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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Anonymous said...

What is it to "claim black heritage" if you don't have the "black" experience through the phenotype? (maybe not as much for your cousin for she has family memories, but moreso for any phenotypically "white" children she may have).

I knew a Caucasian girl growing up who was raised by a Black American family. She "acted black" ... her speech, her movements, her likes and dislikes ... all reflected the black family who had raised her. I think of her as "black" though her ethnicity is Irish American. I think of her as black, but yet she will never suffer from nor reap the benefits from being phenotypically black.

So I guess my question is ... if you don't have the "black" experience, because you are not perceived as "black" because of your phenotype, and you don't "feel" black, then why call yourself Black? It is not a matter of being ashamed. It is a matter of ... what's the purpose? I can see telling a doctor, for medical reasons. Or sharing some meaningful stories or family tradition or food with friends or co-workers. But in everyday life and relationships, who really cares that I'm a "quadroon" that looks white or an octoroon? For all practical purposes, I'm white.

James C. Collier said...

Anon 5:32, you'll get no argument from me. People should be what they feel. Just know that people from either side of the color 'fence' can take offense to those they feel are playing both sides. Also, this explains how some whites can claim blackness, irrespective of how they look.

Anonymous said...

Just know that people from either side of the color 'fence' can take offense to those they feel are playing both sides.

Yes, there are "sides" out there. New England Cape Verdeans in particular can be very offended when one of them looks "white" and they feel that that person doesn't acknowledge and re-inforce their "creol-ness" enough. Or their "black" side. But why keep something artificially alive that you don't feel? They act like you are hiding a horrible secret, like you ARE "playing both sides" when in reality you really just don't give a damn, it's just not that important to you to go to the silly festivals, parades, cultural and political events, etc.

Some people on either side of the color "fence" take offense at many things. This is the age of thin-skinned people. It's in vogue to walk around forever offended.

I guess I am just sad that there's a goddamn "fence" that many on BOTH SIDES love to maintain in whatever real or imaginary way they can for whatever real or imaginery gains they may think they get.

Anonymous said...

Very sad article, that a family should be split by something so petty.

Anonymous said...

To look at me or my daughter you would never know that grandma and great grandma were black!

One of my sons is white with reddish kinky hair, and the other one is darker with curly hair.

I have a theory that like coffee, when white milk is added even in small amounts it turns white really fast! LOL!

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Anonymous said...

Wow. That's pretty brutal, having the family broken up over something like skin color.

I can sort of relate to the whole rejection over skin color thing, but it's reversed for me. I was the lightest-skinned one in school and the family and the other kids would tell me I was too white to hang out with them and generally act like they didn't want me around. Skin color issues go both ways, I guess.

Anonymous said...

This concept is so dumb. So you want to pass for white? Then you already are. Tell white people you are white, and most of them will accept it.

Now passing for black is a different matter...

Passing for Jewish is almost impossible.

Anonymous said...

Some of you are missing the whole point of passing as white. Family members will disappear and tell their brothers and sisters moms and dads to nevet contact me again because I want to live as a white person. ITS AND ACT! A white girl growing up in a black community isnt and act. She knows shes white but grew up around black. Thats totally a different situation. They pass for white to live a "better life" its not how they feel. In the end many feel lost with no blood relatives to call their own.