Passing as Black? Some Initial Thoughts…

Thomas Chatterton Williams has written an intriguing article highlighting recent trends of multiracial children “passing as black.” If I let myself go I will write a short book on this before I finish, so I will refrain and simply offer a few thoughts and questions and invite your comments and thoughts as well.

Mongrel and biracial are not the same thing…. First, I think Williams is concerned that blackness is often construed so narrowly it creates a necessity to “pass.” He wants to point to biracial as more naturally a category within black existence and thus free biracial people to live into being black while also expanding what it means to be black.

I am deeply sympathetic to this project, but I wonder if it doesn’t collapse racial modalities of an earlier American era with our contemporary reality. That is, the biracial child of slavery was a child of rape or illicit love, but in either case their birth could be monetarily quantified. They were still a slave.

While some might have served in the big house, they were still chattel and the mark of their mother remained with them. Those who sought to claim their father’s life were either killed or had to undergo a social exile in order to attain their status as “white” men or women. While occupying a precarious (or often feared) space within black society mulattoes nonetheless remained black. Passing in post-Civil War society through the 1920’s represented an attempt to gain access to social, economic, or political advantage that was sometimes temporary, but oftentimes represented a complete immersion that required a cutting of of ties to any connection that could implicate one as dark.

The reason for this brief historical context is to highlight an important difference in the experience of biracial people today. Many of us remain with our parents or live in households where racial difference exists together. While Williams wants to expand the tent of blackness, I worry this expansion simplifies a reality that can only be repeatedly and necessarily complicated. That is, part of the tension felt by biracial people today is the remaining structure of racial certainty that presses upon us. And yet,  radically near or domestic realities render such formulations of certainty, and their cultural practices, unstable at best.

To simply say everyone is black is to ignore the important tensions that exist inside of households and yet are so often resisted or separated in a biracial person’s daily life. This is very different from a genealogical claim that “we all have mixture.” Of course, there are no “pure” people, but that is hardly evident from the structural and cultural realities of our daily life (as Williams himself suggests in his important book Losing My Cool.)

A recent complication of contemporary biracial reality is something like this: a biracial boy, watching tv with his white mother, exclaims something about “white people!” in disgust or surprise and turns to see his white mother looking at him in shock and estrangement. The negotiation is not merely a person in relation to a community but persons within profound relationships of kinship. This is not to say these relationships only exist within the family, but I hope to simply press a slightly different challenge in present biracial life. Williams’ resistance to passing resists the very real tensions that persist in a racial world where difference resides no longer in segregated neighborhoods that require risky, defiant, or trickster practices to bypass racial discipline.

In contemporary society, biracial politics are worked out within a household as children check boxes, choose music/friends, and navigate what it means to be a son or daughter along with what it means to be a friend. The risk is no longer geographic, but domestic. But this leads to a second important point regarding the reality of biracial life in contemporary society, the widening variety of the biracial experience.

Don’t subsume biracial identity into the black/white matrix… Second, Williams moves rather quickly past Washington Post editor, Elizabeth Chang’s frustration over President Barack Obama’s claiming himself to be black rather than biracial.

What is left unsaid in this question is how the reality of the black/white biracial person resonates deeply with the reality of both 2nd generation immigrant children as well as other variations of biracial/multiethnic life. This connection points to an important shift in biracial identities. In a positive light, this connection points to clear shift away from the racist, anti-black rhetoric of the not-too-long-ago American experience. Choosing and living into a racial identity is a possibility now for those who have a drop of black in a way that was never possible in earlier eras.

But at the same time, the tension of choosing and the cultural stakes remain high. The idea of having to tragically forsake one’s mother or father, albeit rhetorically in some cases, remains a reality of America’s racial framework. We have yet to make sense of these subtle, but powerful forces that work upon our collective imaginations and outline our social and cultural proclivities.

Such a tension is felt intensely among biracial people of many different combinations. Questions of food, language, customs are often daily questions and challenges that are not unrelated to the decisions related in the sociological phenomenon passing as black, in some ways it is a question of cultural belonging.

It seems to me this is a much larger conversation than the simple black-white dichotomy can process. We need a wider set of interpretive tools to think through how to negotiate these experiences. The realities of our brothers and sisters who are Korean/Black, Chinese/White, Taiwanese/Philipino can contribute a great deal to helping us process the challenges of being mixed-anything in a society predicated upon even a delusional sense of purity. we must acknowledge that what was a unique “black experience” has deep resonances in surprising places and this means racial politics of any sort must re-imagined.

a few random thoughts… While these thoughts have been a bit rambling, there are a few loose threads I am, frankly, still trying to make sense of.

First, while the idea of passing as black is a fascinating trend, mixed marriages of black and (anything) remain the lowest of all mixed marriages in the United States and marriages of black women to anyone else remain the lowest of all mixed marriages. There is something going on here. While many who pass as black are definitely embracing something of themselves and seeking to live into a difference that is both perceived and real, there remain real problems of representation, standards of beauty and desire that we need to account for.

Second, I can’t help but think there is an element of class here that is going without analysis. Who are those who have the freedom to choose? What are the economic and social realities that permit mixed marriages in the first place? How will the re-segregation of schools shift this trend in twenty years? Could this phenomenon be one of the first (and last) fruit of school desegregation? Obviously, Williams does not have the space to address such questions, but these are things that are rattling around nonetheless.

Thirdly, I am still struggling to figure out the difference gender makes. Contemporary fictional accounts of mixed identity have been largely written by female authors (Zadie Smith, Danzy Senna, Heidi Durrow, to name a few) but we have seen fewer contemporary accounts written by men (if you know of any please pass them on!) I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something there… I am sure of it.

Lastly, I am not sure the reality of passing as black sufficiently names the tension that some of us biracial people should feel, that our racial ambiguity gives us a freedom to pass as black without necessarily subjecting ourselves to the full reality of what it means to be black in America. This is a highly contextual claim, I know. For some mixed folk, they are identified as black first, but for others (myself included) we must declare our blackness. I have been fortunate to have been given the space among black communities of friends and scholars, but it remains a challenge and a choice in front of some biracial people.

This can look a lot of different ways, but I know my experience in the world is different than those whose blackness is a veil few can look past. This is a topic I don’t have time to deepen here, but I think it is an important point to consider in this conversation.

In all, Williams has picked up on an important shift in American racial politics and is one black Americans must continue to wrestle with as the race question becomes increasingly multiracial rather than biracial. I am glad for his contribution.

I have rambled on long enought and this is already too long, so I would love to hear your thoughts about Williams’ article, my few thoughts here or other views on what it means to pass as black.


5 thoughts on “Passing as Black? Some Initial Thoughts…

  1. I think you and Williams might actually be on the same page.
    Having experienced several “schizophrenic” identity crises as a child of Nigerian parents born in America, I think it’s dangerous to oversimplify the complexity of race and identity. Many first generation Americans know what I’m talking about, particularly those with African parents who disparaged the idea of identifying with “American blackness” without leaving their kids with a realistic alternative. I’m not sure I completely understand your point about “mixed marriages” though…

    1. You are quite right, Tinu. I am really sympathetic to Williams’ point. I guess part of my hesitancy is whether we can account for those non-black relationships as also black in a certain kind of way. My sense is Williams would say yes, but that wasn’t so clear to me. You are absolutely right about the tension first generation Africans face and I think this is where the varied reality of multiracial (and multiethnic) should not be too easily left out of the conversation.

      1. Brian, thanks for responding to our pleas for your thoughts! You bring up much needed points on making space for “other” besides black/white. And so thankful someone (Tinu) can comment to the space that first generation Americans inhabit…..much more on that to come hopefully in my writings and in others…
        Peace and all good peeps.

  2. Dear Brian,

    I came across your article yesterday, and I just wanted to thank you for such an intelligent piece of commentary. And where you disagreed with me, you raised some points that really have me thinking. Especially the idea that since biracial children are conceived out of love and not bondage, that ought to permit them the option of a more nuanced identity should they wish to seek it. Anyway, there’s much to mull over here. Thank you.


Comments are closed.