Is There Anything Wrong With Passing for Black?

Race Manners: Technically, no, but accepting the benefits of being in a different racial group without having to live with the daily burdens seems a bit unfair.

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Moreover, you have a unique background of your own and it seems like kind of a shame not to let your friends and acquaintances know about it. Why wouldn’t you want people to know your actual heritage? Maybe it’s that, culturally, you all pretty much grew up the same. Maybe it’s that you don’t want to stand out or be stereotyped or be pegged as the go-to person to discuss The Mindy Project. But certainly your parents’ respective backgrounds have offered you some perspectives or experiences that make your life richer or just make you. It concerns me that you’d want to keep those things under wraps.

I understand that it might be easier to “just go with it.” I can imagine that a scene in which your friend says, “We’re the only black people at this bar,” and you respond, “Well not exactly, because I’m actually Indian and white! Not sure if you knew,” could be awkward—especially if you don’t like to be the center of attention. Dawkins, who draws a distinction between intentional and unintentional passing, says it’s totally normal that you’re not interested in “trotting out your ancestry in social situations” and says, especially when you’re on the move, there’s no need to correct people.

But what’s gained by keeping people who are going to be a regular part of your life in the dark? In the age of social media oversharing, surely you can strategically choose a #tbt family photo that makes your parentage clear, since a dramatic racial “coming out” clearly wouldn’t be something you’d be interested in.  

I predict that as the country becomes more diverse, more multiracial, and as we develop a collective better understanding of how fluid racial identity can be, people won’t be so quick to assume they know anyone’s exact background—or what they like to call themselves—just by looking at them. Until we get to a place where it’s normal to (respectfully) ask, I think you and your friends will all benefit if you take just the tiniest bit of initiative to do something other than “pass.”

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Previously in Race Manners: “‘Barbecue’ vs. ‘Cookout’: What Race Has to Do With It”

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

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