Racial ‘passing’ is still a reality. Here’s why I embraced my complex identity
The origins of passing stretch back to our country’s founding. For some Black people, crossing the color line meant a chance to improve their social status, economic opportunity, and marital prospects. Some scholars claim passing is no longer a phenomenon because of greater economic opportunity and stronger legal protections for Black Americans. But passing has never gone away. For many, it is a reality — but one that can be transformed into a powerful way to embrace our true identities.
For much of my life, I’ve passed as white. My “high yella” skin, as my grandmother called it, along with gray-green eyes and straight hair, hid the fact that I am mixed race. So did my family. In 1967, a year after I was born, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Still, mixed-race relationships remained socially unacceptable in some parts of the country. For me, growing up in a small town in western New York, my very existence as a mixed-race person was a personal affront to some.
So, my family tried to maintain the facade that I was extremely light-skinned and Black — not mixed race. Despite their efforts, I was seen as white in public spaces, classrooms, and, later, at work.
I didn’t always “out” myself as something other than white because it felt emotionally heavy and awkward. I didn’t want to invite friends over to my house and be forced to explain why I looked different from my family. I was also aware of the privilege it afforded me; my skin color gave me access to social circles and, sometimes, jobs. Only later did I realize the advantages I was getting made me complicit in a system that oppressed others.
My turning point came during my freshman year in college. During a party, Prince’s “Purple Rain” was playing in the dorm. Until then, I had assumed that Prince’s artistic brilliance transcended racial boundaries. Someone snickered that Prince was “trying too hard to look white” but would “always sound Black.”
The remark stopped me in my tracks. There was a price for being invisible. I realized some people were going to say racist things in front of me because of who they thought I was. It was time to stop allowing others to look at me and assume I was white.
Today, I take pains to intentionally declare my complex identity. I explain that I’m mixed race, but identify as Black because of family. I also correct strangers who categorize me as white. And after being in the closet until my mid-30s, I proudly tell people I’m gay and introduce my husband and our adopted children. I want to make sure that any passing that happens is not an intentional action.
My daughter, who is also lighter-skinned, doesn’t feel the same pressure to publicly declare her identity, however. People she encounters read her as biracial or, in some cases, Latina or Mediterranean. Even with a DNA test that shows her exact heritage, she tells me she doesn’t feel the need to explain to people who she is.
She’s not alone in deciding that identity is not rigid, but rather something people must decide for themselves. The new census report shows multiracial people are among the fastest growing population segments in the country. Even in Massachusetts, which ranks in the middle of the pack of US states when it comes to diversity, the number of people saying they belong to two or more racial groups has doubled since the last census.
It would seem, then, that a growing number of people are less worried about whether they fit into one specific racial category. The 2020 Census showed that 1 in 7 people checked the box for “some other race.” Many of them identified as being of Latino, Hispanic, or Spanish origin — or of Middle Eastern or North African descent — a possible signal that some communities are pushing back against the traditional boundaries of how the government might categorize them. You could say they have “passed” into a new, blurred racial and ethnic category.
Passing, as a movie and a phenomenon, is ultimately about refusing to accept the labels the world places on you. After the lights came up in the theater, I explained that idea to my daughter. My own identity was something I once allowed others to determine. As for my daughter and the next generation, no matter how they appear to the world, who they love, or how they see themselves when they look in the mirror, they now have more freedom to tell the world not to pass judgment on them. Increasingly, they are growing more comfortable in their own skin.
Steve Majors is the author of “High Yella”, now available at your favorite retailer