The Black side of passing as white: The double sting of racism in America

October 16, 2017
2.6K Picks
By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor

Books and articles about passing as white are becoming more common, but most of have been confused about the topic. They have titillated white readers by treating the subject as an entertaining oddity (“whites who found out they were actually black!”), and white readers are held spellbound by the duplicity of the person passing and the idea that white society could be fooled by racial imposters and social climbers, insinuating that people of color would naturally prefer to be white. These books and articles have failed miserably at acknowledging the black side of passing.

In my family, numerous people have passed as white and I have had a front-row seat to the real feelings and actions that are the fallout from passing into whiteness.

Within Creole families, because of our diverse history, the genetic shuffling of DNA means that some people from the same family could be mistaken for white while others cannot. Mistaken is the right word, too. Whites mistakenly take light skin with phenotypically white hair and features for white, but in the Creole world, they are Creoles.

Creoles have a 300-year history of moving fluidly across the color line as it suited them. They don’t necessarily consider the process of passing to be new, fascinating or desirable. Many Creoles continue a tradition of disdain for arbitrary racial designations, just by calling themselves Creoles and refusing to claim to be black or white.

My Hazeur relatives are the perfect example of how quickly arbitrary racial designations changed and were codified in the U.S. and why passing became necessary for some people. More than 200 years ago the last French governor of Louisiana Pierre De Laussat visited my 5th-great-grandfather and my 5th-great-uncles on their plantation in Metairie.

My relatives made no attempt to hide the fact that they were living with free women of color and had Creole of color children. At the time this was technically against the law. But because this occurred before Americans took control of the Louisiana Territory enforcement of arbitrary racial designations was not of paramount importance. Pierre De Laussat characterized the whole situation as my relatives’ “colonial weakness,” a pretty weak rebuke.

Just thirty years after this encounter, my same white 5th-great -uncle was listed as “colored” on his death certificate. After Americans took control of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, they began to enforce rights based on skin color. New American legislators in Louisiana made it extremely difficult for white fathers to leave their wealth and property to their of color children. Americans and their arbitrary color designations made passing a necessity to hold onto family wealth. My Hazeur uncle moved across the color line not because he longed to be a different race; he was listed as colored so that his children could inherit his plantation and property without any legal problems.

For some people of color who pass into whiteness, it is not an easy process. They feel they must change everything about their lives, not only their racial identity. This means cutting all ties to their of color family members. They must sever their ties with their whole culture. Others like my grandfather, who passed at times to get good paying jobs, simply returned to his black family and community at the end of the work day.

On the black side of passing are the people left behind when their family members decided to pass into whiteness. They experience the double sting of passing and racism.

First is the sting of losing relatives, aunts, uncles and cousins who in some instances haven been your playmates and confidants for generations. They no longer have anything to do with you. No contact, no more visits on Sundays, or dinners at grandparents’ house together.  People may have to move away from the areas where they grew up to successfully pass. Childhood memories that you shared disintegrate, people you looked up to and revered are gone, and important loving relationships, support provided by the family structure, may be lost.

The second sting might be the cruelest, the realization that those family members—your loved ones—who pass into whiteness have voluntarily joined people that have been oppressing people of color for 400 years. They have bought into the tripe of American racism.

Passing denies the intrinsic value of the group left behind. Those of color relatives feel deep disappointment. This is more than a racial snub. Those family members feel the resentment of being left behind, abandoned, just like the rest of America has tried to leave behind or abandon people of color. And as people of color they continue to experience the daily racism faced by all people of color in the U.S. In some cases, resentment against white discrimination and racism is now condensed into anger against your kin for joining this group.

I saw the “double sting” of passing on full display during a family reunion. The resentment that it generated was palpable among some family members and feelings of abandonment were evident.

Some of the second generation of family who passed had grown up always thinking they were white. And for all practical purposes they were. They were completely oblivious to their family history and were surprised they were not welcomed by their relatives of color. Many of them were told not to bring up the “color” issue by the older generations.

Some of the older, first generation that chose to pass felt shame when confronted by of color relatives and a wall of denial was thrown up. Their passing was not discussed. Neither side could break down that wall. To cover up their shame at abandoning their kin, some relatives insisted they were white, even as they stood next to their “of color” cousins. As a coping mechanism they reinforced the idea that their mere white appearance accrued some higher status to them, as opposed to their of color kin.

Creoles developed a unique culture in Louisiana over the last 300 years and in places like New Orleans it is celebrated daily in its style, language, cuisine and music. In the Creole world the idea of whiteness dominating is as foreign and absurd as pickles in red beans and rice.

Thirty- to fifty-thousand people of color pass into whiteness every year. DNA evidence confirms that nearly 70 million Americans have some African DNA, while only 45 million Americans identify as black.

It is not a new or freakish phenomenon, contrary to how it is served up to entertain white people. In fact, some of those most aggressive and insistent about their whiteness may have suffered the double sting of American racism, the fallout from passing, in their own families.

Like other white Americans, those who pass into whiteness can be selfish and self-involved, accruing all the benefits of white privilege to themselves and their children. They can disregard people of color and become completely self-involved in their white world.

Americans who have passed into whiteness stirring up racial discord or promoting racists ideas is the most malevolent mischief imaginable. When whites reinforce racism, segregation, white supremacy and racial stereotypes and try to aggravate racism and stop racial progress, they don’t just hurt individual black people. They impose huge economic and social costs upon our country and the world.

But those who pass into whiteness can advocate for equality and fight against injustice in a way that people of color cannot.  They do not need to acknowledge their black heritage, but they can use their white privilege to educate white America. They can let other white Americans know when they are being racists. They can let them know that the privilege that they have as white Americans is real and is an advantage that they can use for good or evil.

They can point out just how intertwined and interdependent black and white Americans are. Some of the most virulent racists in U.S. history like Senator Strom Thurmond and President Thomas Jefferson had children and relationships with people of color, while advocating racism, segregation and white supremacy. White privilege allows those who pass to point out these hypocrisies in a way that no person of color can. They as white Americans can call other white Americans on the carpet for a 400-year history of racism, violence and oppression.

The double sting of passing can inflict sharp reminders of American racism and abandonment upon family members who don’t pass. But having white privilege also provides a huge opportunity for progress, a chance to take a giant step beyond the racism and mistakes of our shared past.