Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Black Cousin Passing As White

Some thirty years ago, after high school, my late father and I took a road trip from Colorado up to Washington state and then to California to see the countryside and some of his relatives. The folks in the Great North looked like him, light-skinned, but definitely Black. I was probably the most dark relative they had ever seen, making me a bit of a novelty on a generally fun visit. When we arrived in California things were a bit different.

After visiting the relatives I recalled, my Dad said we were going to see a side of the family, in Oakland, I had curiously never met. The woman was actually my father’s first cousin and he had not seen her in twenty years, which placed their last visit in the late fifties. Before arriving at her house, he explained that I had never met her because she had been passing for white in her adult life, and he vowed not to see her again. It seems that the last time they met, she told him to keep his distance so as not to ‘mess-up’ her good thing. It was a rare occasion to consider that my Dad’s feelings could be hurt.

Fast-forward to the day we met her and her husband, and true to his word if I did not know better I would have believed they were white. The husband, in particular, had greenish-blueish eyes that definitely had me thinking 'what the hell'. At first I kept looking at her and my Dad, wondering how he got a white ‘lady’ in his family. As the visit wore on things changed, the more she spoke about our family the blacker and blacker she sounded, until I started to see other relatives in her mannerisms and tones. At this point I no longer perceived her to be white, despite her appearance. Both she an her husband seem to 'act more black' as the visit went on. At the end they promised to stay in touch, but my Dad later said that would not happen. In his eyes, they could not ignore family for the sake of a good living denied to their real kin, and then come back so easily. Curiosity did not change his mind.

Later, when I moved to California I never looked them up and Dad never asked about them. I have not seen nor heard of them them since that meeting. I have no doubt that there are white folks (second cousins in this case) today in the Bay Area to whom I was once related, and if they knew their family background (or cared to reveal it) they could claim their substantial black heritage.

Up Next: White-Looking Black New Englanders

James C. Collier


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Monday, August 22, 2011

When Black People Pass As White, and Vice-Versa

A few weeks ago, a good friend sent me a NYTimes Magazine article by Toure (here), Preconceptions, which was really about race and identity, although the sub-text debated the pros and cons of corporal punishment. In that article, the black culturalist Toure confronted a white-looking woman on Martha’s Vineyard, who turned out, to his amazement, to be black. The woman’s sister, blonde with blue eyes, became indignant as well that Mr. Toure thought she was also white. White people who are black? Black people who look 100% white? Huh?

When I was a kid growing up in Denver, there was a family, call them the George’s, who began my education on how white people could be black. The parents had twin daughters my age who looked every bit as white as mom and dad, while also being black. Now my own father was very light, but I still had difficulty accepting what my brown-skinned mother said, that the ever-so-white-looking George’s were in fact black. There is a big difference between light-skinned blacks and white-skinned blacks. In the end, my child’s-mind concluded that the George’s were black as it suited them, and/or others. On one hand, black people seemed a lot more social (read fun to a kid) than whites, but this did not change the preference.

Later on, when I was in college, one of the George daughters was in a spectacular downhill skiing accident and nearly died. The news coverage of the day never mentioned that she was black, although stories back then invariably spoke of race if the incident was extraordinary involving a black. In those days, before political correctness, race always mattered and media coverage reflected this. (What was a black person doing trying to ski in the first place!) The bottom line is that people often let others believe what they want, as long as it is to their advantage to do so.

The white-looking black woman Toure wrote about on Martha’s Vineyard certainly benefited from her fair features, whether she would admit it or not. Blacks that ‘pass for white’, by letting others believe their eyes, benefit the most. Studies (one here) show whites, and blacks, continue to favor light-skinned blacks. Toure’s MV subject certainly benefited socially from black acceptance, merited or not. What she or her sister did not count on was Toure’s negative implication that they might be having it both ways.

UP NEXT: My Black Cousin Passing As White

James C. Collier


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