Saturday, September 11, 2010

Privilege and Passing: Root Post Redux

So, earlier this week my first post went up at The Root, a "daily online magazine that provides thought-provoking commentary on today's news from a variety of black perspectives" that I've been following for quite a while. I was thrilled to finally post there, and I hope to continue to write for them. You can find my first post, and the accompanying thriving-but-contentious comment section, here.

In the essay, I write about unintentionally passing (for white and straight) and the associated privilege(s) that passing "allows" me. What's interesting is that I specify in the post that it's usually those who are not people of color themselves that mistake me for white (or, occasionally, Latina or Israeli, the latter mostly because of my first name), and yet many commenters felt inclined to assure me that I look black to them. That's fine, and I actually appreciate that some people recognize me as black, as I have never felt particularly included by black culture (with a few exceptions). However, many people do not realize I am black when they first meet me (and they certainly don't peg me for a lesbian at first glance ). What these moments of misrecognition beget is situations of (white) (heterosexual) privilege. The questions I'm asking then is how to mitigate the privileges I'm given upon first impression and whether it is even my responsibility to do so.

Privilege is, in a way, even more insidious than outright racism because it's so easily glossed over and so often completely subconscious. For example (somewhat over-simplified but illustrative): as a biracial femme lesbian who looks white, middle class and straight, I have never been harassed by a stranger on the street due to either my race or my sexuality. The thing is that most people who might find my race or sexual orientation threatening don't recognize me as different from the rest of white, straight America. But I'm as gay as these women (who, adorably, are all look-a-likes of a male, teenage pop star) and as black as, say, Obama, regarding whom countless commentators asked if America was "ready for a black President." (I'm not saying that Obama isn't black or that biracial individuals aren't black; I'm just trying to make a point about the way visibility and privilege merge.)

In any case, despite the autobiographical format of my essay at The Root, I'm actually not overly concerned with how these factors affect me as an individual. I'm more interested in how privilege, especially privilege that relies almost entirely on visible identity markers, functions for those of us whose outward appearance doesn't match our actual identities. In what situations are you only how others perceive you rather than how you perceive yourself?

(As a postscript, it is worth noting that the question of the relationship between visibility and identity is especially trenchant today, on the anniversary of September 11. How often in the past nine years have those who appear Middle Eastern or Muslim been judged based on what they look like rather than who they are?)

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