‘But you look white!’: What passing privilege means, and why it matters
If you didn’t know, now you know
by Katie Way
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.
Meghan Markle does not give black women hope, for one sis looks white and she doesn’t identify as Black! 🗣 SHES WHITE PASSING!
— Black Barbie (@Lovin_Sugarfoot) December 28, 2017
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.
Producer #YoungHollywood is on the chopping board for his remarks during last night’s #LoveandHipHop premiere. His remarks suggest viewers to believe that there is underlying racism towards Latina singing sensation, Amara La Negra. He called Amara “Nutella Queen” on IG live pic.twitter.com/sFMRJcZNaB
— Danielle Tiara (@DippedInMakeup) January 2, 2018
The Latino community is so anti-black and ignorant that they actually thought Amara La Negra is in black face. Y’all just can’t accept that black Latinos exist, it’s crazy 🤦🏽♂️ pic.twitter.com/u5vs03gnGg
— Jeffrey Prada (@thisfooo) January 4, 2018
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.
hi here’s my issue w people saying halsey is a breakthrough or icon for women of color.
while she is a woc, seeing as she is mixed, you must understand that she is white passing.
white passing woc experience the world, and are treated so differently than darker woc.
— kenna (@beartrapken) January 1, 2018
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.
Growing up of mixed ethnicity and presenting as white has created some unique challenges. It certainly means I have to carve out a space for myself.
However, that does not mean I understand oppression. Passing means privilege. Understand the difference.
— 🎀𝓜𝓲𝓼𝓼 𝓛𝓾𝓛𝓾🎀 (@star_of_lulu) January 8, 2018
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.
Legit, people like Hailee & Vanessa are on at LEAST 1 “____ Asian actors of 20xx” list EVERY year. Even if they’re white/latinx/other passing – why? Bc they’re some of few names that EVERYONE knows! If Asian ppl make up literally a single percent of western media – LET US HAVE IT
— MaiLinh (@MaiLinhsTweets) January 4, 2018
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.
Mixed person: *breathes*
Twitter: You literally have no idea how much privilege you hold in your blonde 3A curls, you mulatto scum. Meghan Markle didn't call herself black so mixed people aren't black anymore. Your white mom didn't wrap your hair growing up? Wow. Canceled!
— tatichin.com 🍳 (@tatichin) January 4, 2018
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.