Passing out

09/04/2011

In the middle of an inquiry into race, passing, whiteness. What is whiteness? It’s hard for me to define what whiteness is, easier for me to define where whiteness isn’t.

A friend of mine told me (during a conversation about race, privilege, and gentrification) that whiteness is a type of social and economic privilege that has privileged one group of people over others for generations. That seems like a useful working definition to start from. To add to that, there seems to be a level of assimilation (racial and socioeconomic) required in order for any particular group to acquire whiteness. As a recent example, we can look to the assimilation of Italian-Americans. In the not-so-distant past, Italian-Americans were regarded as a whole other race by “polite” (i.e. racist) white society, and frequently experienced violence, discrimination in employment & housing, and other racial craptitude. But now let’s look at Italian-Americans today. Were I to walk down to the street just now and take an impromptu survey of passersby of what race they consider Italian-Americans to be, I’m willing to bet ~95% of respondents would say that Italian-Americans are white. I imagine that there would be a few respondents who cling to the more overt racism of generations past, as well as a few who recognize that just because some of a person’s family came from a country doesn’t necessarily specify what their racial identity will be. But. You get the idea, maybe? Italian-Americans no longer experience social or economic bias in the same systematic way that people who are considered “other” than white do. They’re not likely to be denied a job, employment, or immigration because of their country of origin. Of course, there are lots of exceptions to this. Italian-Americans who primarily speak a language other than English are still likely to experience bias, but that bias is more likely to be based on language than on any perception of their “Italian-ness.” This is not to say that Italian-Americans have it easy. I’m sure that stereotypes about “Guidos”, spaghetti, and Italian grandmothers are aggravating as all hell–but they’re a lot less likely to affect your ability to survive than other experiences of bias like violence and so forth.

But. But. All those little buts. Assimilation to whiteness comes at an extreme price. You must give up your whole identity and exchange it for whiteness. Give up your: religion, style of dress, language/manner of speech, cuisine, traditions, neighborhood–even your color. You must reduce your self in order to achieve assimilation. Become one of the colors in the “Celebrate Diversity!” banner, but nothing more. No spectrum of experience, nothing more than a few vestiges of who you were. Pizza on Fridays. Chuckling uneasily thru a Guido joke after am episode of the Sopranos. “Non-practicing” Catholicism.

When pondering my experiences as a person who is mixed race identified but primarily passes as white, I have a hard time untangling the factors of socio-economic class and perceived race. Perhaps it is because these experiences are currently inextricably linked for so many people.

As a kid, I passed–not all of my classes, sweet pea, I mean as white. Mostly. There was a friend’s mom who wouldn’t let me come over after she found out I was a beaner, but made an exception once she saw that I “appeared white.” There were the well-meaning Mormon church ladies who asked me that classic question of mixed race existence: what are you? And a few other uncomfortable circumstances, but they were the exception rather than the rule, and I think it unlikely that I experienced direct disadvantages because of my perceived race. So. I passed.

But my parents didn’t. This is particularly interesting because of my mother’s very vocal prejudice (usually displayed in the form of uncomfortable racialized humor) against non-white people, and my father’s “I don’t see color” approach to racism, while ending up on the receiving end of some pretty racially charged craptitude. You know what a DWI is? Sherman Alexie says: “Driving While Indian.”

When I identify myself as a person of mixed race who passes as white, I am acknowledging that I experience a significant amount of white privilege in my daily life, but I also have the experience of having one or more close family ties to people who do not share the same level of white privilege. As a passing person, I take it upon myself to call attention to racist shit when and where I can, a similar role to that of a white anti-racist ally. I’m still learning how to do this, it’s hard and exhausting and sometimes I try identifying myself as Latin@ before any racist bullshit starts so that I can avoid any racist crap (this strategy doesn’t usually work). And of course, there are times when I do not pass. The but where are you really from? gets me every time, man! Just got it the other day, in a fairly professional setting! Ugh. (don’t even get me started on people thinking my speech impediment is an accent…)

I do not want to be silent about where I come from, or about the craptitude of racism. I am steeped in white supremacy culture daily, and it takes awareness and active work to change that. I take time to celebrate the other articles of my lineage, the “others” who came so far on such hard roads to bring me here, to the privilege I currently experience. I will fight for you–for us. For all the plentitude of our experiences, identities, lives. I will not pass into whiteness as a cloak of invisibility that shakes itself as some stilted invincibility at the price of marginalizing others.

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