White-Passing: Acknowledging Privilege and Reclaiming Identity

Written by: Ana Storer

Navigating our identities is a quintessential part of both the human experience and personal growth. There can be different layers of complexity for people of mixed ethnicities. I can’t speak for others, but I know I go through life hyper-conscious that others are making assumptions or guesses about me and my identity. 

Personally, being a “white-passing” person with a mixed background has complicated things. White-passing is when people of colour (POC) “pass”, or can be perceived as white. This grants us inherent benefits and privileges in society that other POC do not have, whether that is the ability to access opportunities or simply have a safer existence.

This term has been somewhat controversial, as some think it places the onus on white-passing POC instead of those who assume this whiteness. Susan Dale from HaluHalo believes that the term “white-passing” should be left in the past, stating that it “implies a person is actively trying to distance themselves from their heritage, or purposefully deceive others, getting by undetected. It carries with it a notion of shame, opportunism and dishonesty”. With this context, it is important to note that both can be true – white-passing people can access many privileges and opportunities, but erasure of identity and perceptions of dishonesty can be harmful.

When I initially discovered the term white-passing, I automatically knew it applied to me because I knew I benefited from being perceived as white. The term is good in some ways – it identifies me as someone who isn’t white but who benefits from the same structures that have been put in place to serve white people. But, one side effect quickly arose, and it’s something that I haven’t quite shaken. It led me to second-guess my Filipino culture and resist claiming it. After all, how could I claim it if I hadn’t faced many of the barriers and discrimination that other Filipino and half-Filipinos had? What right did I have to this title? Even having the choice of whether or not to be openly Filipina is a distinct white-passing privilege in itself.

I was reflecting on this after seeing lots of similar debates about Olivia Rodrigo, a fellow half-Filipina, and how people thought she was white or barely Filipina. I’ve seen many conversations on if she should get to identify this way. It may seem counter-intuitive, as historically, it has been more beneficial to identify with our most privileged identities. Perhaps this shift in social thinking is due to the changing beauty standards, the commodification of ethnic features, and continual cultural appropriation – a desire to be perceived and treated as white with the opportunity to access “exotic” features and style. Perhaps it’s because people are rightly tired of others who claim these cultural roots despite being far removed from them, and who speak over marginalized voices without advocating for change. Slowly, the aesthetic lines between white and non-white are becoming blurred without the accompanying social and systemic changes necessary for equality.

But, who benefits from white-passing people of colour identifying as white and the shifting understanding of what being white is? Ideals of colonialism

White-passing POCs need to acknowledge our privilege, but ignoring our cultural roots and opportunities to support and promote change only furthers the erasure of our cultures and identities. More insidiously, I see the label of white-passing applied to (not claimed by) people whose cultures have been historically and systemically erased and silenced. When people tell others how they should identify, it perpetuates historically racist ideas of colonization that disregard self-identification.

There is space to recognize the different privileges in our identities while also celebrating our cultures. It can be difficult to navigate and resolve these ideas. Ultimately, reflecting on this, educating ourselves, and working to advocate and support advocacy are important steps in reclaiming our identities. I’m learning to acknowledge my privilege and make room for more marginalized voices than mine to speak without letting that come at the cost of ignoring my culture. 

For anyone else who may have a similar experience or perspective – find what brings you joy in your culture and truly celebrate it. Learn about oppression and your place in these power dynamics. Promote and support positive change and amplify voices in your community. Claim your identity as your own with all of its nuances, including the privileges and discomfort; hiding it doesn’t help liberation, it impedes it.

Sources:

https://metro.co.uk/2021/05/06/what-is-white-passing-and-is-it-problematic-for-mixed-race-people-14522039/

https://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/relationships/what-is-white-passing-and-is-it-problematic-to-say/ar-BB1bD6dJ

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