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Black History Month: Passing For White

Labels are necessary. They’re unnecessary. Reconciling with ones racial and national identity is a strong personal choice in a sea of social categories bestowed on us by the society at large. That’s the incomplete conclusion we left with: she had to reconcile with being a Korean-American woman, and I had to reconcile with being a Haitian-American man. But, no matter how proud we are to accept or deny labels, we can’t deny the uncontrollable structural power that dominates our identity.

Mixed-race, ethnically ambiguous Americans were able to pass as white in Hollywood, and during legal, social and racial segregation. Passing for another race further challenges the notion of simple self-identification—“passing” is an advantageous tool, a means to easily assimilate into a grand system of social mobility.

Wolverine, in the X-men franchise series, has privileges that Beast simply doesn’t. Wolverine can pass for “human.” I’m not comparing mixed-race, ethnically ambiguous people to mutants—I am comparing the metaphorical struggle, the space and situation, and its place in racial politics.

Physically, my friend couldn’t hide the fact that she was Asian, and as for me, well…I’m a Hershey’s Kisses wrapped in a gray winter coat. Cultural identification is a different beast.

The experience of my blackness is still very subjective. It’s relative. It’s why Dr. Yaya Blay examined the complexities behind the one-drop rule and the systemic preservation of “white purity”:

Racial passing was a social tool used by people to assimilate into a culture or a dominant social system—for some, it was a convenience that determined whether they lived or died: mixed-race men and women, those who were able to pass as white, avoided racial subjugation in the United States. Jewish people, like the story of Edith Hahn Beer, passed as Aryan to avoid shipment to Nazi concentration camps.

The freedom to reconcile with ones personal idea of oneself is, in and of itself, a luxury now. Historically, caste systems around the world, and the hypodescent and hyperdescent classifications in the U.S., made your physical traits a privilege or a disadvantage.

As we navigate the binary racial divisions, we can certainly find systemic parallels—but our conversation last night was essentially about owning our agency. There is a privilege in our ability to own it. Under the aforementioned circumstances, however, we wouldn’t have a choice to eat out in certain places. We would’ve been confined to a home-cooked meal. And that, like racial politics, is such an ugly win-lose situation.

Stanford Historian Reexamines the Practice of Racial “Passing”

Illustration credited to Michael White


Artist from NEW YORK, I've dedicated my life to creating Art and letting my imagination lead me. Nothing is impossible, to be creative is to breathe beneath water.

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