Passing Strange

All thinking Southerners, at some point, find their minds at war with their hearts, a battle that often ends with the heart claiming victory. It is this triumph of the heart that landed me, a black expatriate Mississippian, back in my home state again. Yet returning to Mississippi after nearly forty years, albeit temporarily, as a visiting professor, has left me torn somewhere between acceptance and separateness. In some ways, the longer I am in the South, the less I try to maintain my distance from the place.

One way my divide from the South has been bridged is in the way I speak when I am here. When I left Mississippi I scrubbed away any outward sign that would mark me as a native son, even succeeding at losing my accent as well as the elongated vowels of my youth. But these days a decided twang has begun to creep into my voice. And rather than correcting my linguistic lapses, I’m reclaiming this part of my Southern background.

But there is one thing I have had difficulty accepting: people thinking I am a white man.

Being perceived to be white has happened to me more than once in my travels around Mississippi, and it has had nothing to do with my recent experimentation with code-switching to a Southern accent. My mistaken ethnicity has more to do with what people see than what they hear. Usually it is a younger person who looks at me in puzzlement when I explain that at one time I would have been sent to drink from a “colored” water fountain. For a young person in Mississippi today, it is difficult to imagine the segregated world that shaped me and defined my racial identity. And it is impossible for me to shape-shift my identity to fit the way some people perceive me, as I sometimes do with my accent.

Bear in mind that Mississippi is the home of one of the country’s most rapidly expanding multiracial populations, and this demographic change may be one reason some of the young people I encounter in my travels around the state see me differently than the way I see myself. But on several other occasions someone closer to my age has mistaken me for a white man, so what I have experienced cannot just be written off to the fluid way young people perceive identity. These various encounters and misperceptions have made me realize there are new ways that some residents of the American South—and perhaps other parts of the country—perceive race and racial identity.

By no means is Mississippi tilting toward postracialism, but there has been a change in its ways of racial seeing from my time growing up here during the civil rights movement. The visual habits and sightlines that I knew from my youth that once determined racial identity are morphing in ways I don’t recognize. Race in the midcentury American South was determined not only by invisible information, the “one-drop rule,” but also by visual cues such as skin tone, texture of hair, size of lips, broadness of nose, and shape of the face.

As a light-skinned black man born in the 1950s, my family’s existence and my upbringing was shaped entirely by the strange career of Jim Crow. “Separate but equal” served as the backdrop of my childhood, as well as the long-fought battles to erase the inequalities segregation imposed on black Southerners. I’m also part of a multigenerational interracial family, one that has proudly identified as black in spite of an outward appearance that might lead strangers to think of us as white, so taking pride in my blackness is a pillar of my upbringing. I would never claim to be white. In my family there was even resistance to what some call light-skinned privilege or colorism, and we resisted it as a way of thumbing our noses at the very idea of white supremacy.

In my family, racial passing and the deception it involved was the ultimate taboo and betrayal. It was what the writer Nella Larsen called a hazardous business, “this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.” The first time someone perceived me as white, it made me wonder if they thought I was passing or trying to pass. But unlike the character Clare in Larsen’s novel Passing, I did not become untethered or unhinged from my identity; I did not feel a desire to cross into whiteness. Instead I grabbed hold of my identity even tighter, as if somehow my blackness could slip away.

Since I teach a course on the literature of the civil rights movement and have written on civil rights and race, I have been brought in as a guest speaker at several Mississippi high schools. Civil rights history became part of Mississippi’s high school curriculum in 2011, yet, interestingly enough, without funding for the development of teaching modules and resources for educators. So a few motivated teachers have pulled me into their classrooms when I am not teaching my classes at Millsaps College. Once, as I discussed my experience of attending an integrated school for the first time, an African American student quickly raised his hand with the question—or statement—“But aren’t you white?” There was a social awkwardness when I explained that I think of myself as black, which led the student to note, “Oh, then you’re really biracial.” When I explained that “biracial” was not an identity one could assume in 1957, and that my lived experience could not allow me to think of myself as anything else but black, the student sat in confused silence. As we moved from talking about civil rights to issues of race and identity, this young man and his classmates expressed how they could not imagine a world without the option of claiming a mixed-race identity. Once he realized that I was black, he made it clear that he did not think being black meant inferiority. He just felt that I should feel free to claim my actual ethnic composition without regard to the traditional binary way of viewing racial identity. But the time and circumstances surrounding my upbringing make that point of view difficult to embrace.

When I was growing up in the South, race was seen more as a scientific term than a social construct. Medical doctors, anthropologists, and physiologists together developed racial definitions, ones based on blood rather than earlier, more amorphous notions that there were both physical and moral differences between races. And, in some ways, I realize that I have internalized that way of thinking.

Throughout my youth, there were certain signifiers of race, including one dramatic way I sent out signs of my identity. Coming of age in the 1970s, my Afro was a symbol of my blackness, which, even though it was reddish-brown, signaled how I thought of myself. Throughout college, I used all kinds of hair products to keep this outward sign of racial solidarity. Now, well into middle age, my greying hair has grown wiry, and I keep it short. Given that there are lots of multiracial people, and those who identify as white, who look like me, I can understand the confusion I may engender in some Mississippi circles. Yet it cannot change the way I see myself.

There has always been a biracial, creole, polyglot aspect of Southern culture and the people it sustains, but what has changed is that this aspect is no longer cast into the shadows to be whispered about. Interracial families are part of the Southern landscape now, instead of being pointed out as aberrations and oddities. The open nature of interracial relationships has changed the way inhabitants of the South see race, freeing them of the constraints that were part of my upbringing. “Mixed-race” no longer means that you are black, as it did when racial purity stood as a pillar of Southern culture. It can mean what you want it to mean.

When I told my daughter about being seen as racially ambiguous, her response was “Welcome to my world.” For my three children, multiracial people who identify as black, every day there is some misperception. While my racial identity is mistaken only intermittently, in the lives of my children racial ambiguity is a constant. My daughter and my two sons sometimes witness racist jokes and behavior in the presence of whites who have no idea of their heritage. They claim the complexity of their multiracial background, but when society makes them choose one side of the racial binary, they identify as black or African American. In spite of this choice, one of my sons was even racially profiled as a “suspicious Arabic man” by neighbors—and reported to the police—in the very neighborhood where he grew up. Nothing like that has happened to me, but now I am the one learning what it is like to live in ambiguous skin—to have an appearance that does not neatly align how those around you see you with how you see yourself. This experience is teaching me how the traditions seared into our country’s racial history are seemingly at odds with contemporary culture.

In twenty-first-century America, we have a desire to ignore or move beyond race while at the same time acknowledging racial differences, either openly or subtly. That is how the myth of postracialism began during the 2008 election in the media’s coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, and in some ways that myth endures. American culture now has Rashomon-like competing narratives of the way we think and talk about race that clash and conflict with each other. Parts of our society want to acknowledge racial differences and the privilege that sometimes comes with being white. At the same time, the idea of a society free of the social burden of assigning race persists. These conflicting points of view create tension for those who yearn for what some call “the real America,” which I think of as a vision of the country that is rooted in the 1950s postwar ideal of a prosperous white middle class, with the social and historical complexities of race and class either ignored or repressed.

As the last eight years have made clear, America can never be postracial. Even now that the country’s changing racial demographics have come clearer into view, it sometimes seems as if we have moved from a world of subtle “dogwhistle” racism to raw, undisguised racial animus. The violence directed at black people during the past couple of years in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cincinnati has made it impossible to say with a straight face that race is insignificant or that our society has moved beyond race. In teaching my course on civil rights and literature, I realized that in Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection, Citizen, the list of names of black lives struck down by police grows with each edition that is printed. What remains unchanged are the words at the end of the memorial list: “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.” Rankine’s lyric jolts the reader into realizing that racial transcendence does not exist in American culture and is as mythic as the idealism of a postracial society.

The big question for me is: If the way Southerners perceive race is changing, why are the historic racial divisions in this part of the country still so persistent? The answer must lie in the region’s roots in slavery and the racial taxonomy that was created to maintain slavery. The same racial hierarchies that kept blacks enslaved were reinvented during the Jim Crow era and used to deem blacks inferior, block their access to education, and wrest away from them political power and influence. More than 150 years after emancipation—and a half century after the end of Jim Crow—that past has not died. As William Faulkner would say, the past is not even past yet. It simply coexists alongside a new way of thinking and seeing.

Mississippi’s past is painfully evident in the ongoing debate over keeping the image of the Confederate flag as an element in the design of the state flag. From my perspective, a state that uses a symbol of slavery and black oppression in its official state flag is not a place that has confronted its racial demons. When physical differences in skin color are readily apparent, the imaginations of some people still lead to deadly consequences. But I do know this: when race is hard to see, it is assumed to be more complicated. And in spite of clinging to painful elements of its past, some of Mississippi’s people are changing. With increased diversity and openness, there are new ways of seeing race here, or at least they are different from the way I saw them when I lived here before. There is still a black and white dividing line, but there is a willingness to allow people to define themselves outside the boundaries of a racial binary. And with these new assumptions and complexities, there are ethical concerns that come into play in the ways we see, think, and act when it comes to race.

For many years I have believed that there is an ethical danger in making racial identity central to one’s conception of self. But being back in Mississippi has made me confront the ethics of identity in reality rather than just theoretically. What my recent experience has taught me is that it should not matter how I am perceived, since I already know who I am. As a product of the Jim Crow South, I cannot let go of my blackness, and the way someone perceives me does not take that blackness away. It is who I am as well as the way I see the world. But in thinking through my time in the South, I realize that what I can change is the way is the way I react to these cases of mistaken identity. My way of seeing myself should not affect the way I view those who see me differently. Their way of racial seeing is just as valid as mine.

In my last classroom encounter, when once again another student thought I was white, I told the group of my experience of having a DNA test to learn about my ancestry. The results confirmed for me that identity cannot be constructed based on a “percentage” of African ancestry, and that our society’s generally accepted racial categories cannot begin to address the complexities and nuances of my heritage. Race, I noted to the student, is an abstract rather than concrete concept. It is a profoundly unscientific concept. And while it is natural for humans to see difference, it is how we act on seeing those differences that matters. The physical differences that make up race are insignificant when you realize that all of us are ninety-nine percent similar genetically. Although it is unethical to assume an ethnic identity that is not one’s own, given how similar we all are, it is also unethical to interact with another person solely on the basis of their perceived race or ethnicity. We are all more than our inheritance and appearance.

The ideas I tried to impart in that classroom are hard to live out, but I keep trying, in my everyday life and encounters, to put them into practice. Being a Southern person of color who is racially ambiguous is a burden, but one that should not affect my sense of self, in spite of what the changing world we live in tells us, now or in the future.


[Purchase Issue 12 here.]

W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past and The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South. His essays and criticism have appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, NPR, WIRED, and The New Yorker. He is currently the Eudora Welty Visiting Scholar in Southern Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

Passing Strange

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