Read/Passing: Zadie & Danzy & Adrian & Joelle
Having been caught underground for twenty minutes or so due to some mechanical issues with the subway doors we arrive at Fulton Street, having been instructed to exit the train, move towards the door. I put my thumb in the book I’m reading to mark the page and hold the conspicuous cover close to me, as I catch the subway ad that has been watching me reading this whole time - an ad for a personalized genetic testing service, My Heritage. An east Asian man is pictured with the headline “I’m 8% Italian.” I roll my eyes and exit the train. I am now wondering if someone has seen me, visibly something (as in the remark people make when they are pleasantly surprised to have their seemingly innocuous racial suspicions confirmed - “I knew you were something!”) reading this book “We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America” and if I am performing for them a prophesied vision of a multiracial America. My eyes roll doubly because I’ve just encountered a passage in this book, a collection of stories mostly by writers of their experience of passing, mostly across race but some gender, class, and sexual orientation, where the author is detailing all the ethnicities to which people often think they belong. They aren’t the first or even the second in this collection to draft this list and it is that naming that makes me embarrassed for them and that deeply troubles me about the mixed and raceless future that we are supposedly inevitably hurtling toward.
I don’t think that there is anything wrong with people sharing their honest stories of complex racial identity. I appreciate how some the stories collected in this book detail the messy circumstances that have brought people to reckon with identities, such as the story that talks about the woman whose relationship with her white mother is soured because she refuses to accept her children's’ biracialness. However, some stories are delivered as a single narrative that places the writer as the terminal branch of a family tree, instead of part of a pattern that can be drawn across space and history. Some here and elsewhere in literature and pop culture exoticize themselves in this naming, drawing back into a narrative of the white gaze, recounting stories of times they were asked to answer for themselves, listing the identities they’ve been called to respond to, both those to which they belong and those they don’t. In this constantly reflection on the external definitions or assumptions, it feels like a disavowal. Having experienced a lot of these moments in my life, as a very fair, straight haired, phenotypically white multiracial person of color, with Black, white, Indian, and Pakistani ancestors, I feel for these experiences and am limited in relating in other ways. But as I grow older and really dig deep and identify my personal points of pain and tension and trauma and confusion, I grow frustrated with other people with similar contexts who seemingly refuse to do the same digging and really try to contextualize themselves. I strive for criticality and a vastness and depth of representation of criticality because while light-skinned people of color are extremely overrepresented in media in comparison to other people of color, real talk about those identities and privileges is not. My experiences and personal work to understand my racial complications, claims, and refusals have forced me to identify with otherness but not uniqueness. I don’t wish to isolate myself from the contexts from which my identities were born by saying, people mistake me for this, for this, for this - because I am not this and I am not that. But I am not everything and I am not nothing. I am not open to interpretation, though I am at the will of it and interpretation does not define me.
My Calling (Card); 1986 by Adrian Piper
I don’t seek to be a model for a future in which “we don’t have to think about race anymore” which is the vision that white people and even some people of color, especially multiracial people comfortable with whiteness have for the future. My own multiracialness has not caused me to see the world outside of racial and ethnic identity and labels and conditioning but rather to see it in everything - to see the ways in which my presumed whiteness privileged me in public schools and catapulted me into gifted programs, to see the way my non-white features show up in the faces on the past and future lovers of my lovers, to see the way white women talk to white women about “doing better” and the way they talk to me about “doing better” and the way they talk to more visibly racialized women of color not at all. Perhaps it is because my birth was not the outcome of two unlikely but determinedly in-love people of two distinct races in the year 1991 but rather a chance genetic combination of two already miscegenated people with no hope themselves of ever clearly defining where their own eyelids, noses, eyebrows, and lips came from that I don’t believe in the social and cultural eureka moment resulting from the bearing of a child of mixed race. It’s because of stories like the one in this book about the biracial woman’s mother denying her daughters’ identities until her dying day. It’s because of multiracial people I know who do see themselves as a resolution just through their existence. It’s because I know that white people want to be absolved and what better way to do so than to channel generations of unchallenged whiteness into a child whom they will be told looks like the best of all the worlds.
Commercially available and temptingly accessible sites like ancestry.com are inherently alienating to people of color whose genealogies can be murky, painful. Advertising for these services tries to address this by playfully suggesting that all customers receive some kind of satisfying and pleasant news from researching their families history. I doubt that such services are prepared to offer resources around identifying family members who were enslaved or those who came here as refugees or under similarly painful circumstances. Part of my piece “light gold” deals with the trauma of “genealogy day” in elementary school as a multiracial child removed entirely from any of the family or cultural ties that define that multiracialness. The straightforward, clean, linear quality of the ancestry.com brand story and others like it reinforces the narrative that flattening a complicated and painful history is the best way to understand where you came from.
Services that offer genetic testing like 23andMe, which I am always seeing ads for on instagram where they suggest I use their website to determine my genetic country of origin and root for that team in the FIFA World Cup this year or that I buy my mother a testing kit for Mother's Day, concern me even more. Services like these allow you to send a sample of your DNA like saliva which they’ll analyze and determine your countries of origin. This way of understanding heritage and identity throws out entirely the previously mentioned messiness of not only family history but human history. This service enables everyone to do what I’ve resisted my whole life, which is to break down my heritage biologically into clean, digestible percentages, which is asked of me often because when people inquire and hear me say “Black, white, Indian, and Pakistani” they hear four words and 100 divided by 4 is 25% so I must have one grandparent each that corresponds with each part because there is nothing white people love more than breaking people into numbers. The fear I have with people, specifically white people indulging in a service like this is something I think is at the core of whiteness, which is unchecked, uncritical, powerful and kinetic curiosity. I am interested to know what will be done with this new information. If people find out they are a little more Scandanavian that they’d previously thought, will they plan a trip to Norway the year? When they find out they have a small percentage of South Asian ancestry alongside Dutch or British, will they look into those countries’ history of colonialism in India and Pakistan and goddamn everywhere? Will it allow them to see themselves in a different light, to see their parents and grandparents and great grandparents in a different light and to understand that their whiteness is arbitrary, an accident, and a choice all at once?
I consider my multiracialism a gift for reasons that should now be obvious. I have white privilege which I hope to moderate by doing all that I can do both expand and protect the definitions of what it means to be a person of color, with respect to the Black women who defined the term and created and continue to sustain a feminism and community to which I continually strive to be part of. The other privilege of my multiracial identity is an intense criticality of the modes and outputs of whiteness. Because my appearance does not always reflect my heritage and identity, I unintentionally bring whiteness with me wherever I go so I must constantly keep in check and question, is this a behavior that has been rewarded in the past because of my proximity to whiteness? Is there a cultural difference that I’m not seeing because of my conditioning in whiteness? This keen sense of deep and self-challenging is not inherent to multiracialism but is something I’ve chosen to center because I don’t aim to be anyone’s answer to race but my own.
Some things to know and read:
My zine, Light Gold
Danzy Senna’s Caucasia and New People (also Doreen St. Felix’s piece on New People)
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time
Adrian Piper’s retrospective at MoMA
Light Skinned Tears zine
(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race