Invisible Identities, Part 3: The Privileges and Pains of Passing
I’m told that in the American context, when speaking about race, the term “passing” is most associated with black people due to a pretty loaded history. This is not the case where I live, simply because that’s not the history we have with the term. As such, when I speak of passing race-wise, I am not speaking only of light-skinned people of African descent who can do so. I realise that this post could therefore be a somewhat uncomfortable read for people in that context, and am putting up this note to therefore hopefully address some of that discomfort.
It’d probably be a good idea to read the previous posts in this series if you find anything else in my word use or context confusing, especially as many of the points in this post build on the previous posts.
Comments that say it’s wrong to try and pass, or conversely that someone ought to try and pass, will not be tolerated. Either way attempts to take away something of someone’s choice, experience, decision making. How one negotiates one’s own life, how one chooses to deal with all the oppressions on hir back, is hir business.
Being able to pass is a privilege. Passing privilege means that others don’t grab my body or assistive devices, people I’ve never met don’t look at me with pity or disgust and I am less likely to face intrusive and upsetting questions. Those are amazing privileges that many of my fellows in the disability community don’t share with me. Passing privilege means that I am not watched suspiciously in stores, negative comments are not made about my features, white people feel comfortable to interact with me and strangers do not expect me to act as an example of what all people of my background are like. Those are incredible privileges that many of my background do not share.
First up, we must address the nature of passing. Sometimes it is active (one chooses to pass) and sometimes passive (one is passed). Sometimes it’s an interaction of expectation and experience, habit and circumstance. One cannot untangle one’s own efforts to pass or to not from the point of the idea of passing. That is, whether one passes or not is dependant on the outside observer. The whole idea of passing hinges not on what the (non)passer does, but on the observer’s response to that person. There’s an extent to which one can control it – and people have developed quite some techniques – but it’s not always a matter of choice as to whether to pass or not.
There’s a friction between passing and solidarity with one’s group. Those who can pass as being a member of a dominant group may miss out on many experiences and forms of discrimination that are held to be facets of that group’s commonalities. One of the main problems with passing is that in doing so an inequitable system is being held up (by those who pass others, by those choosing to pass). This is to say that passing supports the idea that equality, better treatment, is gained by melting into the dominant group. This is of course true, as is evident in, for instance, shifting definitions of whiteness; but one shouldn’t have to lose their own identity to the “good,” dominant identity in order to be dealt with well. We should work not until identities disappear but until they’re all okay to have.
That burden should be placed on those making the assumptions of – enforcing – default identities, not on the passers. Passers frequently report hostility from within their own groups, and accusations of not really being a member of their community from all sides. No one is less a member of the group for other people’s perceptions and it’s incredibly offensive to suggest otherwise. Passing is not always a choice; when it is, it’s presumptuous to resent someone for that and just outright wrong where safety is involved. How one deals with one’s own experiences of oppression is one’s own concern.
Being able to pass really messes with my head. I’ve frequent bouts of intense guilt about it, and I feel sick when people in my communities admire me for the features that make me more likely to pass (‘look at her beautiful skin.’ Increasingly I need to get the nearest bathroom and scrub and scrub where they grab my arm). Sometimes I don’t feel quite real or as though I’m cheating, an intruder in someone else’s identity. With regard to being disabled, this has some nasty consequences: in the past I’ve not gotten needs met, either because I can’t bear to out myself or because someone doesn’t quite think I’m truthful. Passing doesn’t mean I’m not struggling to remain standing while we’re talking. I struggle with passing and being passed. Sometimes I try and do it to feel safer (never safe) and lose my integrity. Sometimes I am passed, and it’s a mix of delight and loss and damage. Whatever I do, it’s never enough, I’m never enough.
Now I just mostly let people think what they will. The glowing effects largely disappear once I give off too many cues. Because so much of my identity, experience and expression is tied up with those of my identities that are invisible, the effects are frequently fleeting.
Being invisible doesn’t mean I face no discrimination but that I face less individualised discrimination in many contexts. Looking like I do has not prevented, upon the acknowledgement of my identity, looks of disgust, offensive remarks about my family, having to listen to racial hatred. It has not prevented the fear in me, the way I have not felt safe since I was a little girl. It has not prevented that I modify my dress, my speech, my movements, my stories in order to appear as “normal” as possible, just like anyone else trying to not face the wrath of whiteness. Attempting to invisibilise difference is hardly restricted to those of us who can pass.
The thing is, I’ve done everything. I’ve been loud and proud about my invisible identities. I’ve done my best to make them disappear. I’ve allowed myself to be passed, I’ve actively worked to pass. I’ve just been myself, I’ve made my identities explicit. At the end of all this anxiety and modification and thought and care, one thing remains constant: it’s the perceptions and actions of people in dominant bodies that count. When I pass, there’s still the weight of many manifestations of oppression on my shoulders. And irrespective of whether I pass or not, people outside of my groups still get to determine how I am treated and how I am perceived. There is no way to win.