This Is What It's Like to Be a White-Passing Person of Color
For my whole life, I've struggled negotiating my skin color with my family's mixed-race background.
When I was six, my best friend asked me why I was white when my dad was Black. I laughed and told her that he wasn’t Black, he was brown. She looked at me like I was a fool and said, “Aren’t all Black people technically brown?” And thus began my practical education on racial identity in America.
The truth is, no one wants to hear about racial experience from someone who looks like me. And that’s fair. To think that a society built on the persecution of Black and brown people needs more think pieces about whiteness is utterly tone-deaf. So this is not an essay on whiteness. It is a story of what happens when identity and loss collide, and how the collective identity of a family shapes its individual members.
I am the child of a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan and a white Irish Catholic lady from New Jersey. There is a trickiness to the language Americans use to talk about race, one that leaves no room for my existence. There’s the Black-and-white binary, as well as the amorphous “person of color” designation given to those with more than strictly European lineage, whether or not they have African ancestry. By this logic, I fall into the catchall category of “people of color.”
But I am not a person of color; I am a genetic fuck-up that defies all principles of inherited traits. Rather than an even blend of my parents, I came out as white as my mother—pale as a ghost, blue-eyed and so blonde I looked bald. My eyes and hair darkened with age, but my skin stayed translucent, with my constellations of freckles as the only trace of melanin. So I cannot be a person of color, because by definition whiteness is the absence of color. A white person of color is an oxymoron.
What’s the Difference Between “White-Passing” and “White”?
I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “white-passing,” but I should, because it changed everything for me. I wasn’t “white” anymore, I was “white-passing.” A white-passing person of color. Finally, I had a way of describing myself that separated me from my white peers, without encroaching on the space of real people of color. Or so I thought.
Calling myself a white-passing person of color worked because, for the most part, there weren’t any Black or brown people around me besides my family. Leaving my predominately white suburban hometown for the diversity of a liberal arts campus gave me a much-needed reality check. The first time a Black student corrected me, emphasizing that to call myself a person of color was inauthentic, and the “white-passing” qualifier was useless, I cried. Then I felt like an idiot for crying over such a coveted, life-saving privilege. I looked in the mirror and saw myself for what I was, the epitome of white fragility, insisting on my brownness the same way whites accused of racism insist, “But I have Black friends!”
There is no practical difference between being white and white-passing. If an employer sees me as white, if a loan officer sees me as white, if a cop sees me as white, if any person who does not know me intimately sees me as white, then I am white. If I enjoy all the perks of white privilege and suffer none of the consequences of being brown or Black in America, there is no question, I am white. Racial identity comes not from your blood, but from how others see you.
Deep down I knew this. I even accepted it. But then came Rachel Dolezal. In our class discussions about her infamous racial fraud, I was shocked to find my experience compared to hers. Most of my classmates agreed, a self-proclaimed “white-passing person of color” was no different than a white woman pretending to be Black.
And was it? I asked myself over and over, what was the difference between Rachel Dolezal and me? Were we both just white women desperately clinging to some sick fantasy of otherness? I was telling the truth, but what did it matter? Why did I have such a visceral reaction to being called white, when I am clearly white?
Even Within My Family, Our Racial Identity Was Complicated
I’ve spent the better part of my years since college trying to answer these questions. And as far as I can figure, it comes down to two things. It breaks my heart to never be seen as my father’s daughter, and it frustrates the hell out of me that, as a “white” person, people assume I only have the experiences of a white person from an all-white family.
My young friend was the first person I remember that questioned my relation to my father, but she certainly wasn’t the last. While my two brothers’ skin would effortlessly darken in the summer sun, I would look on with envy, freckled and burned. Strangers, family and friends alike gushed at how my little brother was the spitting image of my father, marveled at how my adopted older brother could easily have passed as our father’s biological son, and then would look at me, smile sadly, and remark that I, of course, was my mother’s daughter.
I could take the constant questioning when my father was there to reassure me. When I looked closely at our family photos, I could see we shared the same crooked smile, round face and high cheekbones. I clung to these family portraits as irrefutable proof that I was, despite the color of my skin, half Pakistani. But many years before I looked like the woman I am now, my father, the only unimpeachable tie to my Pakistani heritage, died.
Losing My Father Meant Losing My Heritage
So when I am called white, even by myself, it effectively severs the connection to my beloved father that I have fought time and memory to preserve. Loss and identity are tangled together for me, and you cannot question one without exhuming the other. This is why discussions about my identity make me so emotional. Every time I’m assumed to be white, I’m 11 years old again, sobbing uncontrollably over my father’s body.
Losing my father made our whole family whiter. Without our dad standing next to him, my little brother started to pass. In the winter his skin gets almost as white as mine, and though his face is unmistakably my father’s, without him around for reference, no one could see it. People who came into our life who had never met my dad started to remark how much my brother looked like our mom. Our older brother immediately stood out now as the darkest member of our family, leaving no question that he was adopted. We didn’t see our Pakistani family as much. We never ate Pakistani food because it upset my mom’s stomach. We didn’t go to the mosque or celebrate Eid or listen to Punjabi music anymore. None of us learned to speak Urdu. My mom got remarried to a fellow white Irish Catholic, and just like that, all visible traces of Pakistan disappeared from our family.
We had traditional biblical Anglo-Saxon names. All of my cousins, even the ones that were half-white like me, had names from the Quran. They spoke Urdu and made yearly trips to Pakistan. They had been bullied in school after 9/11, despite sharing my skin tone. Culturally, they were Pakistani and therefore could not pass.
But who is to say we would not also have grown up with Pakistani culture if my father had lived? Would I be less passable—less white—if he was still alive? Would I speak Urdu with a native tongue and make samosas every week? Would I drape myself in my grandmother’s saris for special occasions? Would I have seen the country that my family lived in for centuries? Would I, in spite of my mother’s skin, be accepted as a person of color if I lived and acted less American and more Pakistani? Probably not, but I will continue to wonder for the rest of my life what my relationship to my identity would be like if it wasn’t cocooned in grief.
My Mixed-Race Family Has Made Me a Witness to Racial Violence
The second reason I can’t seem to be satisfied with condensing my ethnicity to just “white” is that I have experienced things that fully white people never could. While white privilege renders the difference between white and white-passing individuals nonexistent, the differences between growing up in a white family and growing up in a mixed family are enormous. Being white-passing from a mixed family may not change the way the world sees you, but it absolutely changes the way you see the world.
A white person from an all-white family would not have seen her six-year-old brother held at gunpoint by a cop. A white person from an all-white family wouldn’t know firsthand that the “random” extra security checks at the airport are not random but rather triggered by Muslim surnames. A white person from an all-white family would not have to explain to a police officer that the man she is with is actually her dad, and not an abductor. A white person from an all-white family wouldn’t flinch hearing the things white people say when there are no brown or Black people nearby. A white person from an all-white family would not fear the violent shockwaves of Islamophobia following 9/11 or Trump’s Muslim ban.
In no way do I mean to suggest that these experiences took the same toll on me as they did on my brothers and father. But how is it possible to carry so much racial trauma and remain unaffected, even if you are just a witness? While there is no need for the term “white-passing” when describing an individual, I think it, or something like it, is necessary in the context of a mixed family. To be seen as white and only white is not only to lose my father all over again, not only to whitewash my DNA, but to dismiss all the hard-earned truth about race in America that I have gathered over a lifetime of watching loved ones be persecuted.
My ethnicity, therefore, cannot be a one-word answer. There is no verbal shortcut that adequately sums up my heritage. I live in the liminal realm of both and neither. I am half-Pakistani and half-Irish, and I refuse to compromise either. I won’t pick a side, even if the world has picked one for me.