‘But you look white!’: What passing privilege means, and why it matters
If you didn’t know, now you know
When you think of passing, the first thing that comes to mind might be the time you barely squeaked by with a C- in your mandatory econ class.
But for people of color, "passing" has an entirely different connotation — it's short for white-passing, meaning that even though someone is a person of color, they can move through the world like they're white because of what they look like.
Passing can be complicated — it's kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario. As a biracial person, I actually don't like it when people tell they had no idea I'm mixed because it almost makes me feel guilty, like I'm getting away with something.
People have been tossing the word "passing" around on social media a lot in the past month or so for a couple of reasons. First, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry got engaged, and the internet began speculating whether or not Meghan "counts" as black, even though she's biracial.
Then a clip from Love & Hip Hop Miami of a male producer advising Amara La Negra, an Afro-Latina woman, to ditch her natural hair went viral. The video sparked outrage online because it kind of hits the racism, sexism, colorism trifecta, but it also started a conversation about white versus black people in the Latinx community.
Both of these cases raise interesting points about race and identity in relation to passing, because there are definitely two sides to the issue.
On the one hand, being able to move through life as a white person confers a level of privilege on white-passing people of color that their non-passing peers just don't experience. Halsey and Rashida Jones pass. Halle Berry and Alicia Keys don't.
As a person who is sometimes considered white-passing (I don't see it but whatever), I've personally benefitted from it. I don't have a name that makes people wanna trash my resume, I don’t have hair that people touch without my permission on a regular basis, and I don’t get refused entry to a club because I’m wearing my “fashion sweatpants” — it makes a huge difference.
But on the other hand, white-passing people of color can also struggle with their racial identity because they're not white enough for white people, but not _____ enough for their PoC peer group. It can be pretty invalidating to be forced to pick sides and erase part of your identity because of what you look like.
Because at the end of the day, race is a societal construct and whether or not someone 'passes' is subject to the eye of the beholder. That doesn't mean race doesn't matter — we live in society, this isn't a "there's only one race… the HUMAN race" segue.
But basically, passing privilege exists. It's just not an excuse to devalue or silence someone who has it, just like people who pass shouldn't talk over people of color who don't.
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