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.

Fairy tales for privileged kids: “the anti-white racist”

A disclaimer before we begin: what I’m about to talk about here are facts. This means they are not up for debate. There are not multiple sides to this story. You are not owed a “reasonable discussion” about this, nor will I “agree to disagree” with you. I’m talking about things that are abjectly, incontrovertibly true. Okay? Okay.

Let’s start things off with a little mathematical proof:

 

(A) RACISM = [racial prejudice] * [institutional power]

(B) SUM OF [institutional power] held by black people = 0

sub (B) into (A)

RACISM against white people = [racial prejudice] * 0

therefore RACISM against white people = 0

 

As you can see, because multiplying by zero will always give you an answer of zero, racism against white people equals zero for any and all values of “racial prejudice”.

See, racism isn’t just about prejudice. Is it possible for non-white people to be prejudiced against white people? Sure. I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I lived in a community where land and house prices were soaring because of gentrification, leading to me having to give up my home, I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the people driving me out onto the street. If I were to be looked over for a promotion because my boss didn’t want a non-white person being a public face of the company, I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the people who made the decision that a non-white spokesperson would seem too threatening to be effective. If my son were, say, shot dead in cold blood by a white man who was then found not guilty of murder because my son was walking home on his own wearing a hoodie, then…yeah, I guess I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the assholes who ensured my son’s killer was never brought to justice.

So yeah, non-white people can be prejudiced against whites.

Can they be racist against whites? Nope.

Racism, like any other -ism, requires not just prejudice, but power. And the fact (see that word, fact? that means this is a thing that’s true and not up for debate) is that in the world in which we currently live, every single institution worth a damn is controlled by white people. Banks? White-controlled. Entertainment and news media? White-controlled. Educational institutions? White-controlled. Legislature? Despite America’s Black President, still majority white-controlled. The judiciary in most countries? White-controlled. Wide scale economics and trade? You guessed it: white-controlled.

So how can non-white people be racist against the people who hold all the cards and the balance of power? They can’t.

Racism isn’t just about slurs and curse words, though when uttered by people who have institutional backing, those things certainly have a great deal of power. Racism is about the systemic and institutional violence that contributes to the continued oppression and dehumanisation of non-white people around the world, even in majority non-white countries (their financial systems are still contingent on white-controlled international trade and their cultures are still heavily influenced by their white colonisers). Racism isn’t an angry, disenfranchised black person calling a white man “cracker” or “whitey”; racism is that white man’s ability to move on from that insult completely unscathed in every single way that matters because the black person who yelled that insult doesn’t have the power to back it up in any meaningful way.

White people control our legal system, our educational and financial institutions and our media. White people decide what is beautiful, what is respectable, what is acceptable. White people set the benchmarks for culture, for progress, for enlightenment. White people control who succeeds in business, who gets into the best schools and who will get off on their minor criminal charges instead of serving out an unnecessarily harsh jail sentence. White people export media that is absorbed into non-white culture until it changes the standards of beauty, respectability and acceptability even within those societies. White people decide what is good and what is bad and which way society’s moral compass points. White people, numeric minority they may be, control the world.

Tell me, what is a black person shouting “cracker” against all of that?

The simple fact (again, FACT) is that it is impossible to be racist against people who hold the balance of power. The n-word has power and weight as a slur because it is a reminder that white-dominated society sees black people as second-class citizens. Words like “exotic” as applied to women with non-white skin have weight and power because they are reminders that non-white women are being held against the white beauty standard and being found different (and therefore wanting). By contrast, the word “cracker” does not contribute to a culture in which, for example, white people are forced to earn less, are underemployed, over-incarcerated, devalued, dehumanised, shunned and oppressed. “Cracker” is just a word. It has no power behind it. It is not indicative of a culture of control and oppression. It is, to quote the Bard, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Here are some facts:

  • Even white women earn more than non-white men, despite a pay gap that generally favours men over women
  • Non-white men are incarcerated at a rate exponentially greater than white men
  • Non-white people are under-represented in federal legislature, in positions of power in the business world, and on the governing bodies of educational institutions
  • Despite the ethnic and racial makeup of many “white” countries, it is white beauty standards that remain the benchmark in magazines, on billboards, in movies and on our TV screens
  • Non-white women are raped more often than white women, report the crime less often, receive less police support when they do and see their rapists brought to justice less often than white women
  • The legal and judicial systems are profoundly skewed against non-white people to the point that both “stop and frisk” and “stand your ground” laws have been empirically shown to favour whites (see: Trayvon Martin, whose murderer is still a free man who attends conferences and signs autographs, vs Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot to scare off an intruder in her home and was originally sentenced to twenty years in prison)

Again, these are not opinions. This is not up for debate. It is demonstrable, incontrovertible, empirical fact that the balance of power is held by white people, and that in every way that counts, non-white people are at a significant systemic and institutional disadvantage.

So tell me again – what is “cracker” against all of that?