Ask Lisa Advice: I Look White. Why Should I tell Anyone I’m Not?

In this week’s column, I counsel a Multiracial girl who appears White and is considering “opting out” of her Black Heritage.

Dear Lisa

I am mixed Black and White, but I look pretty White because my Black parent (dad) is really light and a lot of people don’t even guess that he’s Black. Most people think I am Italian or Armenian or something. My question is—since I get so sick of explaining that I’m part Black, do I have to? I have read your column a bunch of times and I you always advise Mixed people to identify however they choose and to accept a “flexible racial identity” if they want. So why not just let people think I’m White if they’re going to think I’m White anyway?

My dad says it is bad to try to pass, but I’m not. Passing would be if I lied and said I was White. Right? I’m just letting them think whatever they want because it’s easier.

Signed- Light Girl

Dear Light Girl,

Yup—I did say all that about Mixed people having flexible identities. And I would never instruct you on how you should identify or on whether you should correct people when they assume you are White.

You absolutely can and should identify yourself racially however you see fit. I stand by this. However, if you were my therapy client, I would flip this back on you and ask—what do you think?

Should you allow people to go on believing that you are White, even as they get to know you?

I suspect you’re ambivalent about this, otherwise you wouldn’t have written this letter. You didn’t say how old you were, but you did refer to yourself as a girl. I am going to take the liberty of assuming that you are quite young—no disrespect intended. In any case, it sounds as if you have a few things to sort out about your racial identity—which is a totally normal part of being Mixed, by the way.

Before we talk about you, though, let’s have a brief discussion about this sticky business of “Passing.” (Meaning, so we’re all on the same page, “Passing for a White person.”) The next time your dad tells you it’s “bad” to pass, ask him to explain what he means. You mentioned that Dad is also light-skinned. Has he ever passed for White, or failed to disabuse someone who believed he was White? If so, what was that like for him? Did he feel guilty for hiding his Black identity? Why? It is definitely worth having this conversation with him if possible.

Historically, especially during the Jim Crow era, when there was a strict rule about “one drop of Black blood” (making you Black), Black people who were light enough, with Caucasian features, would “Pass” in order to secretly attain the privileges reserved for Whites. It was a conscious deception, which often involved rejecting or abandoning one’s darker-skinned Black family. People “passed” out of a toxic combination of shame, convenience, fear and self-loathing.

So back to that flexibility thing. With a fluid, Mixed race identity and a racially ambiguous appearance, you have a choice about how to identify. But even for those whose African Ancestry is very apparent, identity can be complicated.

Years ago, I was conducting a study involving high school students. At the top of the questionnaire, I had a section where students were asked to identify their ethnicity and race. Being Mixed myself and hyper-aware of the limitations of demographic box checking, I told them to check all that applied and to be as specific as they liked. I included choices like Afro-Caribbean, Multiracial (specify), Latina (specify), among many others. I received hundreds of surveys back and not a single child chose the African American box! Not a single one. Maybe I provided too many choices, but still, I was shocked. My point is that identifying oneself as Black is not always easy or safe. African Ancestry—the physical traits, the negative stereotypes—is denigrated all over the world, not only in this country. This is precisely why it’s important to stand up for it. Historically, there have always been many who have opted out of Blackness when given the chance. But when we deny our Black heritage, either actively or by omission, we are disparaging a piece of ourselves. Shame, self-loathing, call it what you will, it weighs heavy on the heart. Lying, especially living a lie, affects mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, even physical ailments.

So if you have any doubts about how or whether to acknowledge your invisible Black ancestry, listen to your body. Are you anxious? Guilty? Just fine?

Of course, there are many in the Multiracial community who would say that the lie is claiming Blackness when you appear White. This school of thought believes that race is purely physical and that, if you look White you are White.

Personally, I believe in an inclusive identity. But I also believe it’s a personal choice. Ask yourself the question: when I claim Whiteness without acknowledging Blackness, what do I lose? Am I okay with that? Only you know the answers.

Best Wishes

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Published on: July 9, 2018

Filed Under: Advice

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