I can remember when I first learned the term “passing.” It was during a history class in middle school. I was in the seventh grade and a cute male teacher was talking about African American history during slavery. He mentioned how there were slaves who worked in the home, often the children of the master, and of a lighter complexion. And then there were slaves who passed.
Passing, he explained, was when a mixed race individual portrayed herself as white. He pointed to himself and then he pointed to me, noting our lighter color could have allowed us this act, were we of that time. Ever since that lecture, it has occurred to me how different I look from a great many of my cultural and ethnic peers.
This fact was made even more evident during a trip to the doctor’s office. Recently I went in for my yearly checkup at my GYN. The doctor pairs with a nurse practitioner who I see most times. She is a sweet woman: white, attractive, married with kids. And until my last visit, I really liked her. But then she opened her mouth and my ease in her care went away.
I mentioned how I broke up with my boyfriend. I explained the situation, which I’ve been doing a lot lately. She then went on to talk about how she believed the “black culture” does not favor marriage, fidelity, or emotionally open black men. I sat there, nodding my head, wanting to not have to lecture yet another person about “black culture”, while also realizing, for the first time, she didn’t know I was black. She finally did ask what my racial background was, and I explained I was a mix of Irish, Cherokee, and African American. She said she could absolutely see the Cherokee in me, especially with the example of her half black husband, who is also part Cherokee.
I suppose it was the fact she was married to a black man that she felt she could have this conversation with me and not view it as racist. I believe she herself is not racist. I’ve never had a bad experience with her, up until that visit. But what she said angered me. However, when someone is about to stick both metal objects and their hand into your “special area”, you don’t tend to want to contradict them.
Instead, I spoke about how he had previous family issues that I believe led to his actions. And though my encounter with him was not completely positive, I still held out hope for finding a life mate. I didn’t mention the fact that I knew plenty of African Americans, married, in stable family households. Nor did I explain that though there is evidence of a culture of machismo in rap & hip hop music, this is merely a stereotype artists use to sell records and does not speak for the ocean of diversity that is “black culture.” Also, movies and television tend to portray a stereotype that is quite incongruous with my family and friends, and which I often find offensive. But, like I said, she was about to do things to me only a handful of people in this world ever have, so I kept my mouth shut.
But here begs the larger questions: Would she have said the things she did if my complexion were closer to my father? Would she have talked about the “black culture” like she did if my hair wasn’t so straight or my skin so light or my vernacular and speech so proper? In essence, was it my unintentional passing that incited her words or would she have said the same things if I were darker and less eloquent? I don’t know, but this experience just left me feeling deflated, as often happens when people mistake me for Latina or Phillippina or Hindi or just straight up ask me, “What are you?”.
Sometimes I just want to sit out in the sun for a few days, chocolate up my skin, and move on. But why should I change (and risk skin disease) just because people dump their racial baggage on me because of their preconceived notions?
So you know what, fuck ’em. Let people keep telling me shit they really shouldn’t. And I’ll keep writing shit about them, anonymous or not.
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