current events

The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly of Ethnic and Racial “Passing” (oh the politics)

The ability to “pass” is often a loaded term and a loaded action.  My son and I both can “pass” in different contexts for different ethnic or racial groups.  When I visited Egypt, they thought I was French. When I lived in Spain, they thought I was Tunisian. In Puerto Rico, oddly they think I am Dominican. In Berkeley, they thought I was Indian; as have the Brits. In DC, they have thought I was from Cape Verde.  In San Francisco, they thought I was Ethiopian.  In Hawaii, I passed for Filipina. In southern parts of the US, there are just no ideas as to what I can be other than the occasional idea that I am Mexican or mulatta.  My son, who is half Puerto Rican and half Jewish doesn’t appear to belong to either of these two often-stigmatized groups.

Oddly, together my son and I don’t readily pass as mother and child; namely because he is white and I am brown-skinned. I often have to state or otherwise communicate non-verbally, that “yes, I am his biological mother and not his nanny”. In this day and age, where there are more inter-racial couples and said couples are reproducing there will be more mother-child combos that mirror that of me and my son.  I look forward to continuing to confound people around the world. In Vienna, they just had no idea what to make of us. I think many thought my husband had brought his nanny with him. Interestingly, in Japan, we didn’t get those looks and I didn’t sense that vibe at all. They were just so enamored with my three year old son that they gave him candy every chance they got.

But today’s shooting in Wisconsin Sikh Temple, made me think of the perils and responsibilities of passing. When 9/11 occurred, I was very scared of traveling while brown. My ability to pass for many ethnic groups also means that I may be subject to the stereotypes and prejudices directed at so many groups throughout the world. My son will pass as a white man and may not know what it is to be labeled an “other” in the United States. But what will happen to his racial and ethnic identity and consciousness as he sees how I pass in and out of different societies?

When I lived in Berkeley, I had the misfortune of living in a building that served as a sex trafficking hub. The Indian women who were victims thought I was Indian and could help them. They reached out to me but I couldn’t understand what they saying. I knew something was wrong but couldn’t quite figure it out. Yes, because the landlord thought I was Indian I got a great deal on a shitty apartment (during the height of the dot.com era when people would come with 10k in cash to rent out an apartment). I was able to pass because I could also cook curry. But with that passing as Indian, there were also the hopes that those women pinned on me that I just could not address, simply because we had no way to communicate. Passing can be fun in quirky traveling instances but can also have enormous psychological, physical and emotional consequences.

Today’s shooting–was it directed at the Sikh community or was it just a by-product of being namely brown skinned?  Both Mitt Romney and President Obama expressed their condolences and inevitably gun control discussions will start up again.  Romney noted: “this was a senseless act of violence and a tragedy that should never befall any house of worship.” Houses of worship unfortunately are often categorized by the congregant’s skin color, which in this instance did not help them pass as a core group of the American experience, but instead put a target on their backs.

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