Passing privilege, and other curses in disguise

My mother is Turkish, my father Pakistani. I have absolutely no Anglo-European blood in me. I am relatively light-skinned, but I am neither ethnically or phenotypically white…

…which has not stopped people from telling me I’m “too white to talk about racism” about half a dozen times in the last week alone.

They tell me anonymously. They tell me while I’m relating my lived experiences of racial abuse and harassment. They tell me while I’m expressing solidarity with my darker-skinned friends and loved ones. They tell me while they mock my appearance in Reddit threads devoted to lambasting me. “This bitch,” they say, “is practically white anyway. She just wants to feel like a victim.”

Day after day, I am forced to defend my identity. I am half-Turkish, half-Pakistani, Australian by birth and upbringing but ethnically no more white than I am male or straight or neurotypical (mind you, people challenge those aspects of my identity constantly as well – but I digress). But because I possess that most tenuous and contingent of privileges – the ability to “pass” – my lived experience of racism and abuse is constantly dismissed, trivialised or outright silenced.

I was educated at predominantly white Catholic schools, but at home, I recited the Qur’an with my father, learned skerricks of bad Turkish from my mother, watched Bollywood movies with subtitles, ate curries and naan and Turkish lentil soup. I wore the hijab for eight years. I still wear it when I pray. I finished reading the Qur’an in Arabic when I was seventeen years old. I call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle”, speak in broken Turkish to my grandmother on the phone. I have become adept at acting white in public because doing so means I face less abuse and ridicule, but I am not white, just someone who knows how to play-act for the amusement and pleasure of her oppressors.

I am tired of having to defend myself. That you believe me to be white does not undo the years of slurs and racial abuse I have received not just because of the colour of my skin or because of my Muslim faith, but because of the times I have dared not to conform to ideals of whiteness in public. You can deny my heritage, my culture, my lived experiences, but you cannot make unreal the sidelong glances from passers-by, the yelled threats from people driving past me as I walk home carrying groceries, the obnoxiously loud “SO HOW ARE YOU LIKING OUR COUNTRY?” from well-meaning but misguided whites on the bus. You cannot undo the times people have assumed I was my father’s wife because they think all brown men take child brides, or the times people have assumed my mother doesn’t speak English even though she has lived here since she was sixteen and speaks as fluently as any native, albeit with a slight accent. Those things happened to me and to my family and no amount of denial on your part will undo them.

I am not white. I can pass as white if I must, though the intentional erasure of my true identity feels like going without a limb or a vital organ. I can talk white and act white to appease white people, to deflect the abuse and the mistrustful glances and the whispering behind my back that I must be a terrorist or a radical or that I probably believe in honour killings. I can do all of those things, and I often have to, because survival in a white-dominated society comes at a price and one must pay it one way or another. Given the choice, I suppose I’d rather pay in assimilation than in violence and torture and death. It’s not much of a choice, mind you, but it’s the only one I have.

Sometimes I think to myself that it’s somewhat ironic that I have become so good at passing as white that people insist I must be even when I assure them that I’m not. Have I merely beaten myself at my own game? Am I too good an actress? Or is it rather that people see what they want to see, and they’d rather see Jay, their example of successful assimilation into “civilised” society, than Aaminah, who still says insha’Allah when she makes a commitment and prays in Arabic and wears tights under her skirts because she doesn’t like to bare her legs? I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the latter – that people would rather believe me to be white because it makes their lives less complicated than having to deal with the complexities of my life as a brown girl negotiating white society.

Here’s the thing, though – passing privilege is contingent. And there’s the rub; I’m only white as long as they want me to be. I’m white in discussions of race because it’s an effective way of silencing my voice, my lived experience, the truth of my struggle. I’m white amongst people who don’t want to have to think about the implications of my non-whiteness. I’m white when people want to love me but don’t want to think about what loving me entails.

But I stop being white once they want to oppress me.

I was not white when, the night before last, a man yelled at me to “go back to where [I] came from” as he drove past me. I was not white when people called my boyfriend a “n****r-lover” for being in a relationship with me. I was not white in the aftermath of 9/11, when one of my fellow students tormented and bullied me for months until I gathered up the courage to tell the school counsellor. I am not white when people can’t pronounce my “foreign” name and ask if they can call me something else instead. I am not white when it does not suit white people for me to be so.

I am not white unless white people want me to be.

I tire of having to explain myself and defend myself. I tire of people who arrogantly assume they know more of my ethnic heritage than I do. I tire of being mislabelled, mistaken, mistreated. I tire of having to carry both the burdens of a non-white woman and the expectations of a white-passing one.

Passing privilege is a curse in disguise. It’s a reason for white people to invalidate your oppression whilst simultaneously only granting you the privileges of whiteness if you choose to conform to their standards and ideals. Honestly, I would rather not be mistaken for white at all if it would mean I could stop having to pretend to be someone I’m not in order to please people who are not prepared to face the truth of me. But since I am possessed of the privilege of light skin (and I know that within the broader community of women of colour, this is a privilege whether I like it or not), I am forced to play-act as someone I’m not, only to be told I’m not doing it well enough when white people tire of the pantomime.

I am not white. I just play a white girl on the internet.

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14 thoughts on “Passing privilege, and other curses in disguise

  1. An articulate article on a personal problem with prejudice which must surely be replicated over and over. You are fighting ignorance, fear and the even more frightening thoughtlessness. Thank goodness the vast majority of people are far too busy with their own concerns. We who experience prejudice must concentrate on those who have the generosoity of spirit not to care if we’re black, white, purple or blue because they see only the person beneath .

  2. Nice post. It’s hard to imagine a ‘pretty’ and as others have said I guess for most parts a non-ethic-looking woman such as yourself face the same things I have. Having lived in Townsville for more than a decade since early puberty, I for sure have copped the yellings from people driving by and undeserved ridicule. For example, a mate of mine who’s white asks and pushes for a good deal on a TV and people think he’s just after a good deal. I tried the same thing and some random called me a FOB (I guess for not realising you can’t barter in Australia). I just want to ask you…how do you act white? You see I have never believed in trying to fit in since I came here and so I have just let things become as they were to be. Now, however, life is so lacking. For example, back in my native country when I go to a bar/pub people will come over to strike a really good conversation. Here, when I go out to wherever if someone comes over it’s always…so have u learned how to play league? where do you come from? you like Townsville? I have played league, cricket and union forever and these questions while understandable I’m rather sick of them. I don’t know. I would like to try acting white if it would improve my life but seriously I am at a stage where it’s becoming tiring and as soon as I finish uni I’m going to head out of this town and taste life in the big cities. In some ways, I could be seen as another failed to assimilate immigrant but I have tried honestly. Sometimes life is just too short. I have to go where I must go even if that means back to my birthplace, other cities or another country.

  3. There once was an immigrant to this country who came from Africa and was amazed by the diversity of the people on the street. When he checked into his hotel he saw a stack of flier on the counter, which read “Cultural meeting for African American at the town hall at 6pm.” “Well I am African and I will soon be an American” He thought. “I’m going to attend.” He said. So he asked directions to the town hall, and hurried because it was almost time for the meeting to begin. When he arrived he was denied admittance… he was caucasian.
    My point is that our physical appearance may be different, and to fall back on being caucasian, negroid, asian, mongolian, the list is long, and for that matter gay, lesbian, transexual, bisexual or whatever is a cop-out. Try being a person, a human being, man or women and leave the rest behind behind.

    • Something that no one in the comments has pointed out: race is a social construct. Middle Easterners are “white” in the US but are an ethnic minority in e.g. Britain. Fuck racial categories (that doesn’t mean I’m pro-colourblindness. not in today’s racially unequal world).

      We need to really question state racialization on an international scale, as well as any other kind of racialization (this is not the same as recognising ethnicity). Because who decides who is what colour? Why have we still not gotten rid of racial categories in favour of just ethnic ones? Why are these labels still used institutionally if we are supposedly living in a “post-racial” society? What use do they have if they only allow us to assume, stereotype, and otherize?

      Eastern European peoples, those who had nothing (to my understanding) to do with the 500-year long Western project of racial capitalism that created the neocolonial world we live in, are racialized as white – because they look relatively similar to their western European counterparts. But did they create the construct of “race” as we know it and as we live it? No, I think it was specifically the British that originally came up with it (in order to make profit out of violently using non-“white”, otherized people’s bodies and resources. race became a new category to for the ruling class subjugate people by). So how did they become white if they weren’t enslaving Africans? How did South Asians become brown? How did Indigenous Americans become brown?

      Some people, such as philosopher Nathaniel Adam Tobias -C-o-l-e-m-a-n-, refers to people as “racialized as black”/”racialized as white” instead of just calling a person black or white. He does this to acknowledge that we [even passing people] do not get to choose our racial identities. In the west, if one has dark skin and certain other phenotypical features then one is black, according to the state, and probably according to most of society. Although race is physically unreal, yet the consequences are much more concrete. Similarly with freedom, to paraphrase James Baldwin: freedom is hard to pinpoint but we know for sure what shackles feel like. Living in a society that works on the basis of race and other signifiers is not a pretend game of guns, where your friend can shoot you with his finger but you can say “i’m not dead, your shot missed me!”, and bickering ensues as to who is right. What I mean is that if I were positively dark-skinned but naturally, I did not want to suffer the consequences of being “black” (or “brown”) in this world, I could not get away with calling myself “white” to society and the state.

      Something that no one in the comments has pointed out: race is a social construct. Middle Easterners are “white” in the US but are an ethnic minority in e.g. Britain. Fuck racial categories (that doesn’t mean I’m pro-colourblindness. not in today’s racially unequal world).

      We need to really question state racialization on an international scale, as well as any other kind of racialization (this is not the same as recognising ethnicity). Because who decides who is what colour? Why have we still not gotten rid of racial categories in favour of just ethnic ones? Why are these labels still used institutionally if we are supposedly living in a “post-racial” society? What use do they have if they only allow us to assume, stereotype, and otherize?

      Eastern European peoples, those who had nothing (to my understanding) to do with the 500-year long Western project of racial capitalism that created the neocolonial world we live in, are racialized as white – because they look relatively similar to their western European counterparts. But did they create the construct of “race” as we know it and as we live it? No, I think it was specifically the British that originally came up with it (in order to make profit out of violently using non-“white”, otherized people’s bodies and resources. race became a new category to for the ruling class subjugate people by). So how did they become white if they weren’t enslaving Africans? How did South Asians become brown? How did Indigenous Americans become brown?

      Some people, such as philosopher Nathaniel Adam Tobias -C-o-l-e-m-a-n-, refers to people as “racialized as black”/”racialized as white” instead of just calling a person black or white. He does this to acknowledge that we [even passing people] do not get to choose our racial identities. In the west, if one has dark skin and certain other phenotypical features then one is black, according to the state, and probably according to most of society. Although race is physically unreal, yet the consequences are much more concrete. Similarly with freedom, to paraphrase James Baldwin: freedom is hard to pinpoint but we know for sure what shackles feel like. Living in a society that works on the basis of race and other signifiers is not a pretend game of guns, where your friend can shoot you with his finger but you can say “i’m not dead, your shot missed me!”, and bickering ensues as to who is right. What I mean is that if I were positively dark-skinned but naturally, I did not want to suffer the consequences of being “black” (or “brown”) in this world, I could not get away with calling myself “white” to society and the state.

      For those of us who have the privilege and burden of passing, myself included (an Armenian), we could take advantage of white supremacy by choosing to assimilate (more easily than our darker kin) and look forward to a life of relatively static comfort in the west. We are able to step on those around us who are deemed less white, in order to climb the ladder of assimilation – into the paradigm of western capitalist “success”. Or we can use our privilege to help dismantle the structure.
      Yes, we have to survive and it is undeniably hard, in its own way, for those of us who are somewhere strangely inbetween being seen and valued because they thought we were fully-human (or white lol), and not being recognised because we are not hypervisible like dark-skinned black and brown people (“did you say Albania? Oh… what’s Armenia?”). I am a woman who understands that when men put us in a potentially/actually dangerous situation we may want to fight them but we assess the risk in the moment and decide to play it safe, for the sake of survival. Likewise with race, I think that hiding your true self in order not to risk dangerous moments is vital in this world. But at other times we need to make people uncomfortable, if that’s how they will feel, when we are unashamedly true to ourselves and our ancestors.

  4. The thing is that people are more willing to assert their “brown-ness” than they were before. Randa Jarrar, an American woman of Egyptian/Greek/Palestinian descent who was raised Muslim rails against “white women” who belly dance, even though, historically, middle easterners in the USA have been coded as “white” for a long time.This would be true of anyone of Turkish descent, as well. I think the difference is that in this day and age, people are more willing to associate themselves with “people of color” classes rather than attempting to distance themselves from them as quickly as possible.

    Also, being deemed or asserting yourself as “non-white” is a statement of being an “other.” It’s no coincidence that Christians of middle eastern descent in the western world are regarded as white and identify themselves as such while Muslims of middle eastern origin are derided as foreign and are more likely to identify themselves as “non-white,” regardless of skin tone.

  5. Beautifully written and insightful. My research on residential segregation covers concepts such as assimilation and “whitening” (a better term should replace the latter). To illustrate the difficulty of being black, W.E.B. Du Bois established the idea of “double consciousness,” the idea that blacks have to “act white” when they go into the white world, but the sociological literature hasn’t articulated the double consciousness of nonwhite, nonblack individuals who can pass as white. Or at least, this idea hasn’t been explored in mainstream sociology. I should consider writing a critical academic piece on this.

  6. There is a contradiction here: between this insightful remark and the ‘pantomime’ you put on.
    There is a strong sense of oppression and disparagement exercised ON your cultural-ideological heritage (bearing in mind intersectionality). Similarly, you rebut with the same strength but it is just an answer, allow me to say. It isn`t a strength you translate in action because you assimilated to the common herd (to a certain extent, you say). Yet, it seems you are unhappy of it.
    I lived in Egypt and the West Bank for a year, and I came to live closely with Arab families and to appreciate their faith and customs.
    I am a southern Italian woman living and feeling English far more than Italian, least of all napoletana. I deal with identity issues on a daily basis, but I am convinced that your appearance should not disguise who you really feel to be.
    If you really do not feel ‘white’ (the stereotype of being a western white female) and you took the time to articulate the sad dynamics of your host country, why do you still act-play?

    • Did you miss the entire point of the post, which is that passing as white is a way of mitigating the toxic and harmful effects of racism, but that it’s an unpleasant way, hence my discomfort with it? Because that is the answer to your question, and, as I said, it was also the entire point of the post.

  7. Fuck the haters. Just wanted to express some support. I follow you on Twitter and just noticed your blog. This topic is sp contentious in rad POC circles, unfortunately.

  8. I’m white but I can relate to your writing. Because the hatred, the ignorance and the comments do not stop if you have white skin … There will always be people of the so-called majority group who dislike (are afraid of) everything that is different from their culture. I faced simmilar comments: “go back to where you came from” in my country, Slovenia – the country I was born and raised in. And it happened because my parents came from some 400 kilometers southern: from Bosnia. And I do not stand out from the mass in any way. But my parent’s accent did. Funny, because strangers would find it hard to even distinguish between Slovenian and Bosnian language.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I like your writing. Keep it up!

  9. This shit has always got to me, but I had thought I had reconciled myself to ignoring stupid racist shit, but it still pushes my buttons. I did a couple of tours of Afghan back when I was in the army and during my second tour my mum was told to ‘go back home’ by some dumb bitch. After 20+ years working her way up from kitchen hand to chef! She only told me about it this month, as she didn’t want to ‘worry me’. I’m not worried, just sick of the petty bullshit. We’re a different colour, wow, get over it. It doesn’t seen to matter who we are and what we have done to some whites, brown skin is never welcome. I’m a stranger in the only place I belong.
    I guess it could be worse, I could be an Aboriginal in Oz.

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