To recap: I identify as non-white (the language I use to refer to myself changes though; I’ve yet to find anything I’m really comfortable with). I have blue eyes and pale skin. (I have a bittersweet joke that I’m whiter than most white people.) I often take advantage of this and keep quiet about my ethnicity around people I don’t know. Because it’s just another thing to talk about, another thing through which a dominant group constructs me as less than, because it’s just too much.
This leads to some interesting patterns.
Not knowing my background, white people tend to claim me as one of their own. I have sat through so many racist “jokes” cracked by people who thought I was in on them. I think this is a reflection of what I like to call the default human mentality. If you’re a member of a dominant group, and representations of how normal you are are just everywhere, you’re likely to think that everyone else is of that group unless they’re obviously not. I know that’s something I’ve been struggling with as a heterosexual person.
Not knowing my background, non-white people are far less likely to make assumptions. This can be reassuring and comforting, but it can be disconcerting when I’ve decided I’m going to let people think I’m white in a particular situation, especially when I’m outed among white people.
Being able to pass – or, more, being passed – as white is a privilege, it really is. This is never more apparent then when I start to talk about my ethnicity. I watch the faces of the white people I am in conversation with. All too often, there’s a quick series of emotions that run over their faces.
It goes like this. First, there’s surprise. Then, there’s a sheepish look (did I say anything that could have offended her? I should have realised…). Then a bit of internal searching, going through the back catalogue of experiences with me to see if there were any clues. After that comes indignance: hey, wait a minute, it’s not my fault and how could I have known and anyway race is a sensitive thing so I’d best keep myself out of it. It’s then that most of them realise that I can see what’s going on in their heads. I take a moment to chuckle inside. Finally, it goes one of four ways. They continue to treat me as a person, with little deferences to my particular circumstances where required (which is, you know, very nice and exactly the sort of thing you ought to do, white people). They act exactly as they did before (which is also nice, but kind of missing the point). They totally change the way they interact with me, from the way they angle their bodies to their tone of voice. Or, they shut down. With regard to this last, sometimes I wonder, is it because they feel betrayed? Are they embarrassed? Do they just not like non-white people?
So, I am no longer coded as a white person, or there is no longer any ambiguity. And there are mixed emotions there. On the one hand, it’s another piece of oppression I’ve got to wade my way through with this particular person. On the other, it’s so sweet to be identified as what I really am, to no longer modify my speech and mannerisms and what have you to conform to whiteness.
But how do non-white people react, you ask? Sometimes a ‘really?’ but more often a look of non-surprise or a ‘yeah, I thought so’ and, more often than that, happily, thankfully, we just continue with our business.
Being invisible, playing white, has only the illusion of freedom. I’m still racism’s perpetual puppet, waiting until I don’t have to be scared.