The Responsibility of Passing

picture-1I love when readers inspire blog posts (which, many of you do - thank you!!). One of our readers recently commented about "passing", the privilege/art/opportunity of being able to move through identities. I have never in my life been able to "pass" for anything other than a heterosexual, middle class, educated, Asian American woman. Heck, I'll even throw Catholic into that list.  The idea of me being able to pass as anything other than what I am is an embarassing sight to see. If I were to attempt to pass as anything else, I would be invoking every single stereotype in the book, and I would do it horribly.

However, the thoughtful comment got me thinking -- is there a social justice responsibility for those who can/do pass as having a different identity? I recently wrote about how my family and I were at a birthday party, and we were the only brown family. I use the color -- brown -- on purpose because we actually were the only brown skinned family there. The commenter was correct: there could have been light skinned Puerto Ricans there or LGBT families, however we were truly the only visibly brown family at the party. So, her comment got me thinking about 2 different areas: 1) why is it important to be able to identify with a physical characteristic or identity; and 2) is there a larger responsibility for those who can pass to be advocates for justice for those who cannot pass?

Whenever I go into a new situation, particularly a room of people, I find myself quickly scanning to see if there are any other people of color. Usually, there are not, and it's something I used to given where I live and work. There are certainly people in the room who share similar parts of my identity -- religion, sexual identity, marriage status, gender, parenting, etc. -- but I find myself at least wanting to relate quickly to someone else in the room. I scan for brown. I don't even care if there are other Asians in the room, but it is important for me to see whether or not there are other people of color. If I do spot a POC, I might, in fact, share nothing else in common with that individual; however I know that I relax just a little bit more when I see another POC. It's my own personal Whitney Houston moment -- like in "Waiting to Exhale."

Why do this? Why is it important? Because, I know that, like it or not, statements that I make or opinions that I offer in a meeting/social situation will likely be perceived as a Person-Of-Color-Opinion -- even if my statement/opinion has nothing to do with my racial identity; and, if there is another POC there, I don't feel as much pressure to speak for all POCs (or to be perceived as speaking for all POCs).  Because, when there is another person of color there, I don't feel as much pressure to be the racial watchdog nor the politically correct barometer. So, what about people who pass? If there was a light skinned POC in the room  - or a majority person in the room who has a developed sense of social justice - what is his/her responsibility to be the watchdog or barometer?

When I do workshops, I love the moments when a person who can pass speaks up. "Well, as a Puerto Rican man, I think that...." (and the room shifts; you hear this ever so soft collective "gasp!").

People who can pass have their own burdens at times -- sometimes they aren't seen as "enough": not Black enough, not gay enough, not street enough.... and have to prove themselves over and above. For example, at a recent workshop, a number of  light skin Latino students expressed that they often speak Spanish more often and more loudly in public so no one will question their heritage.

But, at this birthday party, there was no way we could hide or blend in even if we wanted to.

For those who can pass as sharing more similar characteristics with the majority in the room, what are responsibilities for standing up for those who cannot pass?