Passing, what does that mean to you? Maybe a test score higher than 50%, overtaking someone in your car or time going by. To people of colour however, it means something completely different; for me it means identity. “White-passing” is a term used to refer to someone who is not white; someone of mixed ethnicity who has particularly light skin or perhaps the absence of specific features associated with a particular ethnicity who can in most situations, pass as a white person. Think Mariah Carey!
Growing up with a white mother and a black father, I didn’t identify as a colour or associate myself with any ethic group. If someone asked me in high school, what are you? What is your ethnicity? How do you identify? I would say, “I’m just mixed”; I don’t “identify as anything”. I honestly did not think more deeply about it. Dad was dad and mum was just mum. It is only recently, as I entered my 20’s and my first year of university that I started to recognize or acknowledge my father as a black man and to understand all that has entailed. I have always felt extremely proud of my family history and ethnicity so it was never about denial. My Father grew up in South Africa during Apartheid and at 16 he left for the UK and became a political refugee; his mother was Chinese and his father was a black South African. My mother is of European and Jewish decent. As we enter this new age of social justice and awareness I hear the term “white privilege” and “passing privilege” being used more and more and initially I found it very confusing.
I began to struggle with where I fit in. I acknowledge that I am mixed race but I am also white passing. Many assume I am white but I do not identify as so. I actually started to feel embarrassed of how proud I felt of my ethnicity; I felt like I wasn’t “coloured” enough! Towards the end of high school, I was in math class when I was discussing my ethnicity with a friend. The teacher overheard our conversation and interrupted by saying “you’re not really black; if you go back further enough everyone is black because humans originated from Africa”. Even my distinctively black friends laugh at me when I say “oh me too”. Of course I completely understand their views, as we don’t relate to each other on that level at all.
My pale skin has given me advantages in life that others do not have. As a young adult I have never experienced racism. I don’t get followed when I enter a store. I have never experienced racial discrimination and people don’t assume that I can dance and sing. On the other hand the term “white-passing” can be a way of suppressing my ethnicity and I know that during the Apartheid, many in my situation hid behind the “white” veil and kept their real origins a secret. I have struggled with my personal identity and perhaps I still do. Although my pale skin is a privilege, as life is automatically made easier for me, I don’t think that should over power the truth about my ethnic roots and personal identity. I, and those like me, will spend the rest of our lives explaining ourselves. Answering the same questions over and over again and I am ok with that. I am black and I am white. I am Jewish and I am Chinese and European. I am the oppressed and I am the oppressor. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone and I will not pre-judge you and I hope you won’t pre judge me. I think that this kind of self-awareness is key. Embrace your ethnicity, history and where you came from because everyone has a story to tell and this is mine.
After all, at the end of the day race is something completely made up by humans and is a societal construct. There is only one true race – the human race. Passing privilege exists and being aware of that is the best thing you can do. As Maya Angleou said, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the presentinaccessible.”
Written by Maia Wilson
To see more of Maia’s work check out @maia_wilson on Instagram.
*All views expressed in this blog post belong to the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of CYH.