Sooner or later, the phrase is uttered to you. It can be (it almost always is) a discussion in class. Something involving race relations in society or an overused metaphor for racism in the novel you’re reading. Someone says a very iffy comment – either borderline or blatantly racist and you get angry. Everyone else starts looking at each other, “What the hell is this white kid getting so worked up about?” (You will never see a white person as near passionate about casual racism as a person of color.) You look back at them and say “Well, I’m actually half… [South Asian in my case, but fill in the blank]. Then it comes.
“Wait? You’re not white?” Followed by eye rolls, side comments, and scoffs. Such is the negative side of a white passing experience.
I am a white passing Afghani-Ukranian Jewish girl living on the North Shore of Illinois. Even at 15, the feelings I have associated with my racial identity are complex, strange, and surreal. Being a white passing South Asian person is an experience that has completely shaped my view of the world unintentionally. Before delving more into this, I should define what I mean by white passing. White passing, or simply passing, as it’s referred to often, is a when person of color (usually mixed race) appears white to the majority of people they come across and are treated as white, by these people, granting them conditional privilege and opportunities that are not available to non-white passing people of color. However, once a white-passing person reveals and asserts their racial identity, they are exiled from this privilege by people who know they are not white – a common way is having an “ethnic” first/last name. Light skinned is not the same thing as white passing, that is a common misconception, especially on websites like Tumblr or Twitter. Celebrities like Rami Malek or Oscar Isaac, who are racially ambiguous but clearly not white, are labeled white passing. Not being able to “guess” what race/ethnicity someone is, which is something you shouldn’t be doing anyways, is not equivalent to them looking white.
My experience is not the experience of all white passing people. I live in a majorly white and well off neighborhood and go to a school that is mostly white. I was born to a Ukranian Jewish father and an Afghani Jewish mother, both immigrants out of the USSR. I was also born with the features of my brown mother but the facial structure and skin tone of my white father. I have dark brown hair, a prominent nose, and thick black eyebrows/body hair but also light eyes, an Eastern European facial structure, and nearly white light brown skin. My younger sister is somehow even more white passing; with blue eyes, small nose, and light hair and skin. We both lucked out and did not luck out in a way.
White passing people face a strange double whammy, best described in a quote from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing.
“The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folks at well.”
White passing people constantly choose between having conditional white privilege and completely disregarding their racial identity and solidarity with other people of color, or asserting their racial identity and being shut out from the plethora of opportunities they can have by passing for white. My mother wanted me to take the first option, and I did for a while, but now, I’m firmly in the second category. At least I am trying to, anyways. Growing up in an immediately post 9/11 society, growing up blatantly Afghani would have been a rotten piece of luck. Thankfully, especially for my mother, neither
Growing up in an immediately post 9/11 society, growing up blatantly Afghani would have been a rotten piece of luck. Thankfully, especially for my mother, neither me nor my sister looked brown. I was, as soon as I was school age, encouraged and forced at some points to emphasize my white identity for all it was worth, and never reveal to people that I was part South Asian. Looking back on those 10 or so years I spent passing as a child, I realized exactly how much my mother valued whiteness – and still does. Before her move to America, she was a blatantly brown woman in Russia during the Afghan-Russian war and was miserable because of it. When she came to America, she began bleaching her skin, spending all her money on laser hair removal, and plucking her eyebrows raw every day. She wanted to assimilate as much as possible, and it took me a long time to understand this. I was so angry at her for the past two years, angry at how much she’d whitewashed me and my sister, barely giving us any insight into a culture she abandoned. I think I understand her now, turning the mirror back on myself.
I did not begin embracing my nonwhite identity until I was 13 and we had our culture unit in English class. My very white and very pseudo-liberal teacher was noticeably surprised when I said I wasn’t white, and so were a number of my classmates. It didn’t take long for me to loose that conditional privilege I had in her class. A noticeable incident was when she was discussing arranged marriages and informed the class that I [and an Indian friend of mine] would know “a lot about arranged marriages, as a, uh, cultural thing.” I remember my friend and I looking at each other, smiling at her and saying, almost in unison: “Well, my parents met in college.”