This Is What It’s Like to Be a White-Passing Black Woman

Life has been interesting, to say the very least.

Photo of the Author by the Author — Shannon Hilson (2020)

“Wait… you’re black?” I never get that reaction from other black people if the subject of my racial background ever comes up, because they easily recognize themselves in my features. But it’s something I’ve become very used to hearing from non-black folks over the years.

I’m biracial, the daughter of an African-American man and a white American woman of Irish descent. I sometimes alternate between identifying as biracial and black-Irish, but I’ve been telling people I’m just plain black more and more often lately. The more racially-charged so many of those horrible headlines become, the more important it feels to make sure people know about the “black” part.

White people who haven’t had much real-life experience with black folks seem the most surprised. They’re typically the ones who don’t realize we come in lots of different colors and tones. We all have different tastes and preferences, too. Some of us like brunch, foreign film festivals, and even camping — especially those of us who didn’t grow up dark enough to know from experience why so many black people feel unwelcome in certain spaces.

White people who haven’t had much real-life experience with black folks seem the most surprised. They’re the ones who don’t get that we come in lots of different colors and tones.

White people can tell I’m not exactly one of them, but most have no real idea what they’re seeing when they look at me. They like the way I look — “exotic” enough to be intriguing, but enough like them not to be threatening. I fit easily into white social circles, and I’ve always felt welcome in most white spaces. Eventually, white people tend to forget I’m not one of them if they ever really knew in the first place.

That’s made for some really interesting experiences over the years. And by interesting, I mean eye-opening and a little troubling. With 2020 — our year of eternal suckitude — having gone the way it has, I find myself thinking a lot about some of those things. The following are just a few examples.

People are comfortable saying unbelievably racist things in your presence.

And I don’t mean they’re saying it to you or anything. I’m talking about people being casually racist in that special way that assumes everyone present agrees with what’s being said. Far too often, they’re even saying things people swear up and down aren’t said anymore in this day and age.

Sometimes it’s offhand, offensive things — little shitty comments about how a black person’s hair behaves or what a black mom might have decided to name her child. Other times, it’s a lot more nefarious — open, comfortable use of the n-word or people saying in no uncertain terms that a black victim of police brutality got what he or she deserved.

It rarely gets any better when I remind people that I’m black, just in case they forgot and want to stop embarrassing themselves. That’s when I hear, “Oh, obviously I don’t mean you. You’re not the same,” in that comforting tone people use when they’re paying you what they think is a compliment.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen with everyone or all the time. It’s not even most of the time. It’s definitely often enough to give you pause, though.

Some men have very complicated feelings about you.

Like many black women who are relatively white-passing, I’ve dated my share of white men over the years — probably more white men than men of color, if I’m honest.

My husband is white, as was my ex-husband before him. All but one of the more serious relationships I’ve had were with white men. The vast majority of the white men I’ve been with (like my current husband) have treated me with nothing but the utmost respect, but there have certainly been some special cases over the years.

The worst experiences were with the type that somehow never have a clue that I’m black. When you’re white-passing, your racial background doesn’t come up a lot. However, you still assume people realize you’re a mixture of a few different things — especially if they’re looking to date you and (presumably) have a relationship with you at some point. You often realize how wrong you were under the worst possible circumstances.

Like when you’ve been dating someone long enough that it’s time to introduce them to your parents. The man in question will be completely comfortable and relaxed when meeting your white mom. But when you introduce the same guy to your black dad some other day, you see the blood drain from his face so fast, you’re surprised he didn’t faint on the spot. You know you’re in the middle of your very own “oh shit” moment, but you pray it’s your imagination.

Later on, the person asks what they hope is a diplomatic question about whether or not that was your real dad. When they find out that, of course, he is, they’re bothered in a way that’s hard to hide. One guy even snapped at me over it. “You know, you really should disclose something like that, so people know what they’re getting into.”

I had assumed he knew I was biracial, because not only did he have working eyes, but he had known me a long time before we’d even started dating. He thought I had deliberately hidden my racial background from him the way someone shifty might hide a drug habit, a gambling problem, or the fact that they have herpes. So, yeah, that was a fun night.

You may deal with racism in strange forms within your own family.

You’d assume that if someone’s biracial, they come from a family that’s pretty woke overall, but this isn’t always the case. Often, multi-racial families come with incredibly complicated feelings about ethnicity built right in.

Sometimes, white people choose to marry and procreate with non-white people to piss off the low-key racist families they came from. In some cases, they’ve bought into the racist ideas they were raised on to a greater extent than they realize and think they’re choosing a spouse that will instinctively know their place in the relationship. If anyone calls them out on any weird, racist sentiments they may ever express, they’re the ones that think they can’t be racist because they have a black spouse and biracial children.

And sometimes, black people internalize the racist attitudes present in the rest of society. They decide they’re not going to be like other black people, so they make up their minds to rise above where they come from. They may think one way to do this is to refuse to date, marry, or have children with anyone who isn’t lily-white themselves.

Our parents thought raising us to see ourselves as people of color would hold us back in life, but what refusing to do so really did is rob us of part of our identity as people.

I’m not necessarily saying either of those things was true of my parents, but suffice it to say race was a taboo subject in my home when I was growing up. My brother and I weren’t brought up to feel connected to our family’s diverse cultural history. Our parents thought raising us to see ourselves as people of color would hold us back in life, but what refusing to do so really did is rob us of part of our identity as people.

I’ve come to embrace my blackness and take pride in it over the years, but my brother — sadly — never has, and it hasn’t done him any favors. Even though he looks black enough that he could never be mistaken for white, he doesn’t think it’s fair that people see him as a black man. But they do. And they treat him like one, for better or worse.

And I still catch shade from individual family members who think I’m out of my mind for claiming my blackness at all. Since I technically don’t have to, they don’t understand why I’d willingly accept an identity that comes alongside all sorts of hardship. To them, I’m throwing away my “good luck” with both hands, but I see things differently.

You sometimes feel like you can’t speak on black issues.

These days, I’m lucky to have only socially aware, woke people in my life of all colors and backgrounds. They never make me feel like it’s not OK to be myself. The home life I’ve created with my husband is one where all aspects of both our backgrounds are embraced and celebrated. I’m incredibly proud to have built something for myself and my loved ones that I don’t feel I had growing up.

Occasionally, though, I do feel like I’m not black enough to speak on some of the things going on in the world today. And I get why that is. I fully realize the very fact that I can choose to “be” black or not means I’m privileged. Maybe it’s not full-fledged white privilege, per se, but I’d be lying if I said I’d experienced outright discrimination to the same degree my darker-skinned friends have.

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been denied work or housing based on the color of my skin. I’ve felt the need to be cautious when dealing with police officers, but I’ve never once feared for my life or worried about being harmed in any way. And my tattooed, bearded, long-haired white husband has probably been followed around shops by suspicious clerks with a lot more frequency than I have.

I’m as upset as any other black person at the things happening in our society right now, though. And I often find I want to express those feelings, but I never know whether it’s a good idea. I’ve gotten some “there’s no way you could understand what this is like” looks over the years, and admittedly, those looks still give me pause.

You view the world from a unique vantage point.

You certainly see things from a perspective many people don’t experience. Sometimes I feel like an accidental double agent, but you learn some interesting things about other people that way. Thankfully, they’re not all bad.

Yes, I’ve had people who would never, ever see themselves as racists say or do racist things right in front of me, not realizing it would bother me. I’ve also seen people proving that their heads and hearts are in the right place, though, which does help take the edge off. I’ve certainly seen evidence that most people genuinely mean it when they say they’re allies and want the world to change.

It won’t be good enough until the world has changed, of course, but I think we’ve taken a pretty big step in the right direction. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many to come.

Shannon Hilson is a full-time copywriter, blogger, and critic. She lives a quiet, peaceful life with her husband in her hometown of Monterey, California. When she’s not writing her heart out, she usually reading, cooking, studying foreign languages, or working out.

Writer, reader, were-fox. Aspiring grouchy old man. | Email: bellingthecat@gmail.com | Blog: https://shannonhilsonblog.blogspot.com

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