make jokes about [black] culture, I mention my black family member, and then they apologize,” said Ryan, 26. “It can be weird. But I mean, what am I supposed to do? Shake someone’s hand and say, ‘Nice to meet you. I’m Ryan and, you should know, I’m black’?”
White-passing people often carry the burden of having to explain their race, and for many, that burden is eased by just pretending to be white. For me, it feels like racism’s enduring claws are reaching into the past, white-washing the people in our families who have already passed away, working to rub out their existence, even in death.
“I don’t correct people who think I’m white. I don’t want my peers thinking I’m different. Or, I didn’t want my peers [to know] I was different,” said one woman who is white-passing and wished to stay anonymous for this article. “But I also feel like I’m hiding my family from the world.” On one hand, presenting as white can shelter you from a slew of American-bred racism. On the other hand, for some, it can feel like denouncing the heritage that might define you.
These circumstances vary from person to person. No one looks the same, no one’s environment is the same, no one reacts the same. In response to the concept of white-passing, perhaps we can begin by being unafraid to bring our full selves into any conversation.
“I don’t know, for me, my solution is to not be afraid of referencing my blackness. If people are confused, that’s their problem,” said Tess, 30, who half-black and half-white. “I’m not trying to fit into their molds or their categories.”
When we allow white-passing to label us, it’s as if white is the noun and every other race is an adjective that orbits around it; it’s as if white is the independent factor; it’s as if white is the norm. As we’re trying to chip away at racism, we should not let racism-based labels restrict or define us.
I don’t know when I’m white-passing or when I’m not, but I’m trying not to let my uncertainty affect how I act. I know my own race and my own identity and I am proud of who I am and where I came from.
There’s a lot to talk about here. Mixed Feelings is a series about race and identity in America. You can read part one here.