Pagnes, c-print, 20”x20”, 2012
Passing, c-print, 30”x30”, 2012
Being mixed did not truly become a source of conflict until after I moved back to the U.S. at about nine years old. It was in the U.S. that I first encountered the racial system of hypodescent or the “one-drop-rule.” I recall my mother warning me not to advertise the fact that I was ‘one-eighth’ because people might see me differently. I recall feeling very different from my classmates in the predominantly white upstate New York; and uncomfortable with the way they either inflated (“you’re my black friend!”) or dismissed (“You don’t like Usher? I’m blacker than you!”) my race. In the rare occasion when I was around other people of color, I felt a strong pull of identification; as though I recognized myself and my family within them, and I wanted deeply to be known by them… something that was always one-sided, as, because of the low-visibility of my race, people of color rarely see themselves back in me.
The discrimination I face as a low-visibility or “passing” person of color is very different from what visible and dark-skinned people experience, to the point of being incomparable. Racism is a structural social system of inequality with a long, cumulative history and a pervasive psychological effect on the lives and experiences of all people who live within it. As a “passing” person of color, I am able to avoid the majority of the structural race discrimination in this country. Where I experience racism is in the more internal and interpersonal level. I hold an awareness of myself as a person of color that inhibits my assimilation into racially hostile spaces that may otherwise include me.
For a mixed person (or any person haunted by questions of racial, cultural, or other identity “authenticity”) the question of indicating identity through dress, language, etc. is always tinged with a sense of anxiety, especially when the presence or absence of these indicators could be the entire difference in how one is perceived. I find myself asking questions such as ‘Will this be misread as cultural appropriation? Will it seem as if I am asserting my blackness so forcefully as to risk erasing the reality of my whiteness? Will I be treated with more, or less respect walking down the street with my hair wrapped or wearing a pagne? What am I erasing by not wearing it?’