Kofi Mframa, Opinions Editor
Nella Larson’s “Passing” follows the reunion of childhood friends, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, two light-skinned Black women who “pass” as white — albeit in different ways. The book centers on “racial-passing” and the pleasures and tragedies that come with it.
This book and the Netflix adaptation really got me thinking about the term “white-passing” and how it fits into our modern interpretation of race. The term describes a person, usually but not always multiracial, whose physical traits allow them to “pass” as white, usually to evade discrimination.
What’s curious to me is how this term works in the contemporary. I used to believe that “white-passing” people are actually just white — that their ability to navigate this world as a white person and reap the privileges therein makes them just as white those with exclusively European ancestors. This made sense for a while as my previous understanding of race was overwhelmingly phenotypical.
However, this line of thinking ignores that race, although based heavily on perception, is not entirely determined by one’s outward appearance.
Race is complex and contradictory. As we continue to deconstruct this construct, we uncover that race and the things associated are not as simple as they seem.
To get a more contemporary understanding of what it means to be “white-passing,” we must dissect our modern interpretation of race and how it has shifted throughout history.
Race, as a social construct, bends to the whims of social paradigms. The racial identities one can claim or be subjected to change along social and political lines. Throughout history, especially in times of massive immigration, the United States has been malleable when deciding who gets to be white.
The Irish, for example, worked low-paying jobs during their first wave of immigration. They were discriminated against and were described as the nonwhite “missing link” between the superior European and the savage African, according to a Boston Globe article.
It wasn’t until Irish people started assimilating into America’s racist, white infrastructure that they made the shift from oppressed to oppressor. They joined the fight against abolition and united in the suppression of Black people.
“Whiteness” is a sociopolitical living, breathing entity that only seeks to expand and consume — always looking for ways to augment itself and retain supremacy.
It’s why Middle Eastern and Northern African people are now considered white by the U.S. federal government despite the ongoing systemic oppression they still face, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Since race has no biological basis, whiteness is allowed to ebb and flow like this.
What about those who identify as white by choice? Those who have intersecting racial identities but only openly identify with whiteness.
It’s the obvious choice isn’t it? If someone has the ability to physically “pass” as white regardless of their non-white identities why wouldn’t they? It’s an easier road that helps to avoid the discrimination that comes with being a minority.
Historically, this has been the road many have taken. Now, as we continue to unpack the rather empty meaning of race, we are beginning to understand that being “white-passing” is as complex as the idea of race itself.
Someone’s ability to pass as white changes upon social situations as certain groups are better at noticing certain physical or social traits that point to someone’s more complicated ethnic background.
Since everyone perceives whiteness differently, there is no strict standard we adhere to when judging someone’s proximity to it.
This means that “white-passing” isn’t necessarily an identity one can claim, rather, an action that some people choose to perform.
Now that some are drawing the curtain on this performance for a better understanding of their own ethnic heritage, I’m only left with more questions.
Many still claim that people capable of passing as white are just white, regardless of their ethnic background. However, this is just the mission of white supremacy and the way whiteness operates — erasing a whole person and reducing their identity to what they look like.
It’s also certainly not lost on me that so much of the discourse surrounding biracial identity is consumed by and centered around those with white ancestry. If we are to say that biracial people with European backgrounds should only identify as white, where does that leave multiracial people who don’t have European ancestry? Who gets to decide which racial identity supersedes the other?
I think the answer lies somewhere in the space between. It’s important that those who do have proximity to whiteness acknowledge their privilege. What matters more is that we position ourselves against these oppressive institutions.
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