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These are my thoughts, yo.

Racial Ambiguity: The Problem with Passing

jasmine banks

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Black man in today's political climate. I am not male so I am limited in what I can truly understand, but I am the mother of a two little boys who are Black. "How Black are they, actually," a friend once asked me. She was exploring the boundaries of her own understanding of identity formation and would ask all kinds of questions. "I mean," she continued, "Garrett is their father and he is Irish and you are their mother and your mother is Belgian. But you call yourself Black and you say they are Black, but aren't they more White than Black?" My patience with my friend is deep. I see her heart and she previously asked me to be a safe person for her to ask some questions that could be considered clumsy.  I talked to her about the One Drop Rule, the history of being light-skinned and passing, and self selection of identity.  She brings up a good point, though: If my sons are able to pass (and are genetically more "Other" than Black), what does that mean about their racial identity. My partner and I have talked through this before. Tobias, our youngest, doesn't have physical features that most would pick up on and identify him as Black. As he has gotten older, he has looked more Black, but likely only to be who are accustomed to seeing White-Black mixed race children. I always joke that if I had not seen this child come out of my body, I might not believe he belong to me. Genetics are magical and frustrating.

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So much about external racial assignment in the United States has been about how to weed out the undesirable members of society. In a lot of ways we've used externally oriented racial identity as a way of managing our own fear. We profile to determine who is dangerous and who isn't. We assign racial identity in many situations before a person has self identified in order to know how to interact with them. In a way, our biases become disarmed when we see a racially ambiguous person. We are forced to wonder "what are they?"  This is a question that I've fielded time and time again. It is an indirect way for people to say, "tell me how you fit in my world view and categories."

What we also see happen with skin politics when people become racially ambiguous is a rejection from both sides. You become not Black enough for the Black folks and not White enough for the White folks.  For some people, being "not black enough" can mean even more concerning identity and social characteristics. This racial double bind creates a chaotic identity landscape to navigate and psychological distress.

Belonging matters to all of us. 

I worry a lot about Tobias, Addison, and Isaiah. I wonder about how they will navigate their worlds and if I am giving them what they need to journey through a really frightening terrain.

So what is my answer? Will I raise my very light skinned son along side his very dark skinned brother as a Black child or a White child or Both, even though his exterior may not reflect that reality.

The answer is this:

Blackness is not a homogeneous identity and it never will be. Blackness is not something you can singularly identify based on physical characteristics (though there are many commonly shared). Being Black is a part of a lived reality.

 Tobias is being raised as a multi-cultural, ethnically diverse child whose primary culture is Black. The problem with passing is that he can tell the world he is White, but the world will always wonder about his Black momma. One.Drop.

In the end, though, it will be his call. He will have to choose what parts of his identity he will advocate for or the world will choose for him.