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Passing in the 21st Century

Aviva Dove-Viebahn with her parents, poet Rita Dove and writer Fred Viebahn.
Aviva Dove-Viebahn with her parents, poet Rita Dove and writer Fred Viebahn.

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Erin Aubry Kaplan criticizes President Barack Obama's racial politics and expresses frustration over his late-July appearance on The View in which he ostensibly whitewashed his biracial heritage:

When Walters pressed Obama on why he doesn't call himself biracial — after helpfully reminding him that he had a white mother — what she was really asking is why he doesn't put white folks like her more at ease by downplaying or modifying his blackness, which, post-racialism notwithstanding, continues to be so nettlesome. Obama essentially obliged her. He implied that his black identity was somehow a choice. But that's nonsense.


And perhaps for Obama, as Kaplan goes on to say, blackness isn't a choice — one drop makes him black. No matter how "white" his DNA, he can only ever be an "exceptional Negro" in the eyes of not-so-post-racial America. But what if you're not an internationally known politician, constantly under a microscope clouded by public opinion, current affairs and race politics? What if you're black, but few, if any, see it? What is at stake politically and racially for biracial Americans whom no one recognizes?

My story starts like this: His name was Daniel, a tall, dark-skinned boy in my class with cornrows and clear, smooth skin. We were 14, and it was the last week of our final year of middle school, so we were saying our goodbyes, since I'd be heading off to a new school after the summer break. We were friends, but not close ones. Still, we hung out during lunch; we talked; we'd known each other for three years.


Perhaps I was berating him for shaving off his cornrows and mentioned that my mother always complained about her hair, too. Or maybe someone told him in passing who my mother was and he connected the dots. What I do remember is how I stood there incredulously by his locker as he stared at me in shock.

"I didn't know you were black!"

I scoffed. How was that even possible? "Did you think I was just really tan, Daniel, or what?"

He looked chagrined, and I felt an irrepressible annoyance rise up inside as I stalked away. It didn't surprise me when new white friends didn't figure out that I was biracial until they met my parents, blinded as they were by the presumption that everyone was white unless they weren't. But I had counted on him to recognize me, to recognize my race and correlate it with his own.

My mom used to call me her golden girl, and I've always identified strongly with Saffronia, the second of Nina Simone's archetypal "Four Women" (discounting the story of her conception): My skin is yellow, my hair is long/Between two worlds, I do belong. Unlike our president, though, my black heritage does not radiate through my tan complexion and curly-but-wisp-thin brown hair. Unlike our president, my life isn't broadcast across the globe for all to see. If I went around telling people that I just spent a lot of time at tanning salons, they'd believe me. I don't want to pass, but I do.


It's ironic, too, that what I see as two of the defining factors of my identity — my race and my sexual orientation — are all but invisible to those around me. I say this because I'm also a lesbian, and while I'm completely out, if you saw me walking down the street, you'd never know. Part of this has to do with lesbian stereotypes; I'm neither butch nor a tomboy. Does that make me less gay or, more important, less politically viable as a gay woman?

I've heard the argument that femme women often make more of an impact when they come out as gay because people's stereotypical assumptions about what lesbians "should" look and act like are shattered, at least momentarily. But that only works if you come out to every person you meet, stranger or intimate, friend or foe. The same goes for my race. How can I help dismantle black stereotypes if no one knows I'm black?


In identity politics, visibility is a pretty big deal, and it still means something to be black (and/or gay) in America; this is by no means a colorblind society. But I'm "unseen" in a different way than Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, enjoying white privilege, and heterosexual privilege, at every turn — without my consent. It may seem a ludicrous complaint, especially since I'm not hiding my "identities" on purpose, but what can I do — wear a sign around my neck? Emblazon a T-shirt with the phrase, "I'm a biracial lesbian, just so you know and can respond accordingly"?

After all, who would be happy not to be recognized for what they really are?

Aviva Dove-Viebahn just received her Ph.D. in visual and cultural studies from the University of Rochester and currently teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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