Passing for Black

Written by on October 5, 2017

What if I told you mixed people (for lack of a better term; mulatto sounds stupid, biracial sounds robotic, and multiracial could work, but mixed is shorter to type) pass for black the way some black people passed for white? Rachel Dolezal probably pops into your mind, but she did it for a different reason. White guilt I assume. Identity politics is all the rage these days, and I believe everyone should let their freak flag fly. Unfortunately, freaks like the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist terrorist organizations will fly their flags too. That’s identity politics for you. Anyone can choose to identify with whatever one wants. Or can they? Racial identity was thrusted upon you at birth. You breathed it in along with your first breath, only you didn’t know. Being mixed, I guess I had to take two breaths because I’m supposed to be made from two different races. Yet, I was raised to identify primarily with one, black. Part of being mixed is realizing you’re black by default. It’s a bipolar racial identity; you’re black, but you’re not black, but you’re definitely not white. Being white is based on mythological racial purity, whereas being black means you can have muddied waters. Part of being black is being part of a collective experience. Mixed people have their own experience in this country (not that it is a homogenized experience) that is separate from the black experience, and it has been mostly ignored.

I have experienced a sense of solidarity with black people and people of color, because we know what it’s like to not be white. But, black people have let me know at various times in my life that I’m not black. I have been called half-breed, Oreo, zebra (which I thought was dumb, because zebras are cool), not by white people, but by black people. My older brother vividly remembers being in first grade, at St. John de Nepomuc, and during recess he wanted to join in with the rest of the kids to play a game, but the black kids said, “the white boy can’t play,” so he had to sit and watch everyone play from the wall. A friend of mine once tried to set me up with a girl, who happened to be black, and when I met her for the first time the first thing she asked me was, “what are you mixed with (which was better than the usual question what are you)?” I begrudgingly answered, “black and white.”  To which she matter-of-factly stated, “I can’t talk to you because I don’t like white people.” I looked down at my hands, looked up, and pointed out, “last time I checked I’m brown.” “You know what I mean,” she responded like she didn’t appreciate my point. I knew exactly what she meant.

Growing up in the ‘80s, I never saw families that looked like mine on TV or in movies. If a mixed kid did have a role, that kid also had two black parents. Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad, on The Cosby Show, even had mixed daughters. They couldn’t fool me, I knew Lisa Bonet’s real parents didn’t look like that. The effect is too see mixed people as black and to not recognize the interracial makeup of our country.

Mixed people are here, but we’re not. There was never a racial box that represented me on forms. The country didn’t recognize me. I turned 16 at the end of 1990, and like most 16 year olds, I looked forward to getting my license. My friend Ed already had his license, but his parents would rarely let him borrow the car. My parents were more liberal with their automobiles. I had to pass my driver’s test because this would be our only way to be able to traverse the city looking for girls. My mom went with me to the DMV that day. I would notice that people would look at my mom funny when she was out with me in public, like they were trying to figure out the mystery of the white woman with the brown kid. I was more excited than nervous because I was more than confident that I would pass. Of course, I passed with flying colors (and I backed my mom’s new car into a tree not too long after that). All I had to do now was hand in my form, take my picture, and the rest is history. I forgot to mention that I didn’t fill in the race box on my driver’s license form because they didn’t have a box for me. When I handed my form over to the lady behind the counter she congratulated me on passing and looked my form over. She lifted her head up, and through her fake DMV smile, she said “you didn’t check the race box,” and handed the form back to me along with a pen. I replied, “you don’t have a box for me.” She looked puzzled, but still managed to keep the fake smile on her face, and asked me “well, what are you (I can never seem to get away from that question)?” “Mixed’” I declared. To which she matter-of-factly stated, “that doesn’t exist,” and still maintained the fake smile. At this point, I’m thinking, lady if you are just as annoyed as me right now, please take that damn smile off of your face. I felt defeated. Once again, invisible. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being black, but that is only half of my equation. My mom countered, “he’s standing right in front of you, so it obviously exists.” Never losing her smile, the lady, who happened to be black, told me, “you have to pick which side you most identify with.” That’s the thing. I identify with being mixed. Now it’s just a matter of how will a police officer see me when he pulls me over. I checked the black box and kept it movin’.


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