Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Passing" "Presenting" & the Troubled Language of Mixed Race

by Sharon H. Chang

I'm a light-skinned mixed race Asian/white woman. I don't deny it. On my lightest day, in the deep of winter, under cover of endless Seattle clouds, I could definitely hold my arm next to some white people and almost match (though the tinting never seems quite right). Because I'm non-Black and light-skinned I am not vulnerable to police brutality, housing discrimination, hate crimes, excessive surveillance, racial bullying and assault, and the many, many forms of violent oppression acted upon visibly Brown and Black peoples every day. This is undoubtedly a privilege, one that I actively acknowledge and try to hold in constant consciousness and conscientiousness as I write about race and am involved in social justice work. My main responsibility is often going to be de-centering myself to make room for the voices of others most impacted; to listen, not lead; support and even sometimes leave spaces entirely because my presence may interrupt safety and sacredness.

And yet, these are the things that have been said to me recently by whites and people of color (POC), men and women, young and old:

What are you? Because if you had said you were white - I would've believed you.
Man! How do you people do that international thing??
Excuse me, I'm sorry, but can I ask what your mix is?
There is no pure Asian anymore.
 You Asian? I need help with my gardening.
So what do you do? 
Are you a flight attendant, stewardess?

While I always need to be aware of my light-skinned privileges, I also have to hold being read by others as "definitely not white" a lot of the time. That matters. I, like everyone else, am a racialized body in a racialized/racist place. I am not Brown or Black and it's incumbent upon me to be eternally thoughtful about this. But I am not often seen as white either. Could I describe myself as white? I could try. But does that reflect who I am? Or how the world sees me? Or, more importantly, does it prepare me to deal with the racial-boundary policing I butt up against? Absolutely not.

So why am I starting to see so many mixed race peoples foreground their whiteness as more significant than their color - when the world around them doesn't actually allow that?

I'm disturbed by the growing number of multiracial folks who are describing themselves as "white" and "white passing" when they don't read remotely white at all. For example Hollywood A-lister Olivia Munn recently told Fashion Magazine that she "had more of a white appearance on the outside" though her "bone structure is very much Asian." This bizarre explanation was meant to diffuse plastic surgery accusations. But I'm completely uninterested in whether or not she had work done. I'm interested in the fact that I have never once seen a picture of Munn where I perceived her as white. And yet Munn chose to articulate a racial defense - out of her mixedness - that described away almost any major part of her outward appearance that could be Asian.

It's not just A-listers and/or apoliticals who do this. I've been hearing it from the left too. Take for instance savvy musician, Macklemore collaborator, and activist Hollis Wong-Wear who is well known for her political work and sharp analysis. Last year she told The Seattle Globalist that while she did identify as progressive 2nd gen Asian American, she also saw herself as a "white ally" and that she needed to "claim her whiteness." I found the language rather strange since, again, I have never perceived her as white nor has the public generally speaking. And sure enough seven months later this self-proclaimed whiteness echoed weirdly when The Seattle Times published an article on Wong-Wear under a racist headline targeting her Asianness; a headline that likely would never have materialized if she had been actually white.

I'm also disturbed because I'm not sure what we're doing for folks from mixed backgrounds who do appear white other than making them feel like shit about themselves. In 2012 Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous published a widely-read piece called The White-Skinned Elephant In the Room in which she sharply criticized what she viewed as "white-skinned" people who had grandparents or great-grandparents of color. According to McKenzie since these people "presented as white," "looked white," and were basically white (to her), it apparently stripped them of any right to connect with their heritage of color or move in people of color spaces. Cue the guilt, shaming, authenticity testing and revoking of POC cards. Given multiple factors including that many Indigenous populations have survived because of racial mixing, that many Native peoples appear white/light because of this, combined with the reality that non-Indigenous biracials with a parent of color are sometimes born white/light - I found McKenzie's complexion-based analysis not only superficial and flawed but dangerously separatist, divisionist and fragmenting.

Case in point about a month ago I visited a local high school to talk about my work on multiraciality and not only did about 30-40 percent of seniors come from mixed backgrounds but almost everyone was in tears by the end of the hour. Students who looked white but had a grandparent of color were in some of the worst pain during this conversation. They felt deeply silenced and had even sometimes been accused of appropriating their own cultures. It didn't mean they weren't willing to admit their whiteness, but it did mean they experienced immense pressure to publicly hide parts of who they are and members of their own families. About a month later I facilitated a race dialogue with a local elementary school. Attendees understood their school as predominantly white and were entirely shocked when the principal revealed the study body actually identified as a third POC. Many of these children came from mixed race families and had been read variously by others as white or non-white depending upon what the reader saw. An unsure conversation unfolded after this reveal during which I heard folks confusedly - and with some resentment - interchange diversity language like "people of color that we can see" and "people of color that we can't see."

All in all these observations have got me wondering what exactly we're doing with the language of mixed race today. I think particularly the way we're using words like "passing" and "presenting" are posing some serious problems.

First I see that we're having a serious problem understanding agency. We use "passes" and "presents" as if multiracial individuals have full say and control over their racialization. When they don't at all. Could I work to pass as white? Yes. But would it work? Maybe. It all depends on the reader. Meaning this: we only pass when others let us pass. Full agency does not rest with individuals. Similarly when we say someone "presents as" we imply the person is choosing that presentation. Sometimes that's true. But sometimes that's not true. For example I often hear adults describe multiracial children as young as infancy as "white presenting." How in the world is a child less than a year old presenting their race at all? Who is actually presenting their race? WE are. When we assign a description. Regardless of whether the assessment is true, why aren't we saying "I read the child as white" which claims accountability rather than asserting our perception on someone else and insinuating they made that decision on their own?

Second I see consequently that we're having a serious problem understanding power and privilege. When an adult says "the child presents as" without input from the child - that adult has taken away the child's agency and self-determination. At the intersection of race/age, the adult has more power. Here's another example. I feel I'm often viewed by people of color as white-or-close-enough-to-it, yet am almost never viewed as white by whites themselves. But whites are the ones at the top of the racial hierarchy. That means regardless of what people of color say, it is actually whites who get to decide whether I'm white since they hold the most power. In another example, cishetero men of all races can often exercise more gender-power over my identity than me. I can make a claim only to have it quickly erased, invalidated or silenced publicly by a man (something I've experienced very painfully in the last months). Because at the intersection of race/gender, cishetero men have vastly more power than cishetero women.

Third I see that we might not be acknowledging the very real impact of internalized oppression upon mixed race peoples and how that can look uniquely different. When non-mixed people of color manifest internalized oppression by striving toward whiteness, we understand that. We nod our heads, we feel sad, we shake our heads, we know things have to get better. And rightfully, necessarily so. But when mixed race peoples of white descent (who read visibly ethnic) work to erase their heritages of color - I don't feel that same sadness or compassion from the community. I feel instead, "They should. They're actually white and they need to own it." Then I turn around and look at those same multiracials folding under enormous pressure of guilt, shame, confusion; saying widely untrue, potentially hurtful things about themselves; withering into denial, avoidance, uncertainty which can then render them incapable of solidarity work - and I feel so much sadness. What a terrible way to not move forward. For people like me the white-color-only race conversation still elbows and edges us out at every turn. We shouldn't be the loudest at the table nor should we dominate. But does that mean we shouldn't sit at the table at all? And what is lost when all voices aren't present?

I've been doing a lot of talks and workshops and interviews since my book came out. One of the things I consistently argue for is multiracial dialogue that has more nuance. I can't tolerate anymore these race conversations that collapse into dichotomy. Either/Or. Black/White. Color/Non-Color. Yes/No. Good/Bad. Humanity is plagued by binary thinking and it is forever our downfall. Now here's where I do agree with McKenzie. Racial privilege is real. It's very real. I agree that white/light-appearing peoples need to be very careful not to takeover and lead when they are not the most impacted. I also agree that people of mixed heritage can appear white and can pass for white and should own that. But what we need is not the blame game and the squelching of people's humanity. What we need is for multiracial peoples of white descent to create spaces with each other to do good work; privilege and oppression work that doesn't burden other POC at the same time it is nuanced, gritty, real but also transformative and empowering. What we need is for multiracial peoples of white descent to also do collaboration/co-liberation work that centers mixes of color and non-mixed people of color. And what we all need is to understand that we are headed at blazing speed towards a society that hugely identifies as mixed race (like it or not); a reality which requires everyone to be exponentially more thoughtful about the realities - yes - but also the many loaded layers and potential harm of words like "passing" and "presenting" when it comes to mixedness.


  1. Powerful article Sharon! Thank you for all the work you do!

  2. Thank you for sharing this - as a biracial person, I have often had to work through the fact that being biracial with half white means something very different than being biracial of two non-white ethnicities. However, at the same time, because the other half of me is Black, I also feel that here, at least in this post, I am still left without understanding/support in regards to Blackness - and again, I am often in spaces where multiraciality of anything but Blackness seems like it will be comforting, and like it will understand me, and yet it falls completely short because for me the mixing of both white and Black is at the crux of a very, very complex and sticky situation of multiraciality (all matters of passing and presenting aside). But thank you for this! Glad to see that you are doing some great work in the community!

  3. Thanks for this enlightening article. I found comfort in it as a mixed race Asian who grew up feeling very alone in my predominantly white community. It's been refreshing to see so much academic work coming out in the past years that can help me orient (no pun intended) myself in the larger picture. I look forward to reading your book!

  4. I'm so glad I came across this post. I live in Australia where there seems to be a lack of such discussion and research. I understand we have a slightly different history of "race" to the US but we are a multicultural nation as well. I read this article with interest both for myself (as Chinese-Anglo mix myself) and for my children who appear more Chinese due to my husband being Chinese. A light bulb went off when you mentioned the term "agency". I'd never read that before but I am aware of "passing" and "presenting". As you wrote of "passing/presenting" as white, I thought of my children who, due to their features, will probably never be seen as such. In fact, they may have stares from others if they speak of such heritage. I agree with your closing sentences about needing to be more sensitive and understanding of the layers we all possess and much more compassionate and thoughtful to our fellow human beings as a result. I'm off to find your book! Thank you.

  5. Hi Sharon, as the mother of mixed race kids I really appreciate your thoughts. The language around how a mixed person presents vs. how other people read them is really striking me. It makes sense to me to use the language of how others read my kids, because they way they look strikes different people in different ways that is more about the reader than how my kids actually, physically look.

    I have a question, though. Would saying, "My child reads more Asian," or, "My child reads more white" undermine your point that they way someone is racially interpreted is more up to the reader than the person being read? Just practically trying to think about how to apply this language to my everyday life.

  6. Thank you for writing this. As a mixed race person it is nice to read about others having the same thoughts and similar feelings.

  7. Well done, Sharon. As a mixed-race writer of Asian and white descent, this is a topic I've revisited often. You've done a great job of capturing our experience, and of making the case that only by embracing our ethno racial realities will we move beyond the very limited perspective on race that is the current norm.

  8. Hi Sharon,

    I really enjoyed this. You shared this link on the Facebook page of one of my sites, Multiracial Media and I am glad you did. I am Black, Japanese and White and I don't look Asian (although many of my friends and family tell me otherwise) and I am very light complected. I get the passing vs. presenting issue. I absolutely present as Black or multiracial, despite the majority of the time people assuming I am White.

    This is a topic we multiracial people need to discuss more. Admitting to passing is not a bad thing. It's what we do with it that can be an issue.

    If you'd ever like to publish this or anything on Multiracial Media, we'd welcome it.

    Thank you!