Is There Anything Wrong With Passing for Black?

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Dear Race Manners:

I have curly dark hair and am of Indian and Caucasian descent. I have a really diverse group of friends, and because of my hair and my skin tone (a deep tan/brown), I find that people often assume I’m black. I feel awkward correcting them, so I just go with it. Is that wrong? A black friend of mine gets irritated when I don’t correct people, but it’s not like I am telling anyone I’m black. They’re just making assumptions. —Passing Problems

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It it wrong? I guess not. But I think you should stop.

Passing—presenting oneself as a member of a racial group to which one does not belong—has a long history in this country. Marcia Dawkins, the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity calls it a “rhetorical act” that “forces us to think and rethink what, exactly, makes a person black, white or ‘other,’ and why we care.” 

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But yours is not the old, familiar passing. It’s not like what’s happening when people who’d otherwise identify as black choose to “pass” for white to evade racist treatment. It differs, even, from the situations of those who insist that being black is central to their identity but are accused of a type of reverse passing because of their white ancestry and accompanying looks.

In your case, there are no immediate or ancestral relationship to the race you’re “passing” for. You don’t actually consider yourself black or, from what I can tell, want to do so.

And, to be fair, you’re not encouraging confusion about your heritage as a means to an end, like Scott Fistler, who legally changed his name to Cesar Chavez in an admitted effort to attract more Latino votes in his congressional race.

Instead, you’re simply sitting back and letting people believe what they choose to in those initial fractions of a second after meeting someone when we register race (even before gender) and put you in a category. It’s a type of sorting that, in my experience, many people feel is urgent business. (The only thing that surprises me is that you don’t get more of the “What are you?” and “What are you mixed with?” questions that many people who do identify as black field on a regular basis, opening up a window for them to explain the details of their heritage that informs their physical appearance.)

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So are you doing anything wrong by allowing people to live with the assumptions about you that they volunteered to make? Not really. And Dawkins points out that it’s not your friend’s place to question your actions here (and it goes without saying that it’s never really productive for anyone to get into the business of policing how other people describe themselves—or don’t.)

But it might help to understand why she’s irritated. My guess is that it’s because being in the United States today, black is more than having brown skin, a certain texture of hair and a claim to membership in a “diverse” group. It’s a category with historical, cultural and political meaning. Accepting whatever benefits the assumption that you’re black offers to you (Does it help you fit in? Or just save you from explaining yourself?) without the accompanying burdens—like the psychological experience of seeing the world through the lens of the African-American experience every day—seems a little 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.

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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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Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

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

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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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