‘Pass’ or Fail? A Suburban Encounter with White Supremacy and ‘Passing’
As a mixed-race/ethnicity human, I have been perceived as white, black, mixed-race, and a wide range of other ethnicities. As a result of the historical fact of hypodescence, or the ‘one-drop rule,’ which was necessarily invented when race was invented c. half an era ago, most black, brown, and indigenous peoples who are also white are placed in the category of ‘other’ automatically. That is, mixed-race/ethnicity peoples often know they are non-white before they have conscious identity due to the high penetration of white supremacy in our society, thus supporting a self-perception of themselves as ‘other.’ In other words, POC are treated in subordinate fashion due to white superiority, and most of the time, we know it.
As such, I am no exception: it has been clear to me, since childhood decades ago, that I am decidedly not white. Unless, of course, I appear to be white, in which case I am told that I ‘pass.’ I admit that this is a peculiar nomenclature for this particular situation which reveals much more to me about the way white people as a group perceive themselves than it does about any actual ‘achievement’ on my part, implied by the word ‘pass.’ I suggest that, although being perceived as white may allow us to ‘pass’ when it comes to unearned social advantages, it is much closer to a ‘fail’ when it comes to basic humanity and fundamental moral behaviors.
In this case, I had plans to meet a white friend for lunch in a suburban city in New England I will call ‘White Flightsville’ in the interest of both privacy and accuracy. I was early, sitting in a booth at a table, when a man passing by dropped a sheaf of papers on the ground. I leaned down to help him pick these up, and he thanked me. He pointed out that it was paperwork for his daughter for a liberal private school in the area. He sat down on the table next to mine to arrange the papers as I handed him the last of what I’d picked up, and this conversation ensued:
“Thanks so much! I’m reapplying to this school last minute. We had some problems last year!”
“This school has a great reputation. Aren’t they very open-minded…?”
“Too open-minded lately. That’s the problem. My daughter is on the soccer team, and an African-American girl told her to stop acting racist just because my daughter made a comment about her own hair, which is beautiful. There aren’t any racists in our family…”
“Stop acting racist? I thought it was a school that encouraged diversity…”
“Well, yes, but it’s gone too far. Just because my daughter is blonde, blue-eyed, and beautiful is no good reason to call her a racist. It’s not my daughter’s fault that African-Americans and…and ….others are jealous of us.”
Hmmm. At least he used the word ‘other’ accurately to describe exactly what he is doing — othering an African-American. However, here is where his honesty ends and he engages in the mundane self-denial which so many whites embrace with enthusiasm. He has enrolled his daughter — a female with a massive unearned sociocultural advantage — in a liberal school specifically (and likely only nominally) established to address the lack of diversity at other more conservative schools. Yet, he refuses to admit her huge advantage and instead frames his daughter as the victim.
Note that there are very few schools — or places, for that matter — where African-Americans have any voice, and in this rare setting that may allow it, he is exhibiting backlash behavior. The fact that this man has already decided that his daughter’s whiteness is a source of jealousy indicates he believes that this African-American woman has no other motivation than her own belief in her inferiority to call his daughter a racist. He completely dismisses the fact that the mere belief in this profound superiority is, in and of itself, racist. It doesn’t occur to him that the African-American woman has basic human dignity and, in the face of his daughter’s racism, believes in her own value and is thus defending herself. Making comments about hair is hardly benign in a country which uses hair texture to derogate POC’s while using that same trait to elevate white people — in particular white, blonde- and blue-eyed women — on a cultural basis.
“But my understanding is that these are some of the few schools that allow African-Americans to speak up. And…” I added, “other people of color, like me. In most settings, we aren’t even given the opportunity to express ourselves when we’re discriminated against.”
He recoiled and blushed — not because he was embarrassed about his backlash behavior, but because he just realized I wasn’t white (ie, he just got caught.) At that point, he gathered his papers together and left.
The first realization I made was that this man was hell-bent on making sure that the tiny percentage of schools which may be trying to promote true diversity don’t really do so in any meaningful way, thereby making sure that no matter which school he chooses for his daughter, her racism will ultimately be tolerated. In the words of Van Jones, this is ‘whitelash.’
The second realization I made was that this man thought I was ‘white’ and that therefore, I ‘passed.’ The semantics are interesting, because the concept of ‘passing’ conveys the implied sensibility of merit and earning; therefore, the word itself implies that to be white is to earn the ‘pass.’ This sort of privileging requires an opposite: that is, non-white has ‘failed,’ with the attendant implication on the basis of the words alone — typically used in test-taking capacity — that POC’s are not earning what whites are earning. The second implication the word ‘pass’ makes is that POC who look white enough to ‘pass’ will automatically embrace this like a winner on The Price is Right and proceed to jump for joy at this unearned benefit.
Note that this stance shirks any responsibility for the (a)morality the word ‘pass’ conveys, denying that though it may be a socioeconomic win, it is a decided moral failure. Not all POC — people who have been derogated our entire lives for being non-white — are going to embrace this egregious concept of ‘passing’ without considering the (a)moral implications of the context which supports it. It is hardly surprising that this man specifically uses an African-American woman to derogate: this demographic, as a group, is already so discriminated against in myriad, compounded ways that it will take much less effort for him to advocate for silencing her voice.
As a mixed person of color who has been perceived as white at times, I can say with a high degree of confidence that white people are treated better than people of color in virtually every setting. In order to be treated as an equal, I must go to places where there are only people of color or which only includes white people as a minority. This is at least in part because white people as a group participate in active denial when they do not examine the manipulative language which is used to buttress white supremacy. When I ‘pass’, I am treated superiorly simply on the basis of this one fact: I am walking around perceived as being in a package of whiteness. I can vouch, having both experiences, that being perceived as white is decidedly the easier situation.
But I take issue with the word ‘pass’ for moral reasons. The word ‘pass’ conveys that there must be a ‘fail,’ and white supremacy was established not only to allow whites as a group resources which they didn’t earn but also to make sure that those who did earn them — most obvious in the case of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and African-Americans — never get them. In a world where white people ‘pass,’ black people automatically ‘fail.’
As a POC, in the settings I have been perceived as white, I believe that I only ‘pass’ on a sociological and economic basis, and even then only until I reveal the truth and am no longer ‘white.’ On a moral basis, however, white supremacy is a giant ‘fail’ which has derogated most of the human race in order to support its own ‘success.’ When the word ‘pass’ is used to describe POC appearing to be white, consideration should be made of the profoundly amoral ignorance that this word conveys.
It is truly time for all black, brown, and indigenous peoples to acknowledge the fact that white supremacy places all of us in a category of ‘fail’ when ‘pass’ means being white. This clever bit of semantics not only states outright that any amount of pigment will erode our ability to ‘pass,’ but also subtly implies, through the language of test-taking, that whites have somehow earned what they have through achievement. Even a cursory glance at history informs us that this cannot be accurate.
From my perspective, this point of view is a gross distortion of reality, and the kind of white denial that upholds white supremacy. This man’s point of view should have been countered at any liberal school which claims investment in ‘diversity,’ but the fact that he was able to ‘resolve’ the issue tells me that he was able to use his money to buttress his daughter’s racism by erasing it. That’s what he calls ‘passing:’ letting white supremacy continue unabated.
The word ‘pass’ accurately conveys white supremacy itself by implying that there has been achievement where, in fact, there has been dominance, genocide, slavery, and thievery. If the moral implications of the last few centuries are to be considered, the accurate descriptor would be one big ‘fail.’
I do wish white people who act this way would consider this fact before tossing their white supremacist opinions around indiscriminately. Some of us BBI peoples actually believe in our equality and worth despite the continuous efforts of white people, as a group, to NOT see white supremacy as a massive failure of human morality and then act appropriately.
I suspect that when the demographic shifts, the gross failure of white supremacy — indicated by the word ‘pass’ — will be revealed as is: a truly monstrous failure of morality.