My mother has always taught me that I was a Black woman. My fair skin and blue eyes were, in her words, simply a product of centuries of violence on Black people and the effects of colonization. Had I been born in another era, my appearance would not have freed me from slavery, nor would it have offered me much more privilege in a world where people looked to expose “white-passing negroes.” In fact, one of my passing ancestors was hired by Macy’s and was unceremoniously dismissed when they discovered that she was Black.
This story has been told over and over again in pop culture since the 19th century. Initially introduced by Lydia Maria Child, the “tragic mulatto” is a character explored repeatedly in literature and film. Child told the story of the light-skinned descendant of an enslaver and an enslaved person whose identity was discovered. She lost her white lover and status and was subsequently enslaved (Ferris). This trope was replicated over and over again in pop culture, painting mulatto women as sexual objects and often ending with the tortured mulatto dying by suicide or losing everything due to the discovery of their “Blackness” (ThoughtCo).
• Shift your language to say “white presenting” instead of “white passing” when referring to Black people that physically look white.
• Learn about the history of the “one drop rule” that allowed for the disenfranchisement and continued enslavement of Black people in America with white ancestry.
• Read books like “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett and “Passing” by Nella Larsen.
We can’t talk about the “tragic mulatto” without discussing the “one-drop rule” of slavery and the Jim Crow era. In American history, Blackness was defined as having “one Black ancestor.” This rule effectively enabled America to keep the mixed-race descendants of enslaved people and enslavers in slavery and to disenfranchise mixed-raced Americans from suffrage and opportunities. Whiteness is something that has largely been forced upon us through rape and colonization (PBS).
So my mother taught me to appreciate my Blackness from a very young age, in spite of me being under the illusion that it was mostly irrelevant. I have joked that she named me Imani Nia—both Swahili names and principles of Kwanzaa—so that I would have to explain to everyone upon introduction that I was biracial, despite these baby blues. However, my Blackness is, has always been, and always will be a significant part of my identity. My entire family is Black and has many trailblazers in our lineage. My grandfather was a legal clerk on Brown v. The Board of Education, and my grandmother was the first Black woman in Western Pennsylvania to head a major charitable organization. My great-grandmother was a union organizer.
Another problematic facet of being white passing is society’s desire to separate us into a binary or force us to identify one way or another. There is a pressure to identify with one group or another (NPR). White people have often told me that I am “white” because of my skin tone and have been told that my children, who have a white father, are also white. It has been suggested to me that I raise my children as white, which I find problematic because this would require me to effectively cancel their ancestors. Instead, I will teach my children that Blackness can be found in all spectrums.
So what does white passing look like in America today? I have largely switched to saying white-presenting as opposed to white passing. The historical context of white passing is rooted in violence and disenfranchisement of fair-skinned Black Americans. However, we cannot acknowledge this without mentioning colorism, when light-skinned Black people and white Americans tend to turn their internalized racism towards darker-skinned Black people. For example, there was a higher monetary value set for enslaved people who were light-skinned, and even historically, Black sororities and fraternities have been known to show colorism in member selection. (Nova Southeastern University). Even today, light-skinned Black Americans are less likely to encounter the same barriers as their darker-skinned counterparts (Time).
To say “white passing” implies that I have the desire to pass, which I have never had. What’s more interesting is the desire of white Americans to claim Black ancestry, as shown by Jessica Krug and Rachel Dolezal (NBC). These women used their false claims of Black ancestry to take up spaces and procure funding that could have otherwise been for people of color, provoking a national dialogue.
When examining my identity, I have largely decided that the only identity I need to claim is my Blackness. For a long time, I said mixed or biracial, but another Black woman explained to me we are all mixed due to the violent history of our country. This made sense to me, so I shifted my language to Black. In America, we have never been asked or expected to claim our whiteness. Instead, it has been inflicted upon us without allowing us the opportunity to claim the benefits.
• Blackness comes in all colors and tones.
• Historically, the term “white-passing” was used to disenfranchise Black Americans with white ancestry.
• In recent years, white Americans have tried to capitalize on a Black ancestry that was not theirs to claim.