Inside the shame of passing for white

“A man in Louisiana—
He never called me by my name
He said ‘boy do this and boy do that’
But I never once complained.
I knew he had a good heart
But he just didn’t understand
That I needed to be treated
Just like any other man”
Skin Deep,” Buddy Guy

Most people we call “African American” have more European ancestry than African, Black friends have long informed me.

In the Black community there is an observation of a device called the “one drop rule,” meaning, sometimes in jest, that if one has as much as a single drop of Black blood, one is Black.

Dark skin alone doesn’t necessarily indicate “African” ancestry.  Some of the darkest skinned people come from India.  Sadly, it is popular in India to attempt to lighten one’s skin as a result of racism.  Light-skinned Indians more often get the starring roles in Bollywood.

In preparing to interview exiled President Jean Aristide of Haiti long ago, I read the books he’d written and other books about his nation, discovering that after Haiti’s slave revolt, when they threw out their French masters, the light-skinned Blacks took control and it’s been that way, for the most part, since.  Sadly, there is even racism among people of color, as the largely light-skinned, French-speaking, ruling class dominates over the largely dark-skinned, Haitian-Creole-speaking, underclass.

I’ve made it my preference over a lifetime to call people racially what they wish to be called, if I cannot ignore race classifications altogether.  I have in my circle of friends a woman I’ve known for many decades who has always identified as African American.  Her husband, who died decades ago, was a dark-skinned Black friend who also identified as African American.  But if she told me she was white, I would have believed that, as she looks white to me.

Sadly, for much of American history, many white people denied their Black offspring, so that even if children were majority white they were classified as Black and lived in the segregated Black communities.  Often if a child had three white grandparents, all three denied them bloodlines if the fourth grandparent was part Black.  Traditionally, that Black grandparent would accept the child as one of the family.

Sally Hemings, a slave of Thomas Jefferson, was a daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law, a slave trader named John Wayles.  It seems likely that Jefferson fathered Sally’s children, who had his DNA.  Jefferson swore to his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, on her death bed, that he would not remarry.  Martha, being a half sister to Sally, likely resembled her.  Late in life, after being freed, Sally passed for white in her final years.  She was reported to be white in the 1830 census, together with her sons Madison and Eston.

Many celebrities were said to have had Black ancestry.  It is shameful that they likely would not have had a successful career if it had been known they had a drop of Black blood, which explains why they “passed for white.”

Many of those who “pass for white” are more than 80% European ancestry.  It is disingenuous to say that such people are somehow fraudulent, although some in the Black community do call them sellouts.  Those who “pass for white” sometimes have left their darker-skinned families and moved to a distant place where they created a new identity.

Being labeled as “Black” has long caused people to be hurt, insulted, and even face nothing less than horror in the USA.  This is not from our distant past, as we may clearly see in the numbers of Black people murdered by police, more obvious these days because such events are so often captured in videos.  Is it any wonder that some people “pass for white?”

Jack Balkwill has been published from the little read Rectangle, magazine of the English Honor Society, to the (then) millions of readers USA Today and many progressive publications/web sites such as Z Magazine, In These Times, Counterpunch, This Can’t Be Happening, Intrepid Report, and Dissident Voice. He is author of “An Attack on the National Security State,” about peace activists in prison.

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