Wait, What is White-Passing/Light-Skinned Privilege? It’s Complicated

Image by Kaique Rocha.

White Privilege, I pretty much beat people over the head in the latest posts. I will not apologize for that. However, I had just touched on something else in this same post: White-Passing/Light-Skinned Privilege. This, I do need to apologize for, because I have been blinded by it and I have to own up to it.

As I say Multiracialism has baggage with it that White people cannot fully comprehend, I am not going to deny or downplay advantages I have from passing privilege. Not that I am more cognizant of my part in it. My level of facing discrimination is lower compared to less racially ambiguous Southeast Asians, as indicated in my post about owning up to passing privilege. This in itself adds another layer of complication to Multiracial Identity, one that White folks do not have to concern themselves with at the end of the day: measuring passing privilege. For my part, I can only mainly speak from the experience of a Eurasian who identifies as multiracial based on her grandmother’s ancestry.

White-Passing Privilege is as the blogger named Julia states, defined as a trait some people-of-color (POC) and/or White-POC multiracials have that gives them some of the benefits of White Privilege. It allows them to pass through white spaces, or at least more white spaces than non-passing POC. Despite the term itself, it is not as simple as deciding, “This person is white looking,” or not. This can be the case, but it is not always so. It is a spectrum, and not always so clear-cut. Often, passing privilege is used in the interest of White Supremacy by the unwritten rule of, “you have some privilege for being closer to Whiteness, if you behave like us.” These borders of Whiteness are often policed in self-interest, never to include people who exist outside of it, something Marina Watanabe, Pati Gutiérrez-Fregoso, and Niloufar Haidari discuss in different experiences and contexts.

Another unsaid rule of passing privilege is that White people often tell a lighter-skinned/passing POC that they cannot face discrimination because of having some White-attributed features, a way to deny them their ethnic identity and push them to assimilate. At best, others feel guilt for knowing systematic racism is bad. Yet as Haidari points out, they want to justify not feeling they have to do anything about it, for that implies blame – even if it is not always so simple. I can say with the few White people who pointed out my White-blood, this was definitely experienced.

It is painful being called passing by a POC, too, but more than reasonable. Jonathan Fisk eloquently points out that in this case, it does not serve the same end. Generally, in this case, self-preservation is the common factor, a reasonable one, and meant to help POC communities protect their spaces from potential invaders. We discussed some of these potential invaders in my previous post about Multiracialism being treated as a trend. These people noted are called invaders because of their deliberate attempts to enter spaces where one is not welcome, not unintentional missteps that allies can (and do) commit. Fisk elaborates further in this to point that, again, passing-privileges means less racism compared to darker-skinned or less ambiguous appearing POC. Even POC-White Multiracials who are accepted in their POC family or community will have to sometimes give some space for people who do not have an approximation to white privilege.

I have been talking about this passing privilege recently and said any further explorations of Multiracial Identity would involve examining this. I am sticking true to my word here. So, how does passing privilege look like? I do not have many academic articles ready, so I am going purely experiential on this bit based on what I have read of other multiracial experiences, and looking at my own.  Through this, some might better appreciate the nuances that come with Multiracialism.

Some multiracial people flat-out look White and no one asks what they are until the information is out there. This sometimes changes the dynamic between them and their White peers. Yet, when these sorts are completely approximated to Whiteness, in the form of additional resources or wealth, they hardly have an ethnic identity anymore. They are in almost all cases, as Robin DiAngelo (2018) comments in her work White Fragility, functionally White. A few do keep their ethnic identity though, and they sometimes do a splendid job holding to it while acknowledging they need to use their privilege to help elevate other members of their ethnic community (Kim Kardashian need not apply).

Lisa See is among these people who embody the full word of passing-privilege while helping her community. Raised in the Chinese-American community, she had done a lot to bring light and visibility to her relations who live in her local Chinatown on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She wrote a story based on her family’s immigration to the United States, with their permission and blessings. In many of her press photographs, people see her approximated to her family, of which she had gone through efforts to help elevate in her writing. She invests in her community and helped put together exhibits representing the history of Chinese-Americans in L.A. As far as functionally-white passing people go, she toes the straight and narrow of ally and membership.

Anyone above not willing to do this much is best erring on the side of being a pure ally – and many of us likely need to do that anyway when in doubt, truthfully. Colorism is real and affects everyone no matter their race. Pati Gutiérrez-Fregoso elaborates on this reality, urging anyone who with passing privilege to be careful of people trying to triangulate them against members of their own community, using passing individuals to enforce the status quo. How do they do this? People will often hire passing or lighter skinned, or more ethnically ambiguous people for the purpose of claiming they have checked off that diversity/inclusion box.

As Gutiérrez-Fregoso points out, White people in this case are only privileging passing people based on being closer to colonial ideas of beauty, tokenizing their ethnic connections to justify their choices. This comes at the expense of less racially ambiguous or darker-skinned POC. Anyone who identifies as a POC-White Multiracial can benefit from being on the lookout for this behavior and calling it out. Nathalie Emmanuel did just that when people suggested she should play Tiana in the Princess and the Frog. She with love said she believed the role better belonged to a more “melanated sister.” In this, she politely called out the issue of Colorism in Hollywood.

Other white-passing people, like me, are ethnically ambiguous enough to play multiple ethnicities in Hollywood films, which still gives some degree of advantage. None of this is self-congratulatory – it was pointed out as recent as a few weeks ago. There are a number of people out there who still feel uncomfortable with the inability to clearly define what I am, something NPR Codeswitch talks about in an episode regarding Multiracial experiences. Some systemic barriers exist, but nowhere near to the level of less ambiguous folks. At the end of the day, I have to navigate situations where I am an ally to the community instead of a member. I still get people asking me what I am. People still sometimes try to speak to me in Spanish and at times, in another language.

Nonetheless, I am still privileged in my community, and I must own to it and do more to elevate their voices. Some people will sometimes mistake me as an Italian or Greek person, even midst the many who assume me Latinx or light-skinned Pacific Islander. Exploring the boundaries of ally and community in this way is a new journey for me, but I am up for the challenge. Culturally raised as a mix of Southeast Asian and American, I dealt with more soft-scaled forms of racism when compared to kin who fit closer to the dominant power’s narrative. My features does subject me to the worst oppression my community risks facing. I am best to think of ways where validating my own experiences will not override their voices, which need to be heard more than ever with the existing, amplifying xenophobia in America.

Then there are less ethnically ambiguous appearing people who are advantaged by an affluent White relation. Even having lighter skin or a few Anglo-Saxon features qualifies as something making one more able to enter White spaces. Anyone who had a family member marry upward in social class, though not visibly passing, are also afforded more advantages than the average in their POC community. It is further testament to how the wealthiest in American society are still White-Americans. The vast majority of POC who move up usually have White relations.

Some wealthy families have migrated over from overseas, which then they have privilege from not starting at the bottom, but these families are by far the exception and not the norm for their respective communities. These families, even as exceptions, also are more commonly lighter-skinned no matter what DNA or quantum systems show. This is further proof of how one’s adjacency to Whiteness benefits them in a White Supremacy society, even if they are benefiting from being white-adjacent more than they are on their own, individual merit.

As this post has indicated, Passing Privilege is not as clear-cut as the term itself indicates. Denying our ethnicity fuels White Supremacy’s already overwhelming power by forcing us to assimilate. Yet we cannot say we are the exact same as less white-adjacent people in our community. By clinging to our identities at the expense of everyone else, we are nothing more than pawns to the dominant culture. We, whether intentionally or not, become complicit in the erasure of family’s voices.

No matter where someone is on the passing scale, it is all our responsibilities to both own our ethnicity while also evaluating where we must act as an ally, or as a community member. When owning our ethnicity, we must do it whether it benefits us or not – not just when it elevates us. In this, I hope less Multiracial people in the future act problematic and then hide behind their ethnic identity when called out. One reason why some people’s claim to ethnicity can silence everyone in the same community comes from the fact they only claim it to avoid consequences for their harmful behavior.

These people often only make such claims when defending themselves against members of their own community, or justifying their complicity in White Supremacy, versus doing what many people need to do:  listen. They hide behind their insecurities and tears (yes, we have these, what I call “white-lite tears”), and will not attempt the work they are supposed to be doing. We are going to be called out. It is part of the work.

Did it hurt when I listened to someone call out my white-passing privilege? Yes. Does it mean though I should not listen to them? Hells no. Listening, and doing better next time, is how we can dismantle our own privileges from passing. It is how we become better allies to our families who are facing most of the oppression within the community while also making us a better community member. The link here has some helpful information. Mainly addressing White people, of which Multiracial people will not share the same experiences, it does apply to us when interacting with our community in contexts where we carry more passing privilege. In truth, I wish I had learned the lessons of this article years ago.

Unfortunately, despite having written this blog post, I cannot tell White-POC Multiracial people in detail how to be an ally and member of their community, or how to determine where they are on the spectrum. Each person has different experiences and degrees of passing. Every person also has different levels of exposure to their POC communities. For me, I had visited my relatives over breaks when growing up, and they visited me in kind. They also sometimes lived under the same household. My mother and grandmother both instilled a strong sense of communal identity in me early on, especially as I was closest to their side of the family. There is no way I cannot share some cultural experiences with my mother’s side of the family, despite that I had lost the mother tongue a long time ago. All of us must navigate these ally-communal boundaries on our own.

We will also have to be okay with stumbling and owning some accountability for it, too. Just like with many issues regarding social justice, we can do all the research in the world, but nothing keeps us accountable more than people we surround ourselves with in the work. Unconscious biases are real, and they will never fully go away (not anytime soon, anyway). When we are held accountable, it is up to us to research the resources on what we have made our mistakes on, then try again.

Last but not least: just because I am confronting my passing privilege does not erase my ethnic identity. Anyone who is doing the same, this goes for you, too. Even if some of us may end up being more of an ally than a full-fledged community member, our experiences are our own. No one can take our experiences from us, and we should not let them if they are truly ours to have (DNA-based identities need not apply).  Examining our passing privilege is only an opportunity for us to learn how we can be of better service to our communities. Through that, we may also reconcile an otherwise conflicted identity.


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