by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem
I first met my significant other at a literary reading featuring writer Sherman Alexie. Those fortunate enough to have encountered the author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven know that he uses comedy during his performances to explore race. That said, it came as no surprise to me during his appearance when Alexie discussed how racially ambiguous Native Americans look by joking, “People always think I’m half of whatever they are.”
My then soon-to-be boyfriend laughed hysterically throughout the reading. He’s not Native American—not by more than a drop, anyway—but he is often assumed to be “other.” In fact, at the reading even I assumed that he was half-something, and the mostly Latino and black students he teaches routinely ask him the question that makes mixed folks worldwide cringe: “What are you?”
The answer he gives is one they don’t expect. “I’m white,” he says.
“You’re not white! You’re not white!” they protest in disbelief. And they are not alone. Both strangers and acquaintances alike take it for granted that my boyfriend is a person of color. When the teachers at the school take count of their few white colleagues, my boyfriend is oft-overlooked. His dark-brown hair, beige-pink skin, prominent nose and lush lips take him out of the running. “You can pass,” one of his coworkers tells him. Only, in his case, she means pass for non-white.
Her observation brings to mind the groundbreaking essay “Passing for White, Passing for Black” by artist Adrian Piper. In the essay, Piper suggests peering at a white person’s features and complimentarily telling the person that he or she appears to have African ancestry, then watching the person’s reaction. She writes:
The ultimate test of a person’s repudiation of racism is not what she can contemplate doing for or on behalf of black people, but whether she herself can contemplate calmly the likelihood of being black. If racial hatred has not manifested itself in any other context, it will do so here if it exists, in hatred of the self as identified as the other—that is, as self-hatred projected onto the other.