“White-Passing”

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In last week’s blog post, I touched very briefly on the concept of privilege; in doing so, I named one of my privileges as being “white-passing”. This week, a dear friend of mine and regular reader told me that he found this an amusingly inaccurate identifier. The reason I was white-passing, he said, was because I was white, and it was laughable to try and pretend otherwise. I realise the risk in opening a post with such a statement – the last thing I want is for this post to read like a personal attack on him, because I assure you it’s not. I discussed it in-depth with him at the time and we are now all good. But his comment got me thinking about a whole lotta stuff: about what it means to be a person of mixed ethnicity, about racism, about my personal confusion over my ethnicity, and how I feel very distant from the parts of my heritage that aren’t white, and how I remained ignorant of how important that was for so long.

I want to start by looking at what it means to be “white-passing” in a society dominated by whiteness and Western culture. In terms of race, white-passing refers to a person with a multiracial background who is able to “pass” as a white person because they look physically white enough to be accepted into that racial category and all the benefits attached to it. Wikipedia explains the origins of this use of “passing”:

The term was used especially in the United States to describe a person of multiracial ancestry assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.

Today, it has come to mean anyone of a multi-ethnic background who is assumed to be white due to physical appearance. For example, here’s a picture of me.

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As you can see, I’m pretty goddamn white. I’ve got pale skin, blue eyes and brown hair. I burn hardcore in the summer if I go outside in the sun for more than like 30 consecutive seconds. This is even a #tragic #whitegirl #selfie. Hashtag blessed. Looking at this picture, no-one could blame you for thinking you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody whiter than me.

But here’s the thing: I am of Samoan and Jamaican descent, so to say that I identify as 100% white would be to ignore half of my ancestry. In fact, there is so much brown in my family that I’m told regularly, by several different family members, that I was “a bit of a surprise” when I came out pastier than anything, with blonde hair and blue eyes. I was expected to look more like my brother does, with brown skin, brown eyes and dark hair.  But I didn’t, and my whiteness has been the butt of many a joke in my family for 21 years now.

Harold_Moody

This is a picture of my great granddaddy, Dr. Harold Arundel Moody. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1882. IN 1904, he settled in England so he could study medicine at King’s College in London. Despite being perfectly qualified, his attempts to find work as a doctor were unsuccessful not due to lack of available positions but because he was black and experienced discrimination because of his skin colour. In 1931, he founded the League of Coloured Peoples, which was the first effective black civil rights group in Britain. The League aimed to achieve equality for coloured people and other marginalized groups within society, both in Britain and worldwide.

Harold also opened his own medical practice in 1932 after failing to find work as either a doctor or a medical officer. He died in 1947 and is named 27th on the list of 100 Great Black Britons. His biography on their website states that ‘[h]is whole adult life he struck blow after blow in the struggle against racism‘. You can read more about him here, here and here.

Sadly, I knew little about the story of Dr. Harold Moody until I was eighteen years old and stumbled across his Wikipedia page. (I’m sure my family told me about him prior to this, but I imagine I was too young to appreciate or even remember the details of his life.) I remember reading about him and the work he did with the LCP and just feeling in awe that I am related to this man, and being overwhelmed by the respect and pride I felt for a long-dead relative I had never met.

I could not imagine his world, even though it is sadly a world many people still inhabit today. But here I am: I look white, and I’m living in a former British colony, in which 74% of residents identify as European – an overwhelming majority. And I get to be amongst that majority, because I look it and I’ve been brought up in this Western culture and nobody looking at me knows better. They see white; I feel white; I perform white. So on the one hand, I am white, and I am privileged because of it in a way that my brother and many of my family members are not. I get to navigate my life free from any prejudices that come attached to my skin colour. But on the other hand, I have this rich, complicated, multicultural and multiethnic heritage – which I’m sort of at odds with. I don’t want to ignore it. It’s a part of who I am. But it also leads me to be confused about how I identify, what I consider my ethnicity to be.

I’ve solved this problem, at least officially, by ticking as many boxes on the forms as I can. When any official form or signup sheet asks me, ‘What’s your ethnicity?’ I go down the list and I tick New Zealand European, Jamaican, Samoan, Swiss, English, Welsh. My mum was the person who put me onto the idea, I think when I was eighteen and enrolling in university courses for the first time and having a small identity crisis in front of the laptop screen. Thanks Mummy. ❤

But in real life it’s a little more difficult to know how you’re supposed to identify. You can’t walk around with a bunch of checked boxes floating above your head, so people will always know where you’ve come from.

In first semester last year, I took a history paper entitled Race and Racism. The lecturer was white, and (from memory) all of the students – myself included – were white or white-passing. We spent twelve weeks studying the creation of the concept of race and racial thought, and how Europeans used it in their persecution of ethnic groups they perceived as inferior, in Africa and the European colonies. Among other things, Europeans used “scientific” or “biological” arguments to justify their actions, including examinations and measurements of skulls to show that European races had the most superior brain size, and that African physiology was more “primitive” and closer to apes than white man was. Some scientists even dismissed the “negro” races as being less than human. Of course we all now know that that’s a load of fucking bullshit.

Now, you might say, “But that happened, like, hundreds of years ago, right? Nowadays we know way better and everyone is equal!” I have no patience for people who say that racism is over when it blatantly is not. Let’s talk about the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted more than three centuries and displaced  tens of millions of Africans across the New World, resulted in generations of human beings who lived and died in slavery and did lasting damage to white perceptions of non-white people. The damage done by the slave trade still affects those descended from slaves today.

Let’s also talk about actual modern-day evidence of racism in action. How about police brutality towards black people in the USA? A black citizen is killed by a white police officer two times a week, or 96 times a year on average. This is despite the fact that African-Americans only make up approximately 13% of the US population. New Zealand is by no means exempt from racial injustice either. Maori comprise just 15% of this country’s population; yet, they make up over half of all people in New Zealand prisons. This enormous overrepresentation behind bars is not a commentary on the failings of Maori as an ethnic group; rather, it speaks to how badly they got fucked when Europeans muscled into Aotearoa, uprooting their entire way of life. And bearing in mind that these are just two statistics I researched in five minutes, I’d say racism is still undeniably a thing in today’s society, in both overt and covert ways.

Back to that history paper on race and racism, I want to spend a minute on a lecture for that course which I will never forget. It will be, in all likelihood, the single most important university lecture I ever attended. For that course, it was unconventional: instead of lecture slides and furious notetaking, we watched a film for the full two hours. In this film, a young black British man travels to Jamaica to see where his family came from, and to find out what life was like for the African slaves who lived there during the slave trade. To see the plantations, the shackles, and the various devices white people used to “punish” “disobedient” slaves would have been shocking to any halfway-decent human being – but to most people in the lecture theatre that day, it would have been shocking in a kind of distant way, like they knew this was something really bad that happened, but they would not be able to connect with it on a personal level.

For me, it was different. Some of my ancestors were black people from Jamaica, so in a way I kind of felt like I was taking a very sombre journey of self discovery along with the man in the documentary. I became unexpectedly emotional watching the film, as it really hit home for the first time that I was directly descended from slaves. And yes, it all did happen hundreds of years ago, and no, I don’t know how many greats you’d have to use to make a connection between me and a slave who worked on a plantation in Jamaica. But in that lecture, I realised that the connection was there. I remember I saw my mother afterwards and told her at length about the lecture how emotional it made me.

I don’t pretend to be black or to know what that means. I have white skin, and will in all likelihood never experience discrimination because of my skin colour. I am lucky, and I acknowledge my privilege. However, there’s also the fact that I’m not comfortable being labelled 100% white, because it’s just not an accurate reflection of who I am or where I come from. I am the product of two generations of “interracial” relationships. I am a mixed-race child.

Thing is, discussing mixed race and discussing racism go hand-in-hand. You can’t really embark on the former without at least touching on the latter. And racism is a fucking enormous topic to address.* But it is one which has affected my ancestors and my family directly – and as such, it indirectly affects me as well.

The whole point of writing this was so that I could address my personal confusion about my ethnicity, and whether I could figure out a better approach than “TICK ALL THE BOXES!” So far I’m coming up empty. But at least I’ve been able to say, ‘hey, this is here, it’s a thing, I want to talk about it more’. Which I can’t see as being anything other than a step in the right direction. And hey, maybe I’ll always be confused. Maybe I’ll always feel this sense of disconnection with important parts of my heritage. But I’m also pretty fucking proud of where I’ve come from, where my family has come from. To be related, even as distantly as I am, to someone like Harold Arundel Moody – that’s an enormous honour, and his is a story I’ll never tire to tell.


*It’s important to note that, while discrimination based on physical differences has existed since time immemorial and, in all likelihood, will exist in some form until humanity’s end, racism and the concept of “race” is a relatively recent thing. It’s only been around a few centuries, since Europeans started trying to colonise different parts of the world and encountered different groups of peoples with different ways of life. These different customs were often perceived as barbaric, primitive, even sub-human. Today it’s pretty commonly accepted that “race” is not, in fact, a real thing – merely an abstract concept invented to justify the unequal treatment of different groups of individuals based on one thing: their skin colour. But we’re left with the very real and very problematic sentiment that is racism.

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3 thoughts on ““White-Passing”

  1. Your nuanced approach to this complex issue gives you credit as a human, Beth. In this (nominally) postcolonial era, it is important that we learn better how to approach discussions of identity and ancestry with understanding and an appreciation for the intersecting histories that inform, however subtly, who we are. Perhaps we can then begin to clear up the confusion and disconnection you speak of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful response, Stephen. As I’ve said, this is a discussion of an enormous and sensitive topic, so to hear that my treatment of it has been received as positive and constructive makes me feel very happy indeed.

      Like

  2. Pingback: ONE YEAR OLD! – Iron Beth

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